The scene has shifted a few times and the players have changed, but Alees Edwards has always found a way to bring it all together.
There certainly have been some trying times for the West Humboldt Park resident, whose parents’ on-and-off-again relationship created a chaotic environment that landed Alees and her sister on their own at the age of 15.
Born in Detroit, Alees spent the first decade or so of her life immersed in Black culture.
“All Black school. All Black grocery store. All Black churches,” Alees said. “That’s what we grew up with.”
You may be able to imagine the culture shock that 11-year-old Alees would experience as she and her sisters headed to Houston with her mother.
“One of my very vivid, memorable moments is when I arrived at the airport.” she said. “When I got off of the flight and met my mom, there was an abundance of people who did not look like me.”
The move itself was chaotic enough being precipitated by the final “off again” stage of her parents’ relationship, but a few years later there would be a full-blown crisis for a teenage Alees.
“I got kicked out of my mom’s house at 15, me and my sister,” she recalled. “We ended up having our own apartment.”
How, you might ask, did a 15-year-old end up with an apartment in the city of Houston?
“I was a door-to-door salesman with the newspaper,” Alees said. “The person I was working with at the time took us in and said that we were making so many sales that we could have our own apartment. So the next day, his wife went and got an apartment in our name.”
Whether the apartment occupation was legal or not (it wasn’t), it was one of the first indications that Alees was capable of bringing things together and how your community is as much a feeling as it is a location.
“I felt community more so in Houston than I did in Detroit,” Alees said. “You reminisce about the times you’re 12 or 13, those days when you’re out playing under the street light or having a dance contest. I had that experience in Houston.”
Alees felt another shock to her system when she landed in Chicago, relocating for a job as an analyst with a major airline. A new city and neighborhood dynamics had her facing some stark realities.
“I was an emotional wreck,” she recalled. “I had no idea what it felt like, looked like, the experience of someone outside of your house selling drugs. Gunshots and loud music, drinking all night and smoking weed - I just had no earthly idea how to navigate through that.”
Alees is a woman of faith and through a connection at church, she began to understand how to navigate her new surroundings, forming Drawn Out Ministries, a nonprofit designed to help reduce recidivism and provide recently incarcerated individuals with support services that help them integrate back into the community.
“Drawn Out Ministries is definitely a calling,” she said. “When I was ministering in jails, I kept seeing the same people over and over. It’s because they were getting out of jail and people were just dropping them off in the same spot where they picked them up. You’re not giving them options, you’re not opening up their minds and letting them see different things and figure out what their niche is.”
“I want to make sure that they know what they’ve been created to do,” Alees continued. “I start them on the path to doing it.”
It’s a calling that began with self-reflection.
“I really started taking inventory of what I have been doing my whole life,” Alees recounted. “When I first got saved, and came to know the Lord, I created this big bible study. When I got to United Airlines, I brought this group of women together. Everywhere I went I always organized a small group together, that was my community.”
There’s an appropriate witticism that describes the way Alees has approached her community work: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Some people may shy away from tough issues and challenging circumstances, but not Alees.
Already a block club president for 1000 and 1100 N. Harding, the founder and CEO of Drawn Out Ministries, and a corporate event organizer at United Airlines, she’s now taking on the task of police reform.
Inspired to run by CLF fellow LaCreshia Birts, Alees was elected as Police District Councilwoman in the 11th District during the 2023 election.
“I feel like we will have some success,” Alees commented. “Will we address all of the issues that all of our police districts encounter? Probably not within the first four years, but we’ll definitely put a dent in it. I 100 percent believe we’ll be successful.”
It would have been hard to predict Alees’ journey from a homeless teenager to nonprofit CEO and elected official. The odds weren’t in her favor, after all. But her circumstances were never going to define her.
“Sometimes you have to look at yourself,” Alees said about self reflection to identify your own unique talent. “It’s easy to blame others for what’s not going right, not give people chances. Focus on you. What is in your realm of influence that you can change to make a better impact?”
Alees Edwards is one of 18 up-and-coming Westside leaders selected to be a part of the inaugural cohort of Community Leadership Fellows. Community Leadership Fellows (CLF) is a leadership development experience that involves educational workshops, tactical training, collaborative learning, coaching, mentoring and networking. We believe that the investment in homegrown talent will lead to sustainable, vibrant communities.
Alees Edwards, CLF ’23 Fellow and 11th Police District Councilwoman. Hear more about her mission to activate blocks through her faith.