“When you’re from it, it’s beautiful.”
Spend some time around Jackie Hoffman, the founder of Peace Runners 773 and a member of the inaugural Community Leadership Fellows cohort, and you’ll start to understand that his vision of and for the Westside of Chicago is one born from love.
You’d be hard-pressed to find many people willing to describe West Garfield Park in the same manner as Jackie. After all, it’s a neighborhood that annually is in the running for the city’s highest murder rate. Just last year, West Garfield Park had a murder rate that ran more than seven times that of the city as a whole according to the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab research.
But love comes in many forms and despite the harsh realities of West Garfield Park, the block showed Jackie one of his earliest lessons in love.
When you stand 6-foot-2, people tend to notice. At 300 pounds, you become a presence that can’t be ignored.
Success on the football field came naturally for Jackie. His youth teams claimed city championships, his middle and high school squads enjoyed similar accomplishments.
Jackie was one of the top offensive linemen in the Chicago area from the time he stepped foot into the halls of Curie Metropolitan High School.
The block showed him love. It looked out for him. People around him saw his talent as his opportunity to head down a different path and steered him clear of the all-too-common pitfalls of gangs, drugs, and crime.
“Football saved me,” Jackie said. “It was my vehicle to get me out of the hood.”
The love from West Garfield Park helped him to the College of DuPage where he twice earned all-conference honors in football and ultimately saw him land a Division I football scholarship to Bethune-Cookman University, an HBCU located in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he earned a degree in criminal justice.
Jackie loved football and had his eyes on the NFL, but after a workout with the Chicago Bears failed to yield a contract offer, it was time to reevaluate. The text messages he used to receive celebrating his achievements started to turn into an interrogation about his plans for the future - they didn’t understand the overwhelming odds of becoming a professional football player.
“I had to change what drove me,” Jackie said. “What else is there to Jackie Hoffman?”
It will take you about two and a half hours to drive from the Westside to Kewanee, Ill., a small manufacturing town of 12,000 that sits about an hour away from the Illinois-Iowa border.
For Jackie, that trip started with a chance encounter on the Westinghouse College Prep school track during his daily workout when he was directed to a job opening at the Illinois Youth Center located in Kewanee.
“You’re basically going to a prison, but with kids,” Jackie explained of his role. “You’re a correctional officer, but I really saw myself as a mentor.”
It was in that place, isolated from everything familiar and surrounded by young people searching for guidance that he found his inspiration.
“I saw myself in them. They were 17, 18 - they looked to me as a big brother.”
Time after time the residents at IYC would lean on him when things were tough. After an intense phone call or a heated exchange with an officer, they’d go find Jackie.
“When everything stops. They looked at me like, ‘Can you help me?” Jackie reflected on his mentorship. “I was the only one from Chicago. This is real. This is the real deal.”
Peace Runners 773 began with a simple idea: showing up for your people.
The seed idea found its way into Jackie’s mind as he was learning about Juneteenth and wanted to find a way to celebrate and shine a light on Freedom Day.
A Facebook post inviting his friends to a Juneteenth 5K at Garfield Park - three days prior - set the wheels in motion.
When he pulled up to the corner of Hamlin and Jackson Boulevards, his family and a single Juneteenth flag by his side, he wasn’t sure what to expect, though he should have known.
People, his people, showed up. It’s what happens when you show up for them.
“This is what community looks like,” Jackie commented.
The amazing growth of Peace Runners 773, the name a nod to the Chicago area code, is the embodiment of his own progression, starting with his mother.
“Seeing her continuously show up for other people - I took her blueprint. I always make time for people.”
Not only time, but he’s creating opportunities in new areas for his community. He’s showing the younger generation that they can succeed in places where role models are few and far between.
“Imagine 10 years from now when you have a kid who comes out and says, ‘I don’t have to play basketball or football. That doesn’t have to be my only vehicle. I can run track or I can run a marathon at 13,” because it’s available,” Jackie commented.
“So they run a marathon and now they’re on TV or in the Olympics - from the Westside - all because they saw some people running through my community one day, and said, ‘Let me join them.’”
“There’s a space for us. Representation matters.”
What started as a thrown-together 5k has turned into a movement on the Westside, literally.
Expanded programming designed to get people up and moving, the annual Juneteenth 5K, the Saturday morning runs (9 a.m. every week, starting at the Golden Dome located in Garfield Park) have the people in West Garfield Park up and moving.
Fourteen of Jackie’s runners finished a half-marathon and 10 finished the 2022 Chicago Marathon, all 26.2 miles of it.
”It was for the betterment of my people, to show up for them,” said Jackie. “So we made free, affordable health and wellness options for people in our communities - Lawndale, Garfield, Austin - we show up.“
He’s simply returning the love West Garfield Park gave to him.
Jackie Hoffman 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.
Jackie Hoffman CLF ‘23 is making a difference in Garfield Park through his organization, Peace Runners 773. Hear more about his mission to have all of the Westside running marathons!Hear more about his journey on the latest episode of Community Leaders Podcast.