Cabrini-Green man grows from gang member to community leader

Kelvin Canon's wake up call happened in 1981, the year he was put in prison for home invasion and armed robbery. His family, he says, just couldn't believe he did it.

"I led two different lives. One life was where people knew me as a good person, a nice and caring person and the other was in the gang," says Canon.

Growing up as a kid in Cabrini-Green, Canon was a model student, his teachers say. Someone who they never would have guessed would rise up the ranks in the Chicago's Gangster Disciples.

But even more surprising than his spiral downward into the gang was his rebound. Canon came back from prison to rise leader in his community, fighting for decent housing and a safe neighborhood for the families there. After four years of serving as the local advisory council president, he's retiring this year to let others take the lead.

Growing up in public housing, Canon had a happy childhood, he says, not what you might think when you hear "Cabrini-Green." He remembers spending Sunday mornings at church where his father was a Deacon and going to the park with his seven brothers and sisters.

A Cub Scout, he was always playing in the nearly never ending baseball and football games going on in the field at the corner of Division and Halsted, near his home in the tall white buildings there.

One of the only violent incidents he can recall was in 1968, the rioting that occured right after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Canon was just five years old when it happened.

"I was a little kid, but I was just big enough to look over the window sills and see a lot of people breaking into staores and tearing stuff up and looting, but I didn’t understand what it was," says Canon.

At Schiller elementary, he had Secretary of State Jesse White as his gym teacher.  White remembers him as a good kid, someone he could count on. He gave his student the nickname "cannon ball," which stuck.

"He was always the perfect gentlemen," says White. "He was just a model student in terms of following the rules and not getting in trouble."

It wasn't until high school that problems started. His parents divorced, Canon says, and he started following the wrong crowd.

"My father wasn’t around.  My brothers were doing there own thing. I just felt that something was missing," says Canon. "That’s where everything kind of began as far as being a gang member."

He quickly got involved in trouble, what he calls "terrorizing the community" - jumping people, breaking windows, destroying property. It culminated one night when he and his friends broke into apartment 305 at 1230 N. Burling St., the building where he now lives.

Canon went to the state penitentiary from 1981 to 1984, and when he got out, something in him, he says, had changed. When he left, his son was only three months old.

"I told myself I would never go back go jail. I would never go back to the penitentiary," says Canon. 

A Cabrini resident, Cora Moore, saw how he was struggling and offered to help.

"She told me ‘I can help you, but you have to let them gangs alone," says Canon.

Canon went to the leaders of his gang and explained his situation, respectfully asking to retire so he could take care of his family and turn his life around. They consented, and Moore got him a job working as a janitor for one of CHA's senior buildings. From there, he became a part of the resident management organization at Cabrini, became a deacon in his church and concentrated on raising his kids.

A few years later, the position of president opened up on Cabrini-Green's leadership council, and Canon ran and won.

Since then, he's been working to make progress on the Plan for Transformation, trying to find a compromise between taking care of resident's needs and moving the plan forward.

"I’m pushing for them to build things up and put people in before tearing up everything," says Canon.

It's a hard role to be in, says Alderman Walter Burnett (D-27), but Canon has played it well.

"He tries to work on behalf of the community, but at the same time, he saw the big picture, and saw that the community needed a place to stay," says Burnett.

Burnett says it took a lot of humility for Canon to step down as a gang leader and just become a regular guy in the community, and Canon has carried that humility with him into his work as the LAC president.

"Anytime that Kelvin was asking for something for the community, it would be for the people in the community, not for himself," says Burnett.

White says he's extremely proud of how his old student has come back from his days in the gang, something he says you don't often see in the neighborhood.

"Canon's been down that road, and he's now working to encourage others not to follow him there," says White.

Local Advisory Council elections came again this week, but after a four year term, Canon didn't run again. He's enjoyed working for the community, he says, but now it's time to give other people a chance to work on behalf of their neighbors. He'll still be involved, he says, and he's proud of what he's been able to accomplish for his neighborhood. 

"I was in the books as a part of the black gangster disciples. Now I’m in the books as part of the history of Cabrini," says Canon. "Back then, it was illegal what I was doing, now I can take credit for what I’m doing and be remembered."

He regrets the harm he did to his community as a gang member, but carries those lessons with him today.

"I led two different lives," says Canon. "In the end, God gave me enough time to choose between them."


Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12, or megan [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.