Until the lion writes his own story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

African Proverb

We believe

In Chicago, like any place with epidemics of violence, geographic areas don’t determine violent behaviors, nor does race, gender or class. Rather, victimization begets victimization. Most violence is not arbitrary, but a reflection of trauma; hurt begets hurt—those who are hurt are likely to hurt others. Violence is not just a moment with victimizer and victim, but rather a spectrum along which witnesses are likely to become victims are likely to become perpetrators. These individuals deserve opportunities to develop the socio-emotional skills to confront and navigate their past and the constant traumas around them in order to develop essential skills to thrive in life, learning, and relationships.

We believe in healing, not punishment. We believe in consequences, but also in compassion. Our theory of change is based on the belief that cycles of violence can be interrupted by co-creating spaces of healing and empowerment, and that young people deserve tangible, high quality opportunities that support both process and product.

ConTextos launched in 2011 to transform traditional, rote education into dynamic learning environments that promote deep-thinking, engaged dialogue, and expression. Working in El Salvador, "the homicide capital of the world," students who were exposed to this new model of learning began to share their unique ideas, opinions and experiences, engaging in dialogue and debate. And they demonstrated the natural human instinct to share their real lived experiences, in conversations and writing – stories that navigate the violence and trauma of poverty, migration and gangs.

Authors Circle (Soy Autor in Spanish), an intensive writing and social-emotional learning program, was developed to foster healing and reflection amongst victims, witnesses, and perpetrators of violence and trauma. From schools and communities, ConTextos quickly expanded into juvenile detention and gang and civilian prisons. The published works from these Authors, individuals whose stories and experiences often ignored, are then used to train teachers, law-enforcement, and thought-leaders about the real challenges and sentiments of some of the most vulnerable young people in the Americas.

Authors Circle consistently demonstrates significant improvements in empathy, self-projection and literacy skills. To date, ConTextos has served over 45,000 youth in the Northern Triangle.

In 2016, ConTextos was asked by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to bring Authors Circle to Cook County Department of Corrections (CCDOD) as part of his vision for criminal justice reform. ConTextos adapted its programs to meet the needs of Chicago’s violence and trauma-exposed youth. In January 2017,after twelve months of planning with CCDOC staff, ConTextos became the first outside educational program to work with detainees awaiting trial for violent offenses in maximum security Division 10. Since then, we have expanded into schools and community-based organizations, working with youth and the young-at-heart who are engaged in workforce development, re-entry, alternative-sentencing and other initiatives.

Authors Circle

The Authors Circle is a co-created space for exploration and discovery, that uses reading, writing and engaged dialogue as vehicles for transformation. Participants “read as writers” as they draft, revise, illustrate and publish their memoirs. Throughout the process, individuals learn to take and accept critical feedback, improve reading and writing skills, and reflect upon the past to imagine a different future.

The Authors Circle demands accountability while embracing empathy, engages participants to work in teams and independently as they build pro-social behaviors that are the foundation for success in education, the workplace and relationships. The process transforms participants; their final published pieces are used to train teachers, police, and develop empathy, policy and solutions based on real-life experiences of violence and trauma.

Where We Work

We aim to nourish the minds, expand the voices and share the personal truths of individuals who have long been underserved and underestimated. We work with the institutions and individuals that also reach these populations that we prioritize.

Sites of Incarceration and Detention
We work with juveniles and adults who are awaiting trial and accused of, or have been sentenced for violent offenses.

Community-Based Organizations and Workforce Development
Reaching young people and young-at-heart from Englewood, Gage Park, Roseland/Pullman, Brighton Park, North Lawndale, West Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, Auburn-Gresham, and Austin currently on probation, house arrest, just leaving jail or prison, or at elevated risk of violence involvement.

In schools, we provide direct implementation and focus on teacher training to ensure sustainability of best-practices that lift up all voices.

Numbers Behind Our Stories

Cook County Jail


Author Circle Participants


Published Memoirs



Author Circle Participants


Published Memoirs



Teachers Trained

Research Behind Our Work

Dr. James Garbarino, Loyola Professor of Humanistic Psychology and Advisor to ConTextos focuses on social ecology of child and adolescent development, with emphasis on trauma and violence. An awarded author and expert witness in renegotiating sentences for youth, Dr. Garbarino supports writing about trauma in an interactive, iterative way as more effective than just talking about it, especially "when aiming to rehabilitate and transform the minds and hearts of young people engaged in violence." ConTextos’ unique approach develops essential social-emotional skills to reduce involvement in violence amongst individuals at the most elevated risk.

Dr. Claire Burke Draucker, an expert in narrative therapy noted programs like ConTextos “open up possibilities for constructing new life narratives…[with] moments of strength, autonomy, and emotional vitality hidden in life stories that are otherwise saturated with suffering and oppression.”

Publishing, Celebration and Events

Publishing is what allows a writer to become an Author. Final text drafts and illustrated galleys are published as beautiful books (available both physical and digital) which can be read by people near and far, thereby influencing hearts and informing perspectives.

At Publication Celebrations, Authors present their final works to their friends, family and the general public; to thought-leaders and change-makers from communities, business, government and the social sector. Launching these stories of candid insights into the world is the beginning of an ongoing dialogue to complicate broader narratives and breakdown stigmas. We celebrate Authors’ fortitude in completing the full writing process, and their bravery as they share true stories of vulnerability and perseverance, truth and hope.

Discover our big family

Staff members


Dr. Moore

Authors Circle Facilitator


Dimitri Hepburn

Authors Circle Facilitator


Debra Gittler

Founder and Executive Director


Lisa Kenner

Co-Director of Programs & Partnerships


Johnny Page

Co-Director of Programs & Partnerships


Grace Cooper

Project Coordinator


Cara Olexa

Organizational Development Analyst

Board Members

Anthony Barash Chairman of the Board, ConTextos

A.C. Cunningham: Cook County Public Defender, Retired

Anne Hand: Inter-American Development Bank

Darlene McCampbell: University of Chicago Laboratory High School, Teacher

Graciela Fontg: League Manufacturing

Gabriela Poma: Harvard University

Javier Alfaro: Cinemark Central America and Caribbean, General Manager

Jill Gross: Caffe ArrivaDolce, Chicago

Oscar M. Orozco, Sr: Banco Promerica El Salvador, Board Director

Ricardo Cevallos: Tulane University School of Law; BLP Legal, Partner

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