After living a 'fast-paced' youth, Antwaun Banks devotes his life to investing in Peoria's inner-city youth
Antwaun Banks is a Peoria native who grew up on the South Side of town. 61605 is one of the poorest ZIP codes in the United States.
Banks said growing up, it was easy to be influenced by his environment, but he decided to instead make a permanent change in how he walked through life.
“In my former life, I had a life in the fast lane, and I took a lot out of the community. As I started to evolve into Islam, I always wanted to give back. So, I thought, ‘how could I give back? How could I make my mission and purpose line up with the Dīn?’” Banks said.
Taking initiative to change started with enrolling at Illinois State University. Eventually, Banks took a position at Sherman’s, which allowed him to build connections as one of the first Black board members within the company. He also helped other young men find jobs within the company to meet their needs.
Today, Banks devotes his life towards investing in Peoria youth. He is the Founder and CEO of Product of the Project, or POP for short. Banks said POP was named after the Taft Homes in Peoria.
“Product of the Project was something I always had in my mind, but I never wanted to engage into it until I was fully evolved out of the street life that I was living,” Banks said.
Banks said he decided to invest in POP because he believes improving community development and changing lives is his mission and purpose.
“Getting a lot closer to God, it shows me that we all are set here for a reason, we just have to find our purpose in humanity. I feel like this is what I was supposed to be doing because it would be kind of hard to explain how some of the things that have occurred in my life, and I’ve made it to this point,” Banks said. “So, it’s all for this moment right here, and I think that God has put me in this position because I am equipped for it, I’m obedient to the will of what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m willing to grow along the way. “
POP partners with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, Peoria Public Schools District 150, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and Juvenile Probation.
“What it was mainly about with me is giving these young men the tools that I didn’t have or some of the things that I wish that I would have [done] different,” Banks said. “So, I would like to deter them from some of the mistakes that I made so that they can have a better opportunity to be great.”
“Getting a lot closer to God, it shows me that we all are set here for a reason, we just have to find our purpose in humanity. I feel like this is what I was supposed to be doing because it would be kind of hard to explain how some of the things that have occurred in my life, and I’ve made it to this point. So, it’s all for this moment right here, and I think that God has put me in this position because I am equipped for it, I’m obedient to the will of what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m willing to grow along the way. “Antwaun Banks, Founder and CEO of Product of the Project
Banks said his goal through POP is to assist and uplift the Peoria community because solving generational issues starts with mentoring and teaching youth.
“We need to get back into the household with our youth, support our women because the women are in the forefront, and I think that if we have this new breed or new generation of men that feel like chivalry ain’t dead, then it will make us a force as our community [is] being built,” Banks said.
Banks said he intentionally works with kids and young men and women living in inner-city Peoria because he wants them to make different decisions than he did growing up.
“I can’t blame the decisions that I made on my parents or any of that. I have to be accountable for those things, and that’s what I try to teach the young men. Accountability is very important. So, we try to set that expectation so that they know what they could be doing and that there’s options,” Banks said.
Banks said because Peoria is a tight-knit community, it’s easy for others’ mistakes to spread rapidly. But he said while some of his past decisions are not a secret to the community, changing his mindset about life and choosing to outpour into others’ lives is a testament to the fact that changing the narrative about Peoria is possible.
“I still am in these areas where there’s crime, where people are hungry, where people don’t have that, so we are able to identify their needs. To be honest, some of my family still lives in the projects and still live[s] in 61605,” Banks said. “So, it’s reality for me every day because we need to uplift these areas. There’s beauty at the bottom. They always say, ‘from the concrete grew a rose.’ So, I just believe that the people that come from where I come from need the resources available.”
Banks said if his younger self could see his life now, he would be proud.
“I always did have a facet of wanting to give back. I just would never have envisioned that giving back would be my main mission and purpose,” Banks said.
Since POP launched in 2019, Banks said it has sought ways to bridge the gap between the good and the bad, creating a new narrative for youth and young adults in Peoria.
“You can be uplifting and upstanding and not be a nerd. You can create evolution, and you can create change. We have been doing it through the history of our time, and I think that it’s important for us to set that model, set that example for the young men to see that it’s possible,” Banks said.
Banks continued, “Where we come from, you don’t see many Black or Brown people in leadership, and now this has evolved. We’ve got a Black mayor, a Hispanic police chief, and you just continue to go. Not that it’s a race thing, but it’s great for these kids who come from the area that idolize the neighborhood drug dealer to see that with profound change and hard work, it’s possible.”
Kids ages 5 through 18 are able to engage in different curriculum through POP, including POP discipline and character; POP 365 nutrition, wellness and physical fitness; and POP soft skills.
Students involved in POP also have the chance to learn from other local figures in the Peoria area, and Banks said this is important because kids need to have role models they can aspire to be like when they grow up.
“Where we come from, you don’t see many Black or Brown people in leadership, and now this has evolved. We’ve got a Black mayor, a Hispanic police chief, and you just continue to go. Not that it’s a race thing, but it’s great for these kids who come from the area that idolize the neighborhood drug dealer to see that with profound change and hard work, it’s possible.”Antwaun Banks, Founder and CEO of Product of the Project
“Sometimes, it’s important for us to lead by example. So, seeing these firemen, or police chiefs, or me, myself, or even the women that are doing what they’re doing. This is letting the young ladies know that this is possible. This is letting the young men know that this is possible. To be honest, what you see is a lot of times what you emulate. So, if you see the negative all the time, you have a tendency to emulate that, and we’ve got enough negativity by the narrative that’s being created by the video games, media and all of those things. So, we need to promote good examples of good people,” Banks said.
Banks continued, “So, I just think that it’s important for them to be able to see role models, and maybe they’ll take a page out of my book, a page out of his book and put it all together of what they are made up of, and they become great.”
Banks said beyond just the curriculum, it’s important to invest in youth and instill good qualities and values as early on as possible.
“Most of our kids are learning through the department of corrections or juvenile probation or whatever entities they have to keep them disciplined, but if we teach them discipline and good character and these soft skills on how to eat right, how to maneuver, how to respect your elders, how to respect humanity, and we do these things more early, they’ll be more equipped as they go,” Banks said. “To be honest, most of the crime and the things that happen around our community to young men, again, as they’re starting as preteens: 12, 13, 14. So, if we can catch them earlier and get them deterrence, maybe we can keep them from being rehabilitated in the system.”
Banks said he is proud to be from Peoria and to contribute to future generations in his community by being a voice for others. He said too often, people from the south side of Peoria aren’t given a voice.
To truly see every aspect of Peoria and meet people’s needs, Banks said community leaders have to be open minded. He said this means diversity needs to be a priority for Peoria in addition to finding new ways to represent all corners of the community.
“These are young men, young women, and these are parents who are losing these young men and young women at a rapid rate. So, whatever we can do, we all have different roles; we all have different attributes that we can bring to the table, and I think collectively, the number one thing we need to do is all communicate on the issues, come up with strategies, and follow through and follow our role without ego,” Banks said.
Banks said he believes POP could become a model that would help other communities across the world. He said teaching others that “love starts at home” is universal.
“I’ll just be obedient to where I’m supposed to go, taking it one day at a time, and continue to set goals but also be innovative because crime in the community will continue to change and evolve because good evolves, but so does bad,” Banks said. “So, we have to be prepared for these different strategies and different ways that we can combat that. That’s what I’m up for … the challenge. That’s what POP is about and will continue to be.”
Product of the Project is hosting a community-wide "Back-To-School" celebration from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday at the Meca Center at 817 W. Armstrong Ave, Peoria, IL 61606. POP will be giving out school uniforms, supplies, haircuts and more at the celebration. Information can be found on POP's website.