CHICAGO, Ill. — On the west side of Chicago, Damon Lamar Reed shows off a portion of his "Still Searching" portrait project.
"I was kind of oblivious to this stuff, and when I started doing research and finding out things, it was really shocking," he said. "I just wanted to do something."
He’s using his talent to draw more eyes to the dozens and dozens of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Black women that have plagued the south and west sides of Chicago for decades. It's an issue many may not have heard of outside of those neighborhoods.
"We're one of the biggest cities in the United States. Not only should this be a priority for our police department, but this should be national, international news," said Nikki Patin.
Patin is the community director for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, one of the local organizations that have been sounding the alarm about what’s happening in the city.
Since 2001, at least 75 women, ages 15 to 58, mostly Black, who were missing were eventually found murdered in similar ways: most died of strangulation. Their bodies were found in alleys, dumpsters and abandoned buildings around the south and west sides of Chicago. Fifty- one of those murders are unsolved.
"The problem is that in most places, I think that would trigger somebody saying, 'Hmm, there's a pattern,'" said Patin, "but as far as I know, on like a major media level, there's not been a lot of discussion."
Advocates like Patin say the reason so many of these women and their families haven’t received justice is because of the color of their skin and the neighborhoods they come from. She says instead of seeing someone who needs to be found, many assume that Black women and girls who go missing led dangerous lives and put themselves in harm's way.
"That's why you choose to live in a civil society, right? Because you are paying into a system that hopefully has your best interests at heart, and I think that, especially in the cases of missing and murdered Black women, it's heartbreakingly clear that, that is not applied to all of us," she said.
Last year, 250,000 women went missing and 100,000 were women of color. On average, African Americans remain missing four times longer than white Americans. The highly-publicized Gabby Petito case threw into the spotlight the disparities in media coverage that missing women of color receive compared to missing white women. It's a statistic that Gabby’s father even brought up to the media himself.
"There's something wrong. and it's an American tragedy, " said Rev. Robin Hood.
Rev. Hood is a pastor in Chicago’s west side. As an ambassador for his own community, he’s been working with the families of many missing and murdered women. Recently, he’s been helping the family of Shawteiya Smith, who was murdered four years ago. It was recently found that DNA evidence from her case vanished in the hands of detectives.
"We have to protect all our women, all our girls, all our children, we have to protect and we have to demand this from a public official and law enforcement."
Natalie Wilson is the founder of Black and Missing Foundation. With her public relations background, she works with families whose loved ones don't get media coverage. She hopes that both reporters and folks from white communities help in the search for missing women everywhere.
"Media coverage is so vital because it alerts the community that someone is missing and it can greater the chance of the recovery, but it also puts pressure on law enforcement to add resources to the case," said Wilson.
Advocates in Chicago are doing what they can, but to find as many women as possible they say they need everyone – media, law enforcement and the public – to join their efforts.
"This is not a problem that Black women and girls are going to solve by themselves, nor should they," said Nikki Patin. "This should be, you know, of all efforts, this should be a group effort."