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How to Stop the Violence

13 Jul

The 2014 Fourth of July holiday weekend saw an explosion of violence in the Chicagoland area. Last year, more than 70 people were shot, 13 of whom were killed. This year, 82 people were shot with the death toll rising to 16. This included two young men ages 14 and 16 who reportedly refused to drop their weapons and were gunned down by police. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared the level of violence “unacceptable” in a news conference when just three months ago he and police superintendent Garry McCarthy trotted out statistics which declared that the city had experienced the “fewest murders for the first three months in more than half a century” Often asked the difference in fighting crime in New York and Chicago, McCarthy a former deputy commissioner responds “the proliferation of firearms”. Mayor Emanuel agreed, suggesting that it was the weaker gun laws in neighboring states that led to the proliferation of guns on Chicago city streets. I suggest that the answer to the violence question is not as simple as removing guns from our communities, although it should help. What is needed is reinvestment in our communities in the form of economic opportunity and educational support to address the underlying causes of the angst and frustration that people feel.

While stricter gun laws will keep guns out of the hands of certain individuals, determined criminals always seem to find the tools of their trade. Therefore, that would be, at best, a stopgap measure to address this problem. I would suggest that there are multiple solutions to addressing the violence in our communities and they do not begin with more police or military intervention. These communities need investment in the economic, educational, and human capital that has the potential to lift the standard of living of all the people in every community of this city.

We have to accept there is a systematic dynamic at play that is feeding the violence in our communities. One aspect of the recent spate of violence that no one seems to consider is that much of the violence took place in areas of the city that are hardest hit by unemployment with the accompanying disparities in wealth, health, educational opportunity and recreational resources.

If one considers these are also the same areas that were hardest hit in the riots that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, it is clear that individuals who make the financial decisions for the city have no interest in allocating resources for sustainable redevelopment those areas. There has been selective reinvestment, but who have been the true beneficiaries? Certainly, not the people that live in those communities. Why should someone invest in an area when the people that live there will simply tear it up? What benefit is there for those that invest in these areas? I suggest that there are real tangible benefits to be realized in all communities when we provide opportunities for the least of us. Those benefits include safer communities, better schools and increased economic opportunities.

Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow: the Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, men of color are taken into the criminal justice system, labeled as felons, have their rights stripped from them; and then are released into society unable to find gainful employment to provide for their families. The Center for Health and Justice reports that in 2009 Black men were 7 times more likely than Whites and 2.5 times more likely than Latinos to be incarcerated, mostly for drug crimes when studies have shown that Whites are more likely to actually possess drugs. Currently, “the U.S., with only 5% of the world’s population, has 25% of the world’s prison population.” This reality systematically emasculates men of color, demoralizes their spirit and breaks up the African American family unit. This statement does not discount the efforts of strong black and brown women who lead their households against incredible odds; it underscores how the removal of the man from the household has the potential to remove paternal discipline, financial support or the positive example that a working black or brown man brings to a family. Arresting the disproportionate incarceration rate of men of color would tremendously help families combined with reinvestment in education in targeted communities.

Many see education as the great equalizer. The adage goes “when one knows better, one will do better.” If the U.S. was providing the quality education that its citizens deserve then one might feel a bit more comfortable with the nation’s incarceration numbers. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released its international rankings of countries, which took the Programme for International Assessment in 2012 found that of the 34 participating countries, the U. S. ranked 26th in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading, yet the “U.S. ranks fifth in spending per student. Only Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland send more per student. To put this in context: the Slovak Republic, which scores similarly to the U.S., spends $53,000 per student. The U.S. spends $115,000.” The U.S. spends money but do the teachers in classrooms in the south side of Chicago see any of that money is trickling into their communities where schools have been closed and consolidated because of funding shortages?

The time has come to reinvest in our greatest resource: our children. Only through education and the strengthening of families can we hope to change the conditions, which perpetuate the type of violence that we have seen in our communities to date. Our children need nurturing, both in and outside of the home, schools that are clean and offer recreational opportunities that include the arts to show young people a rich and vibrant world. The benefit to those who invest in education will be safer communities with more productive citizens that are free from violence; that is a reality worth fighting for.

This excerpt is by author James Wallace Jr., a student in the second cohort of the Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis Urban Education Doctoral Program.

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Pass On the Good News

11 Dec

In one of my many guises I write a blog for an organization that represents photographers and photo researchers. My most recent post included an incredible book called GO DO GOOD (http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/2276963). Some of my favorite commercial and fine art photographers took time out of their schedules to create small photographic essays highlighting the small but wonderful projects that individuals and groups have taken on to make a difference.

I mention this because I found the project and book while digging for some information regarding a photography show I wanted to see. There is no large publicity machine churning out press releases, tweets, Facebook updates and news reports about this and so many other examples of people trying to change their small section of the universe.

When I do a Google search for Austin neighborhood, the first two or three items that appear are always related to crime. A recent Chicago Tribune article (http://crime.chicagotribune.com/chicago/) reported that Austin has the dubious distinction of ranking number one on the list of the Top Five Most Crime-Ridden Chicago Communities. This sad statistical representation of a vibrant community shows up again and again, page after page, along with news reports of people who have come under fire in the neighborhood.

The only upbeat news item I could find was Mayor Emanuel’s November announcement with the headline Emanuel steers $1.25 million in TIF funds to high school. “Investing in our children and their futures is a key priority of my administration and this funding will allow thousands of Chicago’s children to get high-paying jobs in tomorrow’s workforce,” said Mayor Emanuel. “I’m proud to be able to reinvest these recovered TIF funds into a neighborhood program that will directly impact the lives of Chicago’s families and strengthen our city’s economy for the future.” While this is a wonderful investment into the Austin neighborhood, it made it into only four papers, while the crime ranking of Austin showed up a dozen times.

Move Me Soul is performing December 13 at 6 p.m. on the Austin High School campus at 231 N Pine. No, this isn’t the Joffrey Ballet and it isn’t at Symphony Center. It’s free and these students come together to prove there is a reason to celebrate life. They dance because they can and because they want to make a difference in their own lives as well as in the lives of those around them. This is a small and wonderful bit of good news about Austin. Pass it on; with each small step we can move away from the violence and statistics towards something better.

Move Me Soul Raises the Bar

5 Nov

Departing CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard quoted these dire statistics in his op-ed piece for the Chicago Tribune, “In 2011, fewer than 24 percent of Chicago Public Schools graduates were prepared to attend a four-year college, and only 1 in 7 African-American students tested college-ready.” But don’t despair, because there are people working hard, against those odds, to see that CPS students do succeed. One such hidden jewel is Ayesha Jaco, dance instructor with the Move Me Soul dance troupe, which operates an After School Matters (ASM) program in Austin High School.

As a 14 year old teen, Jaco became involved with Gallery 37, now a part of After School Matters, where she learned to dance. Her passion led her to receive a bachelor degree as well as a master’s of arts management in youth and community development from Columbia College Chicago and later, to found Move Me Soul. Eldrick Hereford recently had an opportunity to interview her during a brief break from her very busy schedule. 

She first became involved with ASM and P3 while working in the Austin High School teaching dance as one of the options for gym class. Her class caught the attention of the school principal and Sharif Walker when they observed her students’ success, not only the program, but in college readiness as well as personal growth. She remembered the positive role models in her own life and worked to be one of those same individuals for her students.

In another role, she serves as the Director of The Lupe Fiasco Foundation, an organization that helps to provide inner city youth with positive youth development programming. She is honing in on best practices, as well as piloting programs and determining how to grow and sustain these efforts. The organization just completed its annual Community Feeding Initiative in partnership with several churches. During the event, the foundation offered vegan and vegetarian meals as well as discount coupons for fresh fruit and vegetables in a number of neighborhoods including Englewood and Austin. They are starting their Annual Coat Drive which will provide coats to families in several shelters.

When asked what she would say if she had Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s ear for 3 minutes, Jaco said she would tell him that Austin has the largest population of young people between the ages of 10 and 24 in the City. Rather than cutting funds for programs such as Cease Fire, there should be an assessment of the area with key stakeholders coming together at the table to talk about what needs to happen in the community to celebrate its talented young people while building and supporting resources for them.

Eldrick asked Ayesha what she does to stay balanced and focused with her many roles as mother, educator, and community organizer. Jaco admitted that while dance and music play a significant part in helping her clear her head and regroup, working with young people rejuvenates and energizes her.

She believes that the arts play a significant role in not only stemming violence by providing youth with opportunities to channel their emotions and express themselves through everything from journal writing to theater and dance, but also that the arts provide youth with a sense of hope. She was once in the same position as many of her students and she remembers how much being a part of a dance program inspired her to go to college and grad school as well as start Move Me Soul. She is taking that organization to the next level as well by working with her students on technical aspects including the necessary vocabulary and performance skills to allow them to perform on professional stages throughout the world.

Jaco serves as a model for what one person can do if they put something out there and pay it forward. As such, she is one of the jewels of the Austin community.

Be the Change You Wish to See

16 Oct

I love a good press release dressed as news item. According to the Associated Press, on October 14th Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook Co. President Toni Preckwinkle claimed that the program, called the Community Anti-Violence and Restoration Effort, or CARE which involves business and community members in reducing crime, has had success over the past year. According to another news report, community leaders at a news conference at Douglas Park stated that CARE utilizes the three-prong strategy of education, community involvement and fast police response to crime to combat violence.

Naturally skeptical, I dug further only to find a press release, dated October 13th, announcing the C.A.R.E. initiatives to reduce violence and strengthen communities. The initiative includes the creation of three new re-engagement centers to assist high school dropouts in returning to school and a review of all youth murders to determine programs and policies that could have prevented the death. The centers are starting in three communities that have experienced high drop-out rates – Garfield Park, Englewood and Little Village. I wonder if this includes the two teenagers killed just this weekend, as well as the 24 others who were wounded. According to the police, 15 of 24 shooting victims were gang affiliated.

At least the City and County have finally decided to execute a plan. But wait, there’s more. The City and County will jointly dedicate resources to manage the effort, seek public and private funding to test the approach, and eventually allocate funds to expand the most effective and successful strategies. Many businesses including include Allstate, Bain & Company, Burrell Communications, Ernst & Young, IBM, McDonald’s and the University of Chicago Crime Lab have provided financial support and or allowed employees to contribute their professional expertise. As a writer and an editor, I pay close attention to the verb tenses in sentences. It appears to me that the verbs within the phrases, including will dedicate, promises to seek, and will eventually allocate funds, do not indicate that there is actually money being spent.

It also appears as though the initiatives will involve testing to determine the most effective strategies because there simply isn’t enough research to determine what will stem the death toll. The report from the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which references academic papers and studies conducted and written as far back as 1993, concludes that we need to conduct and rigorously evaluate—first in Chicago and eventually nationwide—promising pilot programs.   (http://crimelab.uchicago.edu/sites/crimelab.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/Gun_Violence_Report.pdf)

A wonderful friend suggested to me that we need to stop studying the issues and instead execute some solutions. I agree; we have watched the bodies pile up long enough. Launching another new program, while laudable, is not enough. One more study will not change the fact that we are losing another generation; even those that live, but are touched by violence, suffer from a sense of hopelessness and futility.

So what can one person do against the overwhelming odds? Do something! Mentor one student at a local school. Call the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago at 312.932.1200 or toll free at 800.514.1224 and complain about the closing of the Austin YMCA.  Or call Minneapolis based U.S. Bank over its closing of its full service Austin branch at 800-888-4700. Attend a bi-monthly CAPs meeting. Do not stand by waiting for someone else to step up. Robert Quinn said “One of the most important insights about the need to bring about deep change in others has to do with where deep change actually starts.” And it starts with each of us, now!