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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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Neighborhood or Community

24 Jul

Did you know that there is a bike tour of the Austin neighborhood? The online site also includes images of various historic buildings and residences in the neighborhood. If you scroll through to the 3rd section you may even see a familiar house labeled Catherine Schlechtk House, described as an 1887 Queen Anne designed by Schock http://www.chicagovelo.com/austin.html.

The popular site Street Advisor, used by many people when moving to a city or state, also has a number of reports on the Austin neighborhood http://www.streetadvisor.com/austin-chicago-cook-county-illinois. For those unfamiliar with the site, it allows people living in or near the location to rank the area for everything from its architecture to who lives there. Surprisingly, in addition to great architecture, it also ranked high for Neighborly Spirit and was suggested by more than one writer as a good place for both professionals and families with kids.

While you may think I am bringing up these items up simply because I am weary of writing about crime rates and cajoling people to action, it is actually a response to something I saw in the Chicago Tribune Crime in Chicago article. The anonymous writer asked the question “What’s the difference between a neighborhood and a community…?” While the answer referred to a 1920 Social Science Research Committee report from the University of Chicago, I considered how I would answer that question myself.

Various dictionary definitions of community proved to be ambiguous though all had similar beginnings; that of a social group with common interests. The definition of neighborhood seemed to be more concerned with location, mostly connected to a place where people live. Psychologist Seymour Sarason first defined the phrase sense of community; he suggested that community is defined by the following factors:
1) Membership: Members have a sense of belonging; they identify with the group and they are willing to make an investment.
2) Influence: Members feel their participation makes a difference and that they have a say in what happens in the group.
3) Fulfillment of Needs: Members’ needs are met by the group; they are rewarded individually and by the success of the group. An important factor is that members are able and willing to help one another and to receive help in return.
The final and most important factor, in my estimation, is this
4) Shared Emotional Connection: Members have a belief that community has a common history, and common places as well as shared events and positive experiences. Members also experience the risks and rewards that come from their individual and group investments, be they time, money or intimacy.

Pyramid Players Productions is trying to create a community within the Austin neighborhood. In order for P3 to foster, build, and grow a successful and thriving community, it needs members. But P3 needs members who are willing to step up and take ownership and responsibility. You do not have to live in the Austin neighborhood but you need to be willing to want to be a part of the community that is striving to empower young people to discover hope and build self-worth through performance based arts and athlete development initiatives in order to be prepared for real-world success. To read the entire mission statement see http://pyramidplayersproductions.org/#/.

Your reward for participation in the P3 community will be that you are helping to make a difference, that you are a part of the answer to the challenges that teens face in Chicago. Someone in your past made an effort to engage you, to help you to get to where you are now so it is time for you to join this community and offer a hand to the next person.

Tune In for Good News

25 Jun

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Gaynor Hall wrote an astonishing piece for WGN TV website (http://wgntv.com/2013/06/24/media-and-violence-in-chicago/) on a topic we have all talked about, that of the media and its coverage of violence in Chicago. For quite a while now I have had a Google alert for the Austin neighborhood and almost every feed I get has the words shot, dead, or wounded somewhere in the headline. I rarely open them, not because I do not care about the individuals whose lives have been taken for petty and often irrational reasons, but rather because it makes me feel helpless. I also admit that I chose to let my writing reflect Thumper Rabbit’s philosophy “If you can’t say something nice… don’t say nothing at all.” And yes, I do realize I just quoted a cartoon rabbit from a 70 year old Disney movie; the value expressed is an integral part of my life.

In her piece, Hall spoke to Robert Douglas, a college student whose life went off track after the senseless death of his brother as well as Suzanne McBride, journalism professor at Columbia College, and several local publishers. While all of them offered valid points, I was most astonished by Suzanne McBride, until I read her bio on the Columbia College site and realized she is also the founder of AustinTalks.org (http://austintalks.org/). She pointed out that if all the media covers in Austin is crime, it does a disservice to its readers and to the community as violence “doesn’t really tell…the rich history and life for… (the) communities.” The on-line publication Dnainfo.com/Chicago (http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/2012-chicago-murders) made the decision to tell the personal story of every homicide victim, granting them dignity in death but more importantly, recognition of their life.

The take away from this is that we need to combat the so-called scoreboard coverage, as N’Digo Magazine publisher Hermene Hartman so aptly named it. Headlines such as “Six Shot in Austin Over the Weekend” do little to move us to take action and so very often make people tune out. Instead, as a community, we need to tell family narratives, tracing the people who have achieved success, in spite of the odds, or talking about the resiliency of individuals in our families and communities. We need to acknowledge the positive and show that the people who do not make the ten o’clock news matter more as they are the ones who define our individual sense of self.

Make This World A Better Place

17 May

P3_Logo_FINAL-B&W1LaShondra Jones , the mother of a ten year boy, shot while playing in front of his house while waiting for a pizza to be delivered, summed up what all of us have felt, if not said, “I hope the world gets better.”

This summer, Collaboraction Theatre http://www.collaboraction.org/#!home/mainPage will be at Austin Town Hall to perform the play “Crime Scene: Let Hope Rise.” The play, an update to “Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology”, explores the history of gun violence from 1780 to the present. According to an interview with writer and director Anthony Moseley in the Sun Times, the new version of the play is meant to both educate people who don’t know what is going on while demonstrating to people touched by gun violence that someone cares about their story. Moseley said “At its best, it’s really a catalyst for a conversation that we as a city need to have.”

Two photographers are also trying to bring visuals to the situations, offering images of the people affected by the on-going violence. Jon Lownestein has been chronicling Chicago’s South Side for the past ten years but he decided to focus on gun violence with a project called Chicago’s Bloody Year (http://noorimages.com/feature/chicagos-bloody-year/). The images range from memorials on street corners to cops on patrol to the people left behind to mourn family and friends killed in the ongoing violence. In an interview with Art Beat reporter Ray Suarez, Lowenstein talked about his desire to have his photographs reflect on both the greatness of the community as well as the heartbreak saying that he hoped we can make the world a little better.

 Carlos Ortiz, a Chicago native, has spent the last six years taking more than 20,000 photographs of the aftermath of gang violence with many of the images included in his project “Too Young to Die.” (http://tooyoungtodieproject.org/) Ortiz states that the purpose of his project is to move beyond the sensationalism and if it bleeds it leads headlines, in order to create understanding of the victims of violence, as well as the costs to all of us in Chicago.

So consider these three people as representative of so many others. It is not enough to check out their websites, listen to their interviews or read the few sentences online. The conversation needs to be bigger and we all need to take part; and the conversation needs to be about doing not just talking. So as warm weather approaches, consider what you can do to make your piece of the world a better place.