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Public safety in numbers

Jacqueline Samuel

I don’t know what you been told, Gangs and Guns will rob your soul”

On one bright sunny summer day before the start of this school year, in what used to be a vital industrial steel mill community in Chicago, you can hear the build of 100 voices singing out witty anti-violence rhymes as they solemnly march down the street.

The South Chicago march is an anti-violence response to the shooting of Neenee, a ten-year-old girl who was caught and killed in gang crossfire as she was walking across the street with her six-year-old, visually impaired little sister.

Neenee’s sister cried out for her as witnesses watched in broad daylight. Her sister fortunately could not see what happened.

The marchers sing. “I don’t know what you been told, Gangs and Guns will rob your soul.”

The rise of gang activity and related violence permeates the streets of many struggling communities today. On a regular day, there are abandoned buildings, shameless young boys walking around in their “white Ts” (part of their gang uniform) and gangbangers throwing hand signals as they plot someone’s demise.

For Chicago Public School students nervously passing the third liquor store on the way to school, the trip includes these young thugs smiling at them. “Got that blow,” they slyly whisper. The students quickly walk by, looking straight ahead and down the street as their heart beats anxiously.

This is the reality for thousands of young people in their neighborhoods on a daily basis. They have no Moving to Opportunity vouchers, no “get out of jail free” cards. Just the silent reality of children’s everyday life in a gang-infested neighborhood, wondering if their life will be taken next.

South Chicago's community watchers for Bowen High School.

The essay “Crime and Community Development” by Ingrid Gould Ellen discusses the need for community development corporations to redirect their focus on community safety.

I definitely agree with this. You can build all the affordable homes you want, but if the community does not have a safe environment for such things as going to the store, school or church, than having the best house on the block means nothing.

However, I am not too sure about the benefits of a voucher program she cites, Moving to Opportunity, a demonstration project in Boston and other cities that gave families a chance to move out of low-poverty, high-crime areas.

A study supported the notion that voucher holders weighted crime and safety more heavily than poverty levels when choosing a neighborhood in which to live. No surprises in wanting to live in a crime-free area. It is plausible that the MTO voucher program might work in some cities where crime is isolated.

Today’s Chicago is a different story. Since public housing buildings have been demolished, gangs have been dispersed all over the city. There really are not many choices for a safer place to live.

Gould Ellen’s best universal advice is the need for CDCs to assist in building a collective efficacy. I am a firm believer that reducing crime has to be a collaborative, community-based effort.

After Neenee was shot, we mobilized our community residents, stakeholders and law enforcement. We asked the question, “What should we do?”

By consensus we realized that we needed someone on the street level who could have a conversation with the individuals that were doing the shootings. We did not feel this was a police role. Their job is to suppress and apprehend. It was definitely a role for someone that could connect with high-risk individuals at their level.

We invited many successful organizations that work around violence prevention to our community meetings. We collectively decided we wanted to invite CeaseFire back to help us because they train you how to hire from the community and operate your own site. Law enforcement and our local elected officials also played an important role here through our CeaseFire hiring panels.

We also looked for funding for additional safety programming. We were able to leverage funding from the Chicago Public School Safe Passage Program and began hiring again from the community.

We currently have 50 community watchers monitoring our youth before and after school in order for them to travel safely. Now those students walking to school can have some relief as they pass a community watcher who is smiling at them, letting them know that they are safe today and no one will bother them.

Harlem Theatre Company presents the anti-violence play "Zooman and the Sign" at People's Park.

We utilize the arts as a tool for social engagement and education around violence. This past summer we sponsored our local theater company to do a play in the park around the theme of community safety. More than 200 people gathered around to watch this riveting play and participated in a follow-up discussion and a plan of action of how the community can become more engaged in the neighborhood to reduce crime.

Of course we have our challenges. Funding is not always as consistent as we would like it to be, so we have to become more creative around finding bridge funding to fill the gaps. Our community has one of the highest shooting rates in Chicago, yet we do not have a level one trauma hospital to assist our shooting victims. If you are critically shot in our neighborhood you will be transported at least 15 miles away.

We are still a work in progress. But we have also seen positive results too, and it could not happen with a collective efficacy of community.

Over the past three years our shooting rates are down by 52 percent in two of our hottest crime spot areas. Our safety initiatives have allowed us to hire 98 percent from the community. Our local elected officials and law enforcement supports our efforts 100 percent, and they participate in our events.

Lastly, we have identified people in the community that care. They are out there, but you have to go out and find them.

Jacqueline Samuel is the South Chicago, New Communities program director for Claretian Associates in Chicago.

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This article is part of a series of essays by community practitioners about ideas from the book Investing in What Works for America's Communities. Click here to see the list of other articles.

Posted in Chicago, Community Safety, Thinking Out Loud

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