This op-ed ran on October 29, 2020 on Blavity by Steve Gates, Growth Director at Chicago Beyond and Chicago CRED Roseland Site Manager.
As a Black man in America, working to reduce gun violence in Chicago, I find the rhetoric between presidential candidates — and what is not being said — dangerously irresponsible. We all have to acknowledge the reality of racism in our country along with the monumental efforts of those working seriously and honestly to confront our past for a more just future.
People look at my community as hopeless. I know personally about wrongly executed warrants and arrests. I know what gun violence does to a person, family and communities intimately. I also know what intentional disinvestment looks and feels like and I know what happens when you address racism with law enforcement. Roseland, one of the 77 neighborhoods in Chicago, is a community where redlining, white flight, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, the war on drugs and mass incarceration has led to the current state of the place I call home.
Unfortunately, America does have a racist past filled with racist policies that have been and continue to be oppressive to people of color. There are dominant beliefs in our country about race that continue to contribute to inequities. America has had a steady level of violence for the last 50 years with few exceptions. Chicago has not had under 400 murders since 1965. The common denominators are the places where violence is highly concentrated. A closer look will show that these places have much more in common than skin color.
Within communities disproportionately affected by gun violence, like Roseland, unemployment is usually twice that of other communities. Educational opportunities are subpar at best. The housing market has yet to recover and the tax base is among the lowest in the city. The people in these places are voiceless and deliberately removed from any serious political process. The median income pales in comparison to other parts of the city, and there is always an underground economy. Another important commonality is that there is always a large presence of law enforcement.
Just as public health has considered the environment as a factor for disease and injury, it should also consider the environment when considering violence prevention strategies. Rather than an issue that needs to be policed, violence is a public health issue that needs a public health approach.
In a year where violence is up across the country, and especially in my fair city of Chicago, where violence is up almost 51%, there has been a 33% decrease in fatal shootings in the Roseland community where we work to make those environmental modifications. Chicago CRED, for example, uses a data driven approach and multidisciplinary team to support men and women who have been victims and perpetrators of violence. The men are strategically recruited by credible messengers from the community. Next, the participants are surrounded with supportive clinicians, life coaches and employment and training specialists. The team then supports the participants in meeting goals they have set for themselves with safety and an aversion to violence being at the center of it. The multidisciplinary team focuses on trauma, safety, education, family and employment.
As a country, we should reimagine public safety and not ignore what has failed us as a nation to this point, but learn, be smarter and do better. Reimagining public safety is not about dismantling the criminal justice system, or defunding the police. Reimagining public safety is actually about reducing violence, crime, racist policies and financial waste.
The most important thing that Chicago CRED provides the men with is hope. Consistent relationships, meeting the men where they are, while dealing with years of trauma appears to have some key ingredients to the success in Roseland. While we can’t take all the credit for the reduction in fatal shootings, nor should we want to, we can say we have done things that we know work. This trauma-informed approach looks at the whole person, educational opportunities, job training and trusting relationships.
As a country, many agree that we cannot address racial issues with law enforcement. We know inequities have negative consequences and glaring disparities around quality of life. We know resources, and the lack thereof, are also key determinants to violence.
There is an example in Roseland where we are reimagining public safety. We are addressing years of disinvestment one man at a time. We are providing wraparound services and support where institutions have failed. We are treating the years of trauma and violence from a clinical framework. We are engaging with the community to do with and not for. We are trying to give these men a vision of peace and safety for the first time.
Take it from individuals on the ground. We know what works. Today, we need our nation’s leaders to acknowledge the harsh reality of our past and reimagine what public health really means — for all citizens.