Every summer, it feels like clockwork. A spike in violence, tough news cycles, politicians claiming to have the “answer” to decrease crime and keep communities safe.
As a Chicagoan, I know how this story plays out. We throw money into crime “prevention” programs, hiring more police officers, putting more guns on the street to protect us from the guns in the hands of the “bad guys.” It never works. Yet, we still hope for a different ending.
President Biden recently visited Chicago. His administration has called for five new strike forces to curb illegal gun traffic, increases in police hiring and violence intervention programs to kick off in 15 cities across the country. They’ve also encouraged cities and states to use COVID-19 relief funds to meet this agenda.
We have tried investing in police. Annually, the U.S. spends about $778 billion in defense spending, police spending included. For reference, that’s more than what China, India, Russia, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Australia spend annually combined. How much more evidence do we need to see that’s not working? We need a different approach.
Don’t get me wrong: we need to stem illegal gun trafficking, but that’s simply a band-aid over a wound that runs deeper. Our society’s continued disinvestment in young people and Black and brown communities is the problem. And until we fix that, we’ll continue to see this story repeat itself over and over.
Our solution starts with investments that help heal our communities. Violence is a cyclical problem and if we want to interrupt it, we need to create environments that allow young people to thrive — that includes economic investments in communities, jobs, top-notch schools, etc. Additionally, it is imperative that we create spaces for people to emotionally and physically heal from the onslaught of trauma that ravages our communities.
About 10 years ago, I got hired at Fenger Academy High School in Chicago. I had started just three weeks before the school made international news from a viral video that drew attention to “Chicago’s youth violence problem.” My first year at Fenger, there were over 300 arrests within the school walls. I lost students too. Micah. Shamari. Derrion. Fred. Lee. Marquel.
A decade later and the headlines are the same. Leaders at every level still point fingers at young people for why things are the way they are. At what point do we as adults begin to take accountability for the role we play? At what point will the corporations, the institutions and the politicians who have for so long disenfranchised the communities suffering take responsibility for their part?
Once I stopped and began to evaluate those questions, the tides at Fenger changed. Instead of trying to discipline our way out of the issues pervasive in the school, filling the halls with two districts worth of police officers, we worked on building a safer and more trauma-informed community. Within a few years, the dropout rate at the school went from 19% to 2%. Attendance and graduation rates skyrocketed. What was known as one of the most underperforming schools in the country evolved into a community that prioritized restorative justice practices and social and emotional learning. We began to heal the trauma that so many young people faced.
People often asked me what the trick was to turning Fenger around. I’ll let you in on a secret — we stopped trying to “fix” the students and began to fix the ecosystem in which they existed. The young people remained the same, filled with potential and possibility, but the environment that surrounded them was modified to meet their needs, giving them a chance to succeed.
The same must be true with our cities and communities. We have to stop trying to “fix people” and instead redirect and reimagine the ways in which our systems and institutions can create environments that allow people to thrive. We have to stop thinking that discipline and force is the only path.
On paper, Fenger was the intersection of every failure we’ve perpetuated as a society: Fractured family units, lack of resources and neglect. But once I started to look at every student as a microcosm of possibility, things changed.
As a country, we have to do more of that. Gun violence alone is not the problem. In Chicago specifically, we’ve seen the effects of decades of neglect and exploitation of Black and brown communities. At every level, the government has either facilitated or ignored the decline of industries, resources and opportunities to make way for a rise in crime, violence and poverty. Last year, JPMorgan Chase invested 41 times more into white Chicago neighborhoods than Black neighborhoods. Just four majority-white neighborhoods received more money than all majority-Black neighborhoods combined.
Solving gun violence starts with community investment. If we make a holistic effort to unify communities, provide long-overdue resources without all the red tape and work to right the wrongs that have occurred in Black and brown communities for far too long, we’ll see the results we’re yearning for. It is a long-term plan we need to invest in, not a short-term “summer solution.”
My time at Fenger moved me to launch Chicago Beyond, an organization that would do just that by investing in ideas, individuals, and organizations on the ground and working side by side with those most impacted. Our goal is to architect plans that work to holistically make Chicago a healthier and safer place.
The Biden Administration, the City of Chicago and other cities across the United States need to take a long hard look at who they’re supporting and how. Community leaders, organizations working day in and day out on the streets, and young people who are facing the unavoidable trauma that comes with this type of violence need compassion and support, not more discipline and neglect.