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Rahm Emanuel urges the Chicago community to take a stand against gun violence

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Updated: February 18, 2013 10:42AM

Just over a week ago, the first lady and elected officials, the famous and the unknown and people from different neighborhoods, backgrounds and beliefs came together to mourn the death of a very special young woman: Hadiya Pendleton. We celebrated the life of joy she gave to others and reflected on the life of promise that had been taken from her.

The circumstances surrounding her horrific death have grabbed the national spotlight in a way we haven’t seen before, making Hadiya the dramatic face and driving force for change. But nearly every day since the light of her life was taken away, I have made a point to tell her mother, Cleo, that it was the promise of Hadiya’s life that made her so special to this city — not the proximity of her death to the president’s home.

Still, in the wake of Hadiya’s death, we as a city are now at a point of both inflection and reflection. We’re beginning to ask tough questions of each other and of ourselves; questions that we’d been content to avoid for too long.

In the past, when tragedies like this hit the front page of the newspaper, people in certain parts of this city would quietly say to themselves, “If it’s not my neighborhood, it’s not my problem.” In other parts of the city, people would look for somebody else to blame, but not take responsibility.

This time is different.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen young people take the lead in their communities, like the three students I met with at Lindblom High School who drafted a plan to end gun violence and organized a peaceful march following Hadiya’s death. One of the young women I met, Chelsea James, spoke at the march. “Things have to change,” she said, “and it’s up to us, up to our generation, to change it.” We need every voice in Chicago to join together with Chelsea’s.

We cannot afford to revert back to the old culture of complacency. We are a better city than that. We need to follow through on new and current policies to create jobs, improve education, reverse the foreclosure crisis and continue to crack down on gangs, guns and drugs.

We’ve already fought for a full school day, doubled the number of summer job opportunities for teens and made the largest-ever investment in our after-school opportunities, serving a total of 13,000 young people this year.

But no policy out of City Hall, no principal at CPS and no police officer at CPD can do the work of a parent or two parents in the home. It’s time to stop tiptoeing around the uncomfortable fact that the overwhelming majority of perpetrators and victims of gun crime are minority males between the ages of 16 and 25. This is a direct result of a generation of young men in many of our poorest communities — often from broken families — who have grown up without a father or an affirmative male presence to ground them morally and spiritually and provide them with a sense of self-worth.

There is nothing that can replace the immediacy and intimacy of a father in a child’s life; support from the community or the city will always be second best. But we still have obligations we must fulfill in order for our city to live up to its potential.

I’ve seen firsthand how mentoring initiatives like “Becoming A Man” show young men that they’re valued. These initiatives have a proven record of helping young men overcome great obstacles, so I’m committed to finding every last dollar to invest in them and in the young people of our city.

But we have much more work to do. Too often, I’ve met young people on their way to school who have a look of emptiness in their eyes that no loving parent would ever accept. Those kids can see downtown Chicago, with all of its promise and potential, but they cannot see themselves playing a part in its future.

Though the Loop may be only a few miles from their neighborhood, for them, it might as well be in a different city. The classroom and the home are the only places where we can bridge the gap between where those kids are today and the bright future this city can hold for them.

As an honor student, Hadiya was on her way toward realizing that bright future — but it was stolen from her. What made Hadiya’s death so resonant for people in every neighborhood was the fact that her dreams were not so different from the dreams of our own children, or the dreams we have for them.

Though Hadiya has been laid to rest, her spirit lives on and challenges us not to step back from this moment, but to step up and do what we can to solve this problem.

The hundreds of people gathered in that church this past weekend represented the mosaic of faiths and backgrounds that makes Chicago the most American of American cities. As I listened to Hadiya’s family and friends offer up their prayers, I silently offered one of my own, the prayer of Rabbi Hillel: Who are you if you are not for yourself, what are you if you are only for yourself, and if not now, when?

Whether we rise up as one city and finally put an end to this violence will depend on our answers to those fundamental questions.

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