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Brown: President Obama needs to bring some money with his speech

Updated: March 13, 2013 6:31AM

Community organizers who work with Chicago communities impacted by violence won’t complain if President Barack Obama uses his speech here Friday to talk up his ideas for gun control.

But they’re bound to be plenty disappointed if the president stops there without speaking to the underlying causes of gun violence — and without putting some money behind real solutions.

As perhaps the only opinion writer at this newspaper who hasn’t been urging the president to come home to Chicago in the wake of the murder of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, and as one who still isn’t quite sure what good it will do, I’m not in much of a position to tell Obama what he ought to say Friday.

That’s why I turned to some Chicago community organizers, the same profession from which Obama launched his career, to find out what they want to hear from the president.

To Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, the key to reducing the violence is to aim resources at keeping young people from dropping out of school.

He wants to hear Obama talk about the challenge of helping “disconnected youth” who are neither in school nor have a job — the group at gravest danger of becoming part of the homicide statistics.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to reconnect these kids that are just out on the street and who become the perpetrators and victims of crime,” said Brosnan, whose organization conducts several programs for youth in the predominately Latino neighborhood on the Southwest Side.

Once those kids are out of school, they become almost impossible to reach, Brosnan said.

That’s why he’d direct federal dollars through the public school system to beef up truancy-prevention programs and other case management services for students at risk of dropping out.

The solutions can be as simple as providing counseling services at night to make it easier for parents to attend without risk of losing their jobs or changing school discipline policies to emphasize restorative justice over punishment, Brosnan said.

But make no mistake, he is talking about radical change in the form of a major investment of federal resources.

Daniel Vazquez, 19, a Daley College student and a youth leader for the Bright Park group, told me he wants Obama to talk about putting those resources toward financing clubs and other after-school activities for youth.

“We want to keep them inside the schools where they can have positive role models,” Vazquez said.

Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now Institute, also wants the president to invest in youth.

But first off, she wants to hear the president acknowledge that the gun violence here is a symptom of a problem, not the cause, which she identifies as poverty and unequal access to quality education.

Johnson said Obama needs to look at how some of his own policies are exacerbating violence through the proliferation of charter schools and the mass closing of neighborhood schools.

“Closing schools is one of the top ways of destabilizing our communities,” said Johnson, whose organization works with neighborhood residents through three chapters on the West Side and two on the South Side.

Although I’m very conflicted about charter schools, I don’t want to leave the impression I’m endorsing the idea they are a causative factor in youth violence.

But I do believe anything we do that makes it more complicated or difficult for young people to attend school only leaves that many more of them behind on the streets.

Charles Brown, 80, one of Action Now’s community leaders, has his own thoughts about what Obama could say that would be most helpful to the violence-plagued Englewood neighborhood he calls home.

“If people had jobs, man, we wouldn’t even have this problem,” said Brown, a former Chicago police officer, former TSA employee, former Marshall Field’s store detective, former teacher, former railroad worker and soon-to-be part-time Census taker.

“I wouldn’t care if everybody had a gun,” Brown said. “We need jobs. We need something to do. You wouldn’t have to worry about nobody killing nobody.”

As Americans, we don’t expect much from our president: Fix the schools, find everyone a job, stop the violence — and do it now. This will need to be some speech.

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