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MARY MITCHELL: Michelle Obama and community come together for youth

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel right is introduced by Loop Capital Chairman CEO James Reynolds Jr. left during luncheChicago HiltChicago Wednesday

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right, is introduced by Loop Capital Chairman and CEO James Reynolds Jr. left, during a luncheon at the Chicago Hilton in Chicago, Wednesday, April 10, 2013, before first lady Michelle Obama spoke. The first lady is visiting Chicago for a discussion with Emanuel and civic leaders on ways to combat youth violence. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

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Updated: May 12, 2013 2:16PM

The crowd that filled the ballroom of the downtown Hilton Hotel for the “Get In Chicago” luncheon included many of the people who have long labored behind the scenes to improve the quality of life for black people in this city.

Some are politicians. Some are civic leaders. And some are business leaders who defied the odds by building successful businesses in a city where race and class have been formidable barriers.

Frankly, when black people say, “It takes a village,” these are the people who make up that village.

In the face of such prolonged violence in many black and brown communities, many have lamented that the village no longer exists.

But on Wednesday, the village came together under the banner of the Public Safety Action Committee, created by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in February to address the alarming violence in some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

The effort, led by Tom Wilson, chairman, president and CEO of Allstate Corp. and James Reynolds, Jr., chairman and CEO of Loop Capital, is charged with raising $50 million over five years to fund programs that target at-risk youth. Already, the group has raised $33 million and I have no doubt that it will reach its monetary goal.

But it is the coordinated effort to address the violence being made by some of the city’s most prominent citizens that offers the most promise. It says that these communities — impoverished and plagued by entrenched social ills — matter, and acknowledges that children who are growing up in these stifling environments can reach their full potential if those who have succeeded reach back and give them a hand.

That’s the message that first lady Michelle Obama eloquently delivered to an audience of 650 of the city’s most notable movers and shakers.

In February, Obama attended the funeral of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was killed in a park not far from the Obamas’ Chicago home.

Although Hadiya’s parents did everything right to keep their daughter from harm, she couldn’t escape the violence in her neighborhood.

Mrs. Obama told the audience of civic leaders that growing up, she was Hadiya.

“At the end of the day, resources matter. What it takes to build strong successful young people isn’t genetics or pedigree or good luck,” Obama said.

“It’s opportunity, and I know from my own experience. I started out with the exact same aptitude, the exact same emotional and intellectual capabilities as so many of my peers, and the only thing that separated me from them was I had a few more advantages than some of them did.

“I had adults that pushed me. I had activities that engaged me, schools that prepared me to succeed. I had a community that supported me and a neighborhood where I felt safe.

“In the end, that was the difference between growing up and becoming a lawyer, a mother and first lady of the United States and being shot dead at the age of 15.”

Later, Obama went to Harper High School in Englewood to speak privately with students involved in anti-violence initiatives offered at the school.

Harper was the subject of a two-part series recently presented by “This American Life” on Chicago Public Radio.

Last school year, eight students and former ones at the school were shot and killed. Twenty-one others were wounded.

While Obama was inside the school, a thin crowd stood outside in the unseasonably chilly weather, hoping to catch a glimpse of her departure.

Cynthia Thomas, 26, went to Harper in 2004. She said when she went to Harper, the violence was bad but nothing like it is today.

“But I do think it is a wonderful thing that she came out here to show that she is concerned, to show that she is heartfelt with what’s going on with all the killing in the Englewood area,” she said.

Tycarla Williams, who used to live across the street from Harper before her home was demolished, gave voice to the real potential of the safe-communities plan.

“It is a good thing for [Mrs. Obama] to come out here because it shows that she cares about the Englewood community, not just the other communities but our communities too,” Williams said.

The “Get In Chicago” initiative is a solid foundation for rebuilding the village.

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