Chi-raq: How teenagers view Chicago
BY KOHAR JONES January 8, 2014 2:44PM
Updated: January 8, 2014 6:14PM
“Chi-raq” is what our high school students call our city.
Every summer I direct a community health program sponsored by the University of Chicago Medicine that brings together six medical/professional, three college and nine high school students to address health issues on Chicago’s South Side. The group breaks into three teams focused on different Chicago neighborhoods.
This year all three Summer Service Partnership (SSP) teams chose violence for their health topic.
There is low intensity warfare on Chicago’s streets.
During a session one day this summer, I was shocked by a high school student’s casual revelation. To get to know each other, I had asked students to say their names, and who was important to them and why. This was inspired by my 90-year-old grandmother’s recent death and my desire to celebrate her long life well-lived and acknowledge the loss even as I returned to work.
“My best friend is important to me,” said the high schooler, “because we’ve talked about everything since seventh grade. He was shot in the head last night, and he didn’t make it.”
He died at age 16, before even beginning his life.
Even after her devastating loss, she still attended the program as on any other day, visited the museum, ate the lunch.
Deadly, shocking gun violence was part of life.
“I figured I would see a friend get killed,” she said later in the afternoon, in a frank discussion about gun violence. “I just didn’t know who.”
She wasn’t sure she would live to see age 30.
On the South Side, violence is the norm.
The high school students lived with a firsthand knowledge of violence. Six out of nine of our high school students were personally touched by it, with a close friend or family member killed. None of the university students had lost anybody to violence.
Some of the high school students knew more about gangs than others. One girl’s cousin was in a gang, and she knew a lot. She led us on a photographic tour of graffiti in her neighborhood in a photovoice project, decoding the acronyms depicting the battles for the streets.
CVL = Certified Vice Lords.
A picture of a crown = Latin Kings
GD = Gangster Disciple.
BD = Black Disciple.
“Big dummy,” substituted another high schooler.
“Brain dead,” suggested another.
We learned, that in graffiti, a “K” after a name meant “killer,” or someone who opposed the gangs in question.
We need CGK. Chicago Gang Killer.
Still, the epidemic of violence in Chi-raq is not simply an epidemic of gangs. It is not a problem of others, where if you stay legal you stay alive. Many of those dead from gun violence have nothing to do with gangs.
The student who lost her friend mid-summer shared a sense of relief when she learned why he had been shot. He’d gotten into a fight at a gas station earlier in the day. Who got to the pump first? He wasn’t in a gang. He had simply clashed with the wrong person, who had followed him to his home, then shot him in the head a few hours later.
Gun violence in Chicago is an epidemic of hopelessness, where long life is lived to age 30, where guns become the answer to routine conflicts, and early death becomes the new norm.
With hopelessness came the belief that nothing would ever change. Students struggled with that sense of hopelessness.
They could not imagine change on a systems level. Laws would never change. Guns would always rule the streets. Gangs would always be there.
But they got to change on a personal level.
One girl, after missing 117 days of school, only missed three days of the summer program.
Another, struggling with anger, kept her cool through the summer.
The kids grew.
They learned to introduce themselves to community members.
They publicly introduced speakers from CeaseFire and Family Rescue at a Peace Party they threw in a freshly rehabbed People’s Park in South Chicago.
They learned to work with diverse groups.
They learned to survey neighborhood residents
They learned how to apply to the city government to get a permit to paint a wall to create an anti-violence mural, inscribed with the quote “What you choose today changes all of your tomorrows.”
What can we choose to do today to change the trends of violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods? If violence grows as the epidemic of hopelessness spreads, then jobs and opportunities may be the antidote.
A fascinating study published in August by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab shows that a city program that included a job, mentoring and therapy helped reduce arrests for violent crimes among the teens by 51 percent.
This makes intuitive sense: Money in the pocket plus a place to be takes away desperation and provides life structure, decreasing crime.
I hope that summer employment opportunities for teens continue to expand in all of Chicago’s neighborhoods, through programs such as After School Matters. The George Lucas Family Foundation’s generous donation that allows stipends for high school apprentices in programming across the city will not only provide individual students with life opportunities, but also help to bring peace to the streets of Chicago.
Dr. Kohar Jones is a clinical assistant professor with the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Chicago Medicine, and director of Community Health and Service Learning with the Urban Health Initiative and Pritzker School of Medicine. She blogs at http://www.koharjones.com.