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Organizing against violence

As Chicago reeled under a new spate of street violence, community organizers including scores of teens working to prevent violence met Saturday in Little Village — and participants said the problem will require a far more comprehensive approach than just locking up “bad guys.”

“The ‘harsh on crime’ approach simply hasn’t worked,”  said Luis Carrizales, coordinator of the Violence Prevention Collaborative, a collective of community organizations run out of Enlace Chicago.

“We’ve had that attitude for 15 years, and we’ve created a prison population larger than ever in history.  And we have more young people who are disconnected, either not in school or out of work, and we’re surprised that they turn to violence.”

The collaborative works on the principle that the problem of violence is complex and there is no single approach to dealing with it, Carrizales said.  For example, a panel at Saturday’s gathering addressed the links between street violence and domestic violence — young people who have witnessed or been direct victims of abuse and haven’t gotten treatment.

Peace circles

The event marked the UN’s Day of Peace and focused on nonviolence education.  Peace circle training was offered for teachers and school counselors, part of an effort to promote restorative justice in Chicago schools, Carrizales said.

It’s one of several key proactive strategies to reduce violence that political leaders and school officials should take more seriously, he said.

The “school-to-prison pipeline” — with school disciplinary policies that criminalize misbehavior that would have been dealt with within school in earlier days — has certainly contributed to the culture of violence, he said.

“You’re convicting and labelling people as violent and unredeemable at age 14, 15, 16, and saying lock them up and get rid of them,” he said.  “The problem is they’re going to be coming back to our neighborhoods, and they’ll come back bitter and more angry and with even less options.”

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What could go wrong?

Buried in a recent Fox TV report was this tidbit:  multiple City Hall and CPS sources said that Barbara Byrd-Bennett had determined that the district could handle closing 40 schools this year.

But Mayor Emanuel overruled his new schools chief and insisted on upping the number to over 50.  (An official spokesperson denied the report.)

Hotter heads prevailed, you might say.

Those who suggest the whole process of community hearings was a charade aimed at a number predetermined by Emanuel, rather than an exercise in transparency and civic accountability, may be on to something.

Proposed school closings and 2012 homicide heat map (by Radicals Against Discrimination)

Proposed school closings and 2012 homicide heat map (by Radicals Against Discrimination)

It wasn’t the first time warnings about overreaching have been overruled.  In January, someone on Byrd-Bennett’s advisory commission on closings let it be known that they were considering recommending no more than 20 closings — perhaps as few as 15 — in one year.

“They haven’t demonstrated to us that they can close 100 or even 50 schools,” an unnamed commission source told the Sun-Times.  “They don’t have the expertise to accomplish that in such a short timeframe.  When they closed down as many as 12 schools, it was a disaster.”

Something happened to change their minds by March 6 — perhaps a fiat from the mayor’s office — when the commission’s final report recommended 80 closings, based on its assessment of the district’s capacity to move students safely to better performing schools.

Even then, the commission suggested the option of staging the closings over two years, noting the risks of moving too quickly.  “The quick turnaround may make community members feel that CPS’s engagement with them was inauthentic and undertaking just for show” — and “the compressed timeline may lead to the district making avoidable mistakes” in handling the vast logistics of moving dozens of schools and thousands of students, according to the commission’s final report.

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Violence prevention: Corporate charity or citizenship?

Last year, community groups called on Mayor Emanuel and the business community to match the fundraising they did for the NATO Summit to fund youth programs in the neighborhoods.

Now, under the glare of national publicity for Chicago’s ongoing epidemic of violence, Emanuel has decided to deploy his famous fundraising skills to gather $50 million in corporate donations for violence prevention programs over the next five years.

Certainly, every effort to bring resources to desperate communities is welcome.  (And it’s churlish to point out that these folks raised nearly $50 million for NATO in a few weeks.) But is charity a substitute for good citizenship?

The Grassroots Collaborative is pointing out that Emanuel’s choice to co-chair the campaign heads a company that is profiting from controversial interest rate swaps that cost the city and the schools tens of millions of dollars a year.

Jim Reynolds is CEO of Loop Capital, which according to GC, has made $100 million in five interest rate swap deals with the city and CPS since 2005.

Interest rate swaps — also called “toxic rate swaps” by critics — are one of the wonderfully innovative financial products developed in the run-up to the financial crash a few years ago.  They provide set interest rates to cover variable returns on public bond deals.

Cost Chicago $72 million a year

But since the crash, the Fed has kept interest rates near zero, while local governments are locked into interest rates of 3 to 6 percent.  That costs Chicago $72 million a year; CPS loses $35 million a year on the deals, according to GC. (CTU has protested this arrangement.)

While applauding their “charity work,” GC notes, “Chicago business leader must address their role in creating the lack of resources for youth and communities in the first place.  They must stop gouging taxpayers and renegotiate these toxic deals.”

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Bronzeville youth, community leaders to speak on violence

While politicians push tougher law enforcement to address youth violence, community leaders and youth in Bronzeville are demanding that the root causes of violence — including unemployment, disinvestment, and school closings — be put at the top of the agenda.

At 4 p.m. on Thursday, February 12 14, youth leaders from five high schools — including King College Prep, where Hadiya Pendleton was a student, and where one of the suspects in her murder graduated – will hold a press conference at 4 p.m. at Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st Street.  They’re part of Leaders Investing For Equality (LIFE), which for several years has pushed for restoration of funding cut from youth employment programs.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, the Bronzeville Alliance and Centers for New Horizons will hold a press conference at the Ellis Childcare Center, 4301 S. Cottage, to launch a community initiative to coordinate social services for community youth and families and to advocate for a reversal of cutbacks they say have destabilized the community.

In media coverage of youth violence, “there doesn’t seem to be much discussion of the root causes of these problems and the responsiblity of government and the private sector for years of disinvestment in minority communities,” said John Owens of CNH.

“We’ve had many years of jobs being lost and cutbacks in a whole range of social services – and the whole idea of closing schools is just another form of cutbacks,” he said.

“There’s been no discussion of youth employment, no discussion of the destabilization of families when jobs are lost and parents are working odd hours, no discussion of afterschool programs that are relevant,” Owens said.  “The bottom line is that we need to understand what it means to build community and we need to start building it – with the kind of resources that are needed for a community in crisis.”

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Brighton Park: vigil for gun victims – and call to action

Brighton Park residents will gather at Kelly Park on Tuesday for a candlelight vigil memoralizing 26 deaths in Newtown, Connecticut and 27 people shot in Brighton Park last year – and call for gun control legislation and restoration of funding for youth services there.

Joined by local elected officials, they’ll gather at Kelly Park, 2725 W. 41st, at 3 p.m., Tuesday; in case of inclement weather they’ll hold a brief press conference there and gather inside Kelly High School across the street.

Last year funding for two state anti-violence programs was cut in half; in Brighton Park that meant the loss of five full-time school-based counselors serving Kelly High and seven elementary schools, said Sara Reschly of Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.

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More police in schools?

New federal funds for safe schools should go for more counselors, social workers and psychologists, and not more police in schools, several groups are arguing.

Students and parents from across the city will hold a press conference Monday, January 21, 2 p.m. at CPS headquarters, 125 S. Clark to make their case.

Participating are Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, POWER-PAC, and the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance.

President Obama has proposed spending $150 million on police “school resource officers,” counselors and psychologists.

“We have ten full-time school security guards and two full-time armed school police, but we don’t even have one school psychologist,” said VOYCE student leader Ahkeem Wright in a release.

A CTU study last year found CPS was staffed far below recommended levels for school nurses, social workers, counselors, and psychologists.

CPS’s approach “has led to record-public spending, stark racial disparities and the overuse of school-based arrests for misdemeanor offenses – even as homicide and gun violence in the surrounding communities skyrocket,” the groups maintain.

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Facing anti-violence cuts, Brighton Park proposes a community plan

Kelly High School’s auditorium was packed Wednesday night by residents of Brighton Park – the neighborhood where a 13-year-old boy was shot on his front porch while shielding a friend earlier this month – supporting a community anti-violence plan in the face of drastic cuts to programs they say have been working.

“Violence is up in Brighton Park, but it’s not up as much as elsewhere,” said Patrick Brosnan of Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.  In nearby Chicago Lawn, killings are up 150 percent, the Chicago Tribune reports.

“The gang issue has gotten more complicated this year,” Brosnan said.  “There are a lot of fights, a lot of shootings.”  This spring there was an average of a shooting each week, according to The Gate.  But BPNC’s youth programs have a lot of success stories, Brosnan said.

State Representative Dan Burke and other officials pledged to help BPNC secure funding from the state for youth leadership and mentoring programs, parent patrols, school-based counseling, and gang intervention programs.

Budget cut in half

Most of those programs are currently funded through two state programs.  The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative provides jobs for 80 young people as peer mentors and 50 parents mentors in each of 20 Chicago communities, and the Safety Net Works program supports existing youth services, including school-based counseling and crisis intervention, to collaborate on broad anti-violence efforts.

But the $30 million funding for the two programs was eliminated in the new state budget.  It was replaced by a $15 million allocation to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Agency for community-based violence prevention efforts.

Organizations participating in the two programs are pressing to keep existing programs operating, said Chris Patterson, NRI coordinator at Organization of the Northeast in Uptown.  “How do you cover 20 communities with half the funding?” he said.

BPNC proposed a plan which would step up programs, including new money to bring CeaseFire to the community.

A better path

The group’s youth programming is “very effective,” said Esteban Salazar, who will be a senior at Kelly this fall.  Before getting involved, “I was on a bad path,” he said.  “I was hanging around with gangs, hanging around with crews, involved with drugs and alcohol, doing violence.”

He’s left all those things behind, and he now plans to study auto mechanics for a year after graduating high school, then go to college for mechanical engineering.

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Residents oppose demolitions

Mayor Emanuel has begun demolishing vacant buildings in his newest anti-crime effort, but an organization of residents in the affected communities says it won’t work — and there are better ways to deal with vacant buildings.

Action Now will hold a press conference in front of a vacant lot at 53rd and Laflin, Friday, July 13 at 10 a.m., to call on the city to stop demolition and instead use the new Chicago Infrastructure Trust to rehab and rent vacant buildings.

“Vacant lots are not any less dangerous than vacant buildings, and demolishing [buildings] won’t solve the crime problem,” said spokesperson Aileen Kelleher.

She points to the shooting Tuesday of a 14-year-old boy standing in a vacant lot in Roseland.  Last year Action Now held a protest in Humboldt Park at a vacant lot – left unsecured by mortgage holder Chase Bank — where a woman was raped.

One solution is stepped-up enforcement of the vacant properties ordinance, she said.

“If the city had held banks accountable with the vacant properties ordinance – if the banks had kept these properties up and secured them – we wouldn’t be at this point,” said Charles Brown, chair of Action Now’s neighborhood revitalization committee, which developed the Rebuild Chicago plan to finance rehab and rental.  (See yesterday’s post.)

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