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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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Navigators USA offer ‘inclusive scouting’

With the Boy Scouts maintaining its policy of excluding gays from leadership, interest is growing in Navigators USA, an “intentionally inclusive scouting alternative,” according to a leader of a new chapter in  Palatine.

Navigators Chapter 30 was founded last October, sponsored by Countryside Church Unitarian Universalist, and is growing steadily, said Elizabeth Vesto.  Nationally the group has doubled in size over the past year.

Though it’s sponsored by a church, it’s open to anyone, even non-believers (unlike the Scouts), Vesto said.  “We have a lot of people participating who would not be eligible for the Boy Scouts,” she said.

The chapter has about 25 members, mainly Junior Navigators (ages 5 through 12), with twice-monthly meetings that Vesto charaterized as “family activity nights.” The chapter is focused on community service projects and learning the Navigator Traits, she said. (A Navigator is “truthful, respectful, inclusive, generous, dependable, resourceful, and cooperative.”)

Service projects range from helping to clear invasive species at the Deer Grove Forest Preserve to making “support backbacks” containing a change of clothes and toiletries for ICE detainees, who may have been moved from other parts of the country and released in Chicago “with absolutely nothing,” Vesto said.

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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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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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What about the neighborhoods?

The Grassroots Collaborative is offering visiting journalists bus tours of working-class neighborhoods struggling with violence, foreclosures, and clinic closings — and they’re questioning the millions of dollars being spent on entertainment at the NATO summit.

Buses leave from the Hyatt Regency at 8:15 a.m. on Thursday and Friday, May 17 and 18, and return by 11 a.m.  Information is at thegrassrootscollaborative.org.

Thursday’s tour will cover Little Village, one of the city’s largest Latino neighborhoods, where community groups are working to address youth violence; and Back of the Yards, where one of six mental health centers recently closed by the city is located.

(The two clinics primarily serving Latino communities were closed, as were four of six South Side clinics, and half the bilingual staff was laid off, all to save $3 million.  Having been repeatedly rebuffed in attempts to hold meetings with city officials – including a City Council hearing blocked by the mayor– the Mental Health Movement is planning to march on Mayor Emanuel’s home on Saturday morning.)

Friday morning’s tour will cover Englewood, a poor African-American community hard hit by foreclosures and violence, and Brighton Park, where low-income Latino residents are developing community schools.

Grassroots Collaborative, a citywide coalition of labor and community organizations, is questioning the priorities of spending millions of dollars to host the NATO summit while the city shuts down clinics and schools, said Eric Tellez.

On another level, he said, NATO spends billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars while poverty and unemployment “devastates communities across the country” and “the global poor fall deeper into poverty.”

Party fund

Last month the coalition called on World Business Chicago, which is raising money to host NATO, to donate comparable sums to establish a Neighborhood Jobs Trust.  In recent statements, the group is focusing on the $14 million being spent on parties for the summit.

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Students call on Emanuel to back discipline reform

Student activists and elected officials will launch a petition drive Monday calling on Mayor Emanuel to reverse his support for extreme disciplinary policies that they say are ineffective and force kids out of school and onto the streets.

Students from Voices of Youth in Chicago Education will be joined by County Commissioner Jesus Garcia, State Senator Willie Delgado, and State Representative Kim Dubuclet for a press conference at the Cook County Junevile Center, 2245 W. Ogden, at 10 a.m. on Monday, March 5.

Students will share research and personal experiences showing that punitive disciplinary approaches – ranging from fines for misconduct at Noble Charter Schools to suspensions and expulsions at traditional schools – target black and Latino students disproportionately and increase their risk of failure.

New research by students in VOYCE, reviewing tens of thousands of disiplinary actions at CPS over the past year, shows the vast majority were for offenses that did not pose serioius and immediate safety threats, according to the group.

While Emanuel pushes for a longer school day, CPS policies cause hundreds of thousands of lost school days for kids most at risk, they point out.

VOYCE is a citywide multiracial youth organization focused on reducing dropouts. After a 2008 report on “Student-Led Solutions to the Dropout Crisis,” the goup piloted a program in which 300 members served as peer mentors to 700 freshmen in eight high schools. They found extended suspensions for minor misbehavior to be a major obstacle to getting kids on track (see Newstips from July 2011).

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