The rash of murders that occurred in Chicago during the cold temperatures of the last few months, have left many Chicagoans wondering how much violence there will be in the city during the upcoming hot Summer when murders are historically at their peak. Many are planning, hoping to do something different and effective to saves lives during the anticipated deadly heat.
One of the new organizations on the forefront of this preparation is Safe Streets, an umbrella group “Organizing cross cultural, cross organizational, cross gender, and cross age collections of people who are determined to get to the same destination, that is safe streets, as a collective,” says Michero Washington, the group's co-founder and the president of the Illinois Commission on Diversity and Human Relations.
Local community activists have learned that when powerful groups and individuals work together instead of competing, more positive results are accomplished. This belief is at the core of Safe Streets, as articulated by the organization's co-founder, Robert Renteria, chairman of Barrio Foundation. He is also the author of three books, including From the Barrio to the Boardroom and its accompanying life skills curriculum (currently implemented in some of Chicago's schools and churches). “What we are doing with other organizations is bringing people who specialize in different areas together so they can build their own lane, and we are going to provide the support to make success toward safe streets happen,” said Renteria during a recent gathering at Ruby's Restaurant in East Garfield Park, one of Chicago's high murder communities.
The atmosphere at Ruby's felt like an executive board meeting—but with a soul food menu—as leaders of various organizations pooled their thoughts, resources and talents to address the city's violence problems. Such a setting allowed the discussion to remain focus on solutions with limited attention to venting about commonly-known problems. What seems most different and promising about this group is that it simply facilitates collaboration among groups that are already formed for the common purpose of creating safer streets in Chicago. Several of the participants provided each other with hope by outlining clearly defined and tangible ideas of what they bring to the table. One promising goal of the group is that it seeks creative ways for fundraising to support its mission. Instead of exclusively relying on agency grants, entrepreneurs offered solutions.
Michael Paul Anderson is the owner of JC and Company Design and the Gunicide Project, which together create artwork and conduct outreach for implementation of the Unique Life Skills Program in the Chicago Public Schools. He is also the designer of the Chicago-based board game called Obama Mania, which teaches young people about how the former community organizer won the US presidency. Anderson pledged to donate a portion of proceeds from the sale of those board games to support Safe Streets activities, and offered the group an initial investment of t-shirts as a fundraiser.
Ramone Giles describes his work as "social enterprising and individual consultation" and focuses on workforce education training to help young African American men prepare for lifelong employment. He uses 2.5 billion years of African world history as the foundation of his curriculum and stresses “The basis for success in life is a great attitude, and we cannot have a great attitude if in our subconsciousness we are ex-slaves. So I teach youth African world history so they can learn that slavery is a small and intense part of our history, but we are much more than that. Then, they can have a different perspective of themselves, and life.”
Knowledge of self beyond slavery provides remarkable results says Giles, “When the youth do not understand who they are, they and angry and have low expectations of themselves. When they understand the greatness of their legacy, they have higher expectations of themselves, and… pull their pants up on their own.”
Harold Esters is the Mason, and the Worshipful Master and Grand Secretary of Moses Grand Lodge. He believes that adding spiritual development to the Safe Streets plan is mandatory: “Masonry entails raring young men to be men, teaching them the Bible, at the same time. It has its own rituals to go with it, but the goal is to make a man a man. That is something mandatory for safer streets. Meanwhile, Bradford Traywick, a family service counselor at Dignity Memorial Services brings insights from the funeral home business to the budding organization “I would like to see the industry as a whole begin to teach and guide life. Although we deal mainly with death, we know a great deal about life because we deal with the surviving loved ones, and I am bringing that element to the table.”
If Safe Streets will be successful in its efforts, much of that will be determined by the extent to which they reach out to learn from the successes and tribulations of other organizations that have used this collaborative approach to address high violence. The impact of the group will also depend on how well its members are able to streamline and focus their diverse interests, and conduct their efforts in ways that can be properly evaluated and improved over time.
Peter K. B. St. Jean is the Executive Director and Founder of Peaceful World Movement, an adjunct professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Governors State University and University at Buffalo Department of Sociology, and the Coordinator of Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood at Haymarket Center, Chicago. He is also the author of Pockets of Crime: Broken Windows, Collective Efficacy and the Criminal Point of View.