Many Chicagoans view improved educational opportunities as a way to solve the city's issues with violence. These beliefs were very clear when over 1000 young people and their parents participated in the “Black Men of Honor” college fair held at the Ramada Inn in Hyde Park earlier this month. The fair was organized by the Black Star Project (BSP) under its popular theme, “Educate or Die.”
“As a race, we are either going to educate ourselves, or we are going to die; not death like running out of breath, but not being able to grow and enjoy life because we will not have the education to succeed in today's society…. We are trying to end the school to prison pipeline, and the only way to do it is to spend money on your brain,” explained Ivory Harris, one of the event organizers.
Phillip Jackson, Executive Director of BSP, sees a strong connection between educational opportunities and addressing Chicago's violence problems:
“This is how you fix the problems in the African American community. Right now, the City of Chicago is hiring more police men who don't look like us as they are trying to put more Black men in prison…. All of that will do nothing but further destabilize our community. If you really want to fix the problems of African American communities all over the country, this [the fair] is the kind of work you will do.”
Kimberly Donaldson, who took her son and daughter to the fair, agrees with Jackson: “We have to educate ourselves out of these violence problems…High school education is now almost obsolete since one needs college education to be successful in most fields,” she said.
Donaldson says she sees college as an escape for her children—literally: “I really want my [children] to leave Chicago because there is so much violence. We have the best colleges here, but the violence is the main thing of concern.”
Other parents, such as Rickie Robinson, feel differently: "I do not mind if my son attends college in Chicago… If parents would do more to be involved with their children's education and properly raise them, we will have less of these violence problems,” the law enforcement veteran stressed.
His 16-year-old son, who is interested in aviation and physical therapy, was optimistic and thankful, saying, “It was just amazing to see the information available to the students and families; I have a better sense of my options now;… we need more of this to help us, and I am thankful.”
Bruce Talbert, a recruiter of the US Cost Guard Academy in Connecticut, understands this and is appealing to youth in the Chicago area to take better advantage of educational opportunities at his institution.
Talbert laments, “The Midwest area is underrepresented and we want more students from this region. They…should be 25 percent of our student population, but are only 10 percent.”
Marlon Snipes knows first hand the value of such events. He grew up in Roseland, one of Chicago's most violent communities with a history of high profile murders, and is now an admissions officer at Illinois State University and credits educational outreach like the fair, and programs such as Upward Bound and Talent Search for assisting him to escape the jaws of Chicago's mean streets:
“It is things like that which helped me out when I was growing up. I went to college and have a Masters degree, and now have been working in college admissions for the last 14 years. To grow up in a community like Roseland, and turn out the way that I did, that is a great accomplishment to me, and I like to give back to youth so that more of them can have the opportunities I had to escape the streets.”
Chris James represented Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), located on Chicago's South Side. He stressed that the safety of students, and reducing violence in the city at large, is a top priority of the University: “Both our administration and students are active in the struggles against violence. Students on campus pull in the community and other people around the table… to look at business and other solutions to violence.”
Phillip Jackson's Black Star Project is a neighbor of IIT, and he is making a strong appeal for support, especially from those with more to offer:
“Get in the game! There are organizations like Black Star all over the country. Quite frankly, we get very little support from Black people of means—[those] with money to give. Most of the support we get are foundations that are not ours. So we need Black people, middle class, upper income, to get into the game, and help us save us.”
Yet, Jackson remains optimistic with a passionate prediction: “The prison industrial complex is in trouble. We are going to shut them down.”
Dr. 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.