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Columbia Links: Chicago Students Confront City's Violence Epidemic (VIDEO)

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COLUMBIA LINKS CHICAGO
Students learn about creating a webcast with NBC 5’s Stefan Holt. (Brent Lewis) | Brent Lewis

Chicago's constant and growing problem with gun violence has captured national attention as it grows to hyperbolic proportions; but as the death toll rises, coverage of shootings and homicides becomes increasingly distanced from the human cost.

Where some media coverage fails, high school students partnered with Columbia College of Chicago's journalism program succeeded.

Three times a year, Columbia Links recruits about 20 at-risk students, many from Chicago Public Schools that don't offer journalism or civics classes, and teaches them how to find their voices and impart change through journalism workshops. The six-week summer session wrapped up with a graduation ceremony Thursday, and two more will be offered during the school year.

Columbia Links' executive director Brenda Butler says students were encouraged to focus on the topic of health and fitness one week, but kept pressuring their mentor, Celia Daniels, to let them tackle a topic on all their minds: their experiences with violence in a city where it's becoming unavoidable.

Daniels encouraged Butler to "give them a week to write about it; their voices need to be heard," Butler told HuffPost Chicago. "Send it to the [Chicago Police Department]. Send it to the mayor. Let them know what it's like in the communities where they live and what they experience."

The result was a collection of essays called "Don't Shoot: I Want To Grow Up," available on the group's website ColumbiaLinks.org. In their opinion pieces and first-person accounts, students explore the violence they've been exposed to, and how it impacts their worldview.

(Scroll down to view selected quotes from the essays.)

One student compares his life on the city's South Side to a war zone, and nicknamed the city "Chi-raq." Several worry about how Chicago's reputation for violence affects outside views of a city they're losing faith in.

They also suggested viable suggestions for ways to reduce violent crime in their communities.

"If teenagers are kept busy, and not sitting idle, it would lead to less crime," Matthew Wettig, a junoir at Lane Technical High School, wrote in his essay "More Police = Less Violence." "Programs for teens would effectively lead to lower crime rates."

Columbia Links administrators say they're working to set up meetings where the students can tell their stories, and present their booklet, to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

"The most important thing, I think, is that teens need to be given a voice," Butler said. "We hope that, in an ideal world, teens can be asked, and involved in how we approach this issue, because some of them do offer solutions. I think it would be advantageous to everyone if teens feel like they’re part of the solution, and not part of the problem."

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