WASHINGTON -- In a broad and moving speech Friday, President Barack Obama described gun violence as only one part of a web of economic and social challenges facing the nation. He proposed new strategies, focusing on strengthening families, creating educational opportunities and reviving the nation's hardest-hit communities.
Speaking before students and faculty of Hyde Park Academy, in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago, Obama began by recognizing victims of gun violence, including those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old from Chicago who was killed just days after she performed with her high school band at Obama's inauguration festivities.
"What happened to Hadiya is not unique," the president said. "It's not unique to Chicago, and it's not unique to this country. Too many of our children are being taken away from us."
Nevertheless, Obama said, "No law or set of laws can prevent every senseless act of violence ... When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child's heart that government can't fill."
The president's speeches on gun violence have started to feel routine as he travels around the country advocating for his gun safety package. But Friday's speech had a different feel to it: Obama veered into more personal territory and talked about growing up without a father -- a situation that he said reflected the reality of many of today's youth.
"As the son of a single mom who gave everything she had to raise me, with the help of my grandparents, I turned out OK," he said, calling single moms "heroic" and worthy of praise.
But he added, "At the same time, I wish I'd had a father who was around and involved."
The president said there are neighborhoods all over the country where young people don't see adults succeeding and where they come to think the future "only extends to the end of the street corner or the outskirts of town."
Young boys and young men, in particular, "don't see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up and respected," Obama continued. Yet the biggest factor in determining a child's success -- and preventing a child from sliding into a life of crime -- is having a "loving, supportive family," he said.
"And by the way, that's all kinds of parents. That includes foster parents, that includes grandparents, extended families. That includes gay or straight parents," Obama added to applause. "Those parents supporting kids, that's the single most important thing. Unconditional love for your child, that makes a difference."
So when it comes to tackling gun violence, the best place to start is within individual communities and families, he said.
"This is not just a gun issue," Obama declared. "It's also an issue of the kinds of communities that we're building. And for that, we all share responsibility as citizens to fix it. We all share a responsibility to move this country closer to our founding vision: that no matter who you are or where you come from, here in America you can decide your own destiny."
Obama emphasized that violence prevention and community development are only possible, however, if those who work in low-wage jobs can find economic stability.
Too many parents, he said, cannot support their children on what they earn from minimum-wage jobs. "That's why we should raise the minimum wage to $9, and make it a wage you can live on."
In addition to broader efforts to lift the middle class, Obama zeroed in on what he called "pockets of poverty" -- communities and neighborhoods that have yet to "bounce back" from the closing of manufacturing plants and the 2008 recession.
"My intention is to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit communities in America to get them back in the game," said the president, before outlining a multipronged strategy of local and national collaborations to tackle public safety, improve education, replace run-down public housing and offer private-sector hiring incentives.
Lastly, he said, "we're going to target neighborhoods struggling to deal with violent crime ... and help them reduce that violence with strategies that have been proven to work."
"Change is always possible," said Obama, evoking a theme synonymous with his 2008 presidential campaign. "We may not be able to help everybody, but if we help a few, that propels progress forward. We may not be able to save every child from gun violence, but if we can save a few, that starts changing the atmosphere in our communities."
In his closing, Obama singled out a group of male students at Hyde Park Academy, with whom he'd met prior to his speech. The students are engaged in a youth anti-violence program. According to White House spokesman Josh Earnest, "the program is a school-based counseling, mentoring, violence prevention and educational enrichment program that promotes social, emotional and behavioral growth."
"These guys are no different than me," said the president. "I had issues, too, when I was their age, I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. When I screwed up, the consequences weren't as high as when kids on the South Side screw up," he said.
What communities require in order to change, said the president, is the same thing individuals require: a vision of the future, perseverance, and hard work. Obama closed by invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who organized in Chicago during his lifetime. Obama pledged to fight "the shadow of poverty that haunts too many of our communities [and] the self-destructive impulses and mindless violence that claim too many innocent young lives."
The president's decision to address gun violence and community building in Chicago was not by chance. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the president's former chief of staff, is pursuing model-community building programs, and Obama cited a number of them.
But Chicago is also a symbol of the violence and poverty that, the president argued, go hand-in-hand. First lady Michelle Obama had attended Hadiya Pendleton's funeral in Chicago last weekend, and Pendleton's parents were guests of the first lady at her husband's State of the Union address Tuesday night. Chicago police have said Pendleton was an innocent bystander shot in a case of gang-related violence.
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