"The status quo in Chicago is no longer tolerable," Andy Willis said, summoning the violent headlines of the past year and the past week.
This was Palm Sunday, in a church basement in a big-city neighborhood, and the time had come to stand for something enormous. My God, a six-month-old baby, Jonylah Watkins, was shot and killed this month in Chicago, as her father held her on his lap while sitting in a parked van. That was just the latest shocker. Violence is the norm, in this city and so many others. The death of children is the norm.
"We can't live with a status quo like that," Willis said. "We know things are breaking down . . ."
The event was called "A Remedy for Violence" and announcements for it proclaimed: "This will be a joyous and hopeful event as we aim to eliminate all violence in our community in 10 years! Zero in Ten."
No way! They're not serious, or they're incredibly naïve. But I knew they weren't, and as my cynicism gave way -- this was about a week before the event was to take place -- I felt an enormous sense of empowerment rising. I thought about the words of the Earth Charter, which begins: "We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future."
Yes, now is the time to choose our future, so let us choose one that transcends the insanity and sheer stupidity of violent behavior. This requires personal empowerment. It also requires collective empowerment. And this is what I felt in the audacious declaration: "We aim to eliminate all violence in our community in 10 years."
Lori Crowder, executive director of the Alliance of Local Service Organizations (ALSO) and one of the event's organizers, told me the inspiration for this declaration came from Chicago's Department of Transportation, which recently announced it had begun a project to end traffic-related fatalities in the city 10 years.
This is how ideas ignite. If a group of transportation professionals can take on the root causes of traffic accidents, why, she asked, can't we wrestle with the root causes of violence? What would it look like? And so a Remedy for Violence began, with the disturbing realization that "We are the people we've been waiting for."
And the first event in the process was held, in English and Spanish, at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in the multiracial, trouble-plagued, vibrant and much-beloved neighborhood of Logan Square. This day, Palm Sunday, said Willis, "is about a man who rode into an occupied city with a militarized police force. He rode in on a donkey -- a mockery of the great horses of Rome."
And this is how we change the world.
But first we have to look at the world with clear eyes. Our "leaders," elected and otherwise, have their agendas -- the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, recently announced, for instance, that for reasons of austerity the city will be closing 61 "low performing" public schools -- but these agendas seldom have depth or embrace the needs of whole, healthy communities.
Crowder, speaking at the event, pointed out an obvious starting place, unaddressed by the mayor, seldom addressed or even acknowledged by government officials: There are way too many "disconnected youth" in the neighborhood and the city and the country. These are teenagers who are neither in school nor have a job -- some 800 of them in Logan Square, she said, and another 1,600 in nearby Humboldt Park.
They've left, or been ejected by, the struggling and underfunded educational system and they can't find work because there is no work. There's a 40 percent dropout rate in Chicago high schools.
"They're on the streets," she said. "They become victims or perpetrators of crime, or both. They show up in prisons, jails, hospitals. These youth -- our youth -- need us to do better."
Youth, poverty, education, militarism . . . these were the primary focal points in this initial conversation. They're not abstract topics. They're an unavoidable part of life in the neighborhood, in all the forgotten neighborhoods of America. Much of the effort to create change has to involve putting unrelenting pressure on the politicians in our alleged democracy to see and embrace the same problems the people do -- not deliver solutions from on high, but sit in the same chaos, joy and despair of community life and work together, starting from scratch in the thought process, looking at things from the bottom up.
Mass school closings are a brutally vivid example of the disconnected politics of Chicago. Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods are always the most poorly funded; and when children, for a complex array of reasons -- such as being hungry, homeless or abused -- fail to measure up in the fake science of aptitude testing, the schools are judged as failures and threatened with closure. If they are closed, struggling communities lose a crucial social anchor and kids have to walk into dangerous territory to learn to read and write. In the school buildings, the focus becomes more and more on security. Every kid is a suspect. "Learning" becomes grim and absurd. The vicious cycle spirals downward. Kids who want a future join the military.
This is the status quo that is no longer tolerable.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.
© 2013 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.