Imagine growing up in a system where, generation after generation, the zip code you live in means you are going to have to fight the moment you walk out the front door. You have to keep your fists clenched walking to the bus stop just in case. Your jaw is locked before your day has even started. A trip the corner store for groceries is enough to set you on edge and you are consciously aware that every activity between waking up and going back to bed could be your last.
And imagine that you have to do this day after day after day.
For many young men and women growing up in some of Chicago's toughest communities -- where the homicide rate is 15 people per 100,000 compared to a national rate of five per 100,000 -- they don't have to imagine. Violence has become a way of life, a part of the culture, and an everyday normal occurrence.
For me, growing up in one such community in Chicago during the late 70s was an education in violence. As a starting point in Chicago's history it provided a template for how the cycle of violence has moved through generations to become an entrenched part of our communities. It also provides an illustration for how we can ultimately break this pattern. Back then, large street organizations had neighborhoods divided up by territory. They fought fiercely to defend their real estate and always had their eyes set on expansion. This meant constant recruiting to wage war.
There was always pressure to join. Since you could be a casualty just standing on the corner with no affiliation, signing up became a matter of survival. Most young men, even if they were not involved in the life, would rather arm themselves for protection than run the risk of being victim. Back then you ended up on one side of the war or the other based on the neighborhood you lived in. I knew early on that if I went into certain neighborhoods or walked down certain streets that I would be beaten or shot just for where I lived. My affiliations didn't matter; my address made me a target.
Throughout the 80s and 90s the beat went on. Older guys who had made it into their twenties or thirties acted like grizzled war vets returning from the frontline. They often took the younger guys under their wing, teaching them how to defend themselves in a fight and how to shoot a gun. At this point in our history, street organizations had racked up enough of a body count on either side that they could always be in the right. What I mean is that every action could be justified by the argument, "So-and-so (your cousin, brother, friend) died defending this block, those guys over there were responsible, and now you have a chance to make it right." This same script will play out again and again and again on both sides. It is like you let down your friends, even your family, because you didn't take action. You start to feel guilty for not hurting somebody.
This is what we are working on changing in Chicago. It is not just about addressing the conflicts that can erupt in violence, but addressing and changing the thoughts that lead to those conflicts. When we talk about changing the mindset, we are talking about changing the thinking that leads you to feel like it is your obligation to carry out an act of violence. CeaseFire staff mediated 120 conflicts in the first three months of 2011. Several CeaseFire communities in Chicago are experiencing 25% - 75% reductions in shootings and killings, but more important is the fact that we worked with 656 young men and women to direct them toward a safer path. Each of these participants isn't just coached on finding a job or getting into a housing program or learning about substance abuse rehab; they are coached on how to live better and how to make decisions that will help them to survive without taking a life.
I want to invite you to learn more about the issue and more importantly to take action. Click here to find out how you can help curb the tide on four decades of violence in Chicago today.