10/07/2010 02:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Searching for Peace Summit

On September 30th CeaseFire organized a Town Hall Searching for Peace Summit at Malcolm X College with the goal of getting homicides under 400 this year in Chicago. You could sense the tension in the air. Before the seats were even full or the house was packed you could feel the hostility. It isn't surprising given the crowd was composed of more than 300 young men and women from some of Chicago's meanest streets. They were bussed in from Englewood and Humboldt Park, West Garfield and Roseland, West Humboldt Park and East Garfield Park, Little Village and North Lawndale. These were not just any residents from the community. Every one of them, between 15 to 25 years old, was mixed up in the life and affiliated with some street organization or another. According to the statistics, every one of them is likely to be involved in a shooting. You could even see it by a show of hands, early on in the program, almost the entire audience knew someone who had been shot or killed, had been shot at themselves, or had a friend or family behind bars for a shooting. In this audience, every one of them is a potential victim or a potential shooter. And, for the most part, every group represented had some kind of beef with another group in the room. In spite of their young ages, there was a lot of history and a lot of animosity packed in the room. Sworn enemies separated only by aisles could have been firing on each other only a couple days earlier. There were affiliations and adversaries throughout the audience and, yes, there was some tension.

CeaseFire is a unique program. It is a community-based violence prevention initiative that uses a public health model for something that has traditionally been viewed as a social issue. It looks at urban violence as a disease, one that is transmitted person to person through community norms and social expectations. In the communities where we work violence is an accepted and understood part of everyday life. As our informal survey showed almost every one of the more than 300 participants in the audience had been involved or exposed to violence. It happens on every corner, every block, every school, and touches every home. When you grow up in this environment you become indoctrinated in violence as a way of life. You learn fast that survival means throwing a punch first or at least throwing it harder. If somebody steps to you, challenges you, insults you, or disrespects you and you don't respond with violence, then you can come off looking weak, which is like wearing a neon sign over your head announcing you're a victim. So, CeaseFire works at the underlying social norms. It intervenes in conflict by providing a way out where both parties can save face. And, it works to change the overall thinking about violence as a whole, community-wide, by showing that there are alternatives. If violence is learned, it can be unlearned.

Over the past year, we have been organizing summits on a smaller scale, picking up young men and women right off the block, those at the highest risk for violence who are involved in the life, to discuss how they can be part of the peace process. We have brought together feuding rivals and had them resolve their issues without bloodshed. We have presented "history" lessons for young men carrying on decades of street warfare that began years before they were born. We have empowered these young people to take an active role in putting the guns down and finding a reasonable way to resolve their issues. In short, we have saved lives. Since we started the summits 20 peace treaties have been signed. This doesn't just represent the squashing of 20 conflicts, but the actual disruption of 20 potential outbreaks; outbreaks that would each represent a chain of tit-for-tat retaliations and casualties for both sides.

The Searching for Peace Summit was the largest CeaseFire has accomplished thus far, but really it is just a beginning. There is more work to be done. Each of those 300+ participants will be further engaged with CeaseFire workers and involved in subsequent summits. With hope they will be carrying the lessons with them. With hope, the next time there is a conflict, they will be teaching these lessons. The community is hungry for this kind of change. These kids are hungry for it. They want the alternatives that will keep them out of prison, keep their friends alive, and keep them alive. There were so many youth showing up for the conference that we actually had to turn people away. There was just no room, we were at capacity. With this kind of response, I believe, that peace is possible.