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A Fresh Approach to Tackling Juvenile Violence

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Here's the stark reality. We have spent incalculable dollars on well-intentioned projects to curb juvenile violence. But we can't say what works best. We simply don't know.

It's not from failing to try. Countless government and nongovernmental agencies, corporations, foundations and churches have generated big ideas and dollars to help at-risk youth escape futile futures.

And our best chance for success comes from reaching and helping at-risk youth in their early teens -- and preventing them from shapeshifting into criminal delinquents in just a few years. For the most part, however, past projects simply didn't deploy essential and rigorous assessments and measurement to prove they worked.

That's not surprising. Rough calculations by some domestic policy experts indicate that less than $1 of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic proof that money is spent wisely. Also disquieting is that when an at-risk youth participates in a program that fails instead of succeeds, it denotes a human cost.

Headlines Hurt

In the meantime, public anger, shame and fear grow as headlines imply that an epidemic of youth violence persists. I know. My city, Chicago, and laboratory -- the inner-city neighborhoods I visit practically daily -- get pummeled regularly.

After hundreds of murders occurred in Chicago last year by summer, a headline, "Chicago murder rate far worse than during Al Capone 'gangland' days," seemed to say it all. It sent shock waves internationally. So did accounts of unruly youth hassling shoppers and shoplifting merchandise on the Magnificent Mile.

Such conduct damages a great city's reputation. It hinders the ability to draw corporate interests to the city or keep them there. It triggers questions from residents' family and friends elsewhere about why they live in Chicago.

What's the answer? We think it's a unique strategy for Chicago that launched today (Monday, 2-10). We believe it will identify unequivocally what initiatives show the most promise for curbing youth violence, helping at-risk youth and assisting economically the communities hardest hit by crime and poverty.

Differentiating Process

Don't raise your eyes in cynicism just yet. We consider our strategy differentiating - and we have the financial and talent resources behind it from Chicago's top business executives and others to demonstrate that. Already they've pledged $45 million of a projected $50 million for a major new private-public partnership, Get In Chicago, of which I am executive director.

In the past two decades, Big Business largely has ignored youth violence as a social cause. For the most part, it figured it was a matter for others to tackle. They often harnessed their corporate giving instead around peripheral initiatives to improve education, job training and job opportunities, and the like. But CEOs such as Allstate's Thomas Wilson, Loop Capital's James Reynolds Jr. and Exelon's Christopher Crane now say they must help society attack the juvenile violence issue head on for the sake of their companies' future success.

Our Approach

Much of what we intend to do reflects the 20-plus years of my and many of my colleagues' experience on such issues as inner-city crime, violence and poverty. Specifically, we plan to:

  • Identify projects where we can apply solid measurement tools to assess what works and doesn't. Applicants for these pilot programs who don't have those measurement capabilities won't get funded. We will tap the most promising and help them strengthen the measurement barometers they will use, if necessary.
  • Look for projects that center on the neighborhoods where most of these at-risk youth reside and that will contribute to the saturation point necessary to have impact at the population level. We will examine closely what has worked to attract businesses and economic development to such neighborhoods as the Pullman community on the South Side 12 miles from the Loop and Kenwood that abuts the University of Chicago's Hyde Park.
  • Encourage innovative interventions that are based in evidence and can estimate their impact in reducing youth violence.

Aiding Neediest Neighborhoods

We absolutely must support the work of the not-for-profit economic-development engine, World Business Chicago, to attract businesses and other institutions to the neediest inner-city neighborhoods to transform them from the economic deserts they are today. They need an infusion of businesses and corporate operations -- such as call centers, regional factories and offices, and technology facilities -- that will train and hire local residents for positions with long-term employment potential.

Like their counterparts elsewhere, Chicago and the State of Illinois have doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to woo major corporations to move there or to stay. These subsidies - two of which exceeded Illinois' basic annual welfare budget -- rarely touch the neighborhoods with the most need. If jobs develop, they are in locales with low unemployment or suburbs where transportation requirements prevent inner-city residents from getting to them.

We're realists. We know our approach will trigger criticism, especially from some of those who routinely receive such funding. But, too often, these past projects simply haven't employed respected measurement tools to assess what difference their projects have made. We just don't know if they're truly effective.

We intend to be disruptors -- in the best sense of that word -- to make a profound difference in addressing the juvenile violence issue with workable strategies and programs that can help Chicago and other cities. Do you have ideas to help us?

Toni Irving, Ph.D., is executive director of Get In Chicago, a new private-public partnership to help find solutions to juvenile violence.