Collectively, communities in any part of the world thrive when a sense of unity is combined with care and effort on behalf of those who occupy its borders. This sentiment is incredibly important to recognize because it allows individuals to have a strong understanding of how they can contribute to success; when looking to create a strong foundation, the members of a community hold the most influence in guaranteeing growth and progress. Working towards this understanding allowed me to define my passion for the community that I have always belonged to, the south side of Chicago, and seek out ways to help it grow. Though it has long been synonymous with death, violence and negativity, Chicago’s south side is currently a hub of massive talent, potential and opportunity that spreads across its many neighborhoods; in many ways, the people who occupy it represent the best that the city has to offer. I firmly believe that the people of the south side deserve more than the current political landscape has given them, and as such have taken it upon myself to address its biggest issue and search for ways to rectify it.
In order to best present my proposals to help the south side, it is necessary to explain the type of leader that I am in order to explain my chosen path. As a former public defender and current community outreach leader, I hold a long record of serving the public across the city of Chicago and in several other cities across the country. I have dedicated my life to creating growth in communities that need it most desperately because I believe that on a foundational level every community and its members has the right to decency and fairness. Despite this, I have seen how many city governments are systematically designed to reduce the rights and opportunities of people who are in most need of help; this can present itself in a lack of public funds, ingrained bigotry and retracted resources. As a member of Chicago’s south side, having been born and working here for the large majority of my life, I have been a first-hand witness to the failures that this community has unfortunately had, and have seen the true extent of the damage it has suffered. It fueled my decision to operate in service to the public and has guided my current ideals as to how it can be fixed; the most important thing to recognize is that putting power back in the hands of the community is crucial.
Quick analyzation of the social landscape in Chicago reveals that the biggest problem the city is collectively facing today is increasingly deadly gang activity. Chicago has garnered itself a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities not only in Illinois, but also in the entire country; as an example of this, the city has been dubbed “Chi-raq” for its murder toll that surpassed the number of casualties in the Iraq war. Violence has become the norm in the city, and though it is painful to acknowledge the truth is that a large percent of this violence stems from gang activity originating in the south side. This is significant for several reasons, but the most obvious is that it gives those who are looking to help the situation an origin that they can address; focusing our efforts allows us to tackle the issue at its roots instead of merely brushing the surface. Acknowledging this origin also reemphasizes the importance of community involvement and interaction; those who are involved in gang violence are ultimately members of the south side and as such are familiar with the issue in a way that no third party can be.
Because of its established history of violence and its long-standing struggles with combatting gang violence, it is not uncommon for outsiders to wonder why gang violence is still worth mentioning. People believe that because the issue has not been solved in the years that it has been present that it should be forgotten, ignored or abandoned in pursuit of efforts that seem more realistically attainable. Though they are slightly cynical questions, the concerns of these people are rooted in places of genuine concern, and I therefore argue that the discussion of gang violence on the south side of Chicago is still necessary because it can be realistically eradicated. It is important to understand that the issue cannot be simply ignored, regardless of whether or not that is a desire for some people. The destruction of our community has been so widespread that there is hardly a place that remains unaffected across these neighborhoods; schools, churches, community centers and homes have all been affected by gang violence in either direct or indirect ways. Gang violence can also not be forgotten because of the lasting impression it has had on our community members. Families have been torn apart due to struggles that they often have had no part in, and the amount of lives lost has reached unthinkable numbers. Ultimately, however, we cannot abandon our efforts in combatting gang violence because the south side is capable of defeating it through its combined efforts.
Currently, the response to gang violence on the south side has been largely symbolic and has held little noticeable impact in the community. In response to the criticism of the rest of the country, the City of Chicago has actively chosen to repudiate the crimes that have been committed in the name of gang violence, including the hundreds of murders, trafficking of drugs and widespread corruption of youth. Their efforts to rectify the situation have resulted in an increase of police funding to directly combat the gang members who occupy the streets; police officers have ramped up the number of arrests and interrogation techniques in recent years in what they believe is a strong campaign to end gang violence. These responses have been almost entirely inadequate, however, as the city has failed to reduce or detain the gang violence and crime in the south side, and in some cases, has even amplified the consequences. Recent studies conducted by the United States Department of Justice, for example, have concluded that the Chicago Police Department has been undeniably guilty of creating a system conducive to violations of human rights. They have fostered racist attitudes, unsanctioned interrogation techniques, and have had little to no impact on the true issue of gang violence. In essence, the city has been unable to recognize why gang violence has persisted and has therefore failed its citizens.
Because gang violence is an issue that many people are familiar with or in some way feel connected to, both in the south side and beyond it, there are individuals who are passionate about the issue. While no one can say that the community is inherently violent and there is no way of escaping this predisposition, some individuals have created arguments that seek to rationalize the existence and persistence of gang violence. One of these arguments is that the south side of Chicago has gangs and gang violence ingrained into its history and is therefore more open to embracing gang culture into new generations. This, however, is entirely false, as it is an idea that requires individuals to believe that south side community members enjoy the presence of gang violence in their lives and want to keep it alive. In fact, the opposite is quite true when speaking to long-time gang members; it is often these people themselves who most hate the gangs they are a part of and desire a better future for their children and generations to come. Another argument is that the south side is unwilling to cooperate with the police and therefore impedes their job; however, this is also proven to be false. While there are certainly individuals who are wary of police, the vast majority of community members see the police as a manifestation of their tax dollars and place trust in them; their purpose, ultimately, is to serve the public. As was aforementioned, the police department itself is often the source of its own shortcomings. I believe that the fault lies not within the members of the south side, but in a fundamental misunderstanding of those who fall victim to the established issue.
It is undeniable that gang violence is very ingrained into the south side; however, what allows it to continue is the fact that many of those who join gangs and participate in crimes are disenfranchised and have very few options. Gang recruitment begins at a young age, with cases of gang involvement beginning as young as age eight or nine. The reason for this is that these young children are often part of broken households, neighborhoods, or failed school systems that promise them very few opportunities in life. For these individuals, gangs provide a family structure and a means of escaping a bleak future that would otherwise swallow them whole. The idea that people join gangs in order to satisfy personal desires to do harm unto others is dangerous and an unwarranted demonization of an entire community. Instead, what this decision actually represents is a lack of options and a failure of the larger city that they are a part of which would otherwise keep them away from these gangs.
Throughout the course of my involvement with the south side, both as a community member and community leader, I have come to understand that the perpetuation of gang violence is due to a lack of faith in the community members of the south side. Because of their economic and social status, the city has allowed legislation to pass that has defunded neighborhoods all across the south side in order to keep its upper-class citizens satisfied. Despite an increase in police funding, large parts of the south side remain unprotected and are often void of police presence, making crime easy to commit. In 2016, a total of over fifty public schools were closed across south side neighborhoods in one of the most egregious attacks on education in recent memory. After school programs are largely underfunded and unsupported by the city, despite the potential they hold in keeping children away from compromising situations they may face in their neighborhoods. These examples serve to exemplify the lack of faith the city sees in the south side, but it offers a clear blueprint for those of us working towards saving it.
My personal belief is that in order to combat and ultimately eradicate gang violence on the south side, there must be a shift in approach that emphasizes youth outreach. While many of the city’s most dangerous gang members are long-established gang leaders who are grown adults, removing them from power would make very little long-term impact. Arresting one leader merely ensures the rise of another, and it is highly unlikely that any long-time gang member will change their mental attitude regardless of city efforts. Instead, a redistribution of city funds must be implemented, with a specific emphasis on improving the state of affairs on the south side. This includes improving the public education system, communal programs, and infrastructure. Additionally, it would require an overhaul of the Chicago Police Department in order to create a new, more effective police force that distances itself from the outdated and ineffective techniques of the past.
Should I succeed in my efforts to combat the gang violence on the south side, the city would be able to reap the benefits of a more unified city. While the goal of this campaign to end gang violence is primarily to save lives, the benefits of a safer city would be felt in almost every aspect imaginable. By creating a better school system, Chicago will be able to provide a more competitive amount of successful high school and college graduates, which are rewarded on a federal level by the government. Tourism would likely rise as the dangerous reputation the city holds disappeared, and this would create a massive amount of revenue for the city; tourism is already a very significant economic factor and amplifying it would only benefit us. Additional funds could be used to help those most in need, such as homeless people, the economically displaced and communities with poor infrastructure. Businesses would flock to Chicago in an effort to join the widespread success it is gaining and this would create an influx of jobs for those who might be out of the work force. Ultimately, gang violence has an impact on the city for multiple reasons, but the most important impact to recognize is that it keeps the city divided and success at bay. Working to end it would create a better community, and that would ultimately contribute to a better city.