Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Stand up to violence

Chicago Tribune
Stand Up To Violence

It's a sad thing, but Chicago weekends are a time for fear in some neighborhoods.

Hot weather sends people outdoors for grilling, patio parties and going to the beach. But it also brings out the worst in us. Last weekend, at least 29 people were shot in Chicago. The weekend before that, 54 were shot. Several victims died.

Chicago, as it heads into an extended weekend, grapples with how to respond. The City Council and the mayor are moving new gun regulations in response to the Supreme Court decision that undermined the city's long-standing ban on handguns. On the streets, people protest the violence and pray for peace.

Last weekend, some 3,000 Chicagoans organized a public prayer that spanned 10 blocks on 79th Street, from Dobson Avenue to the Dan Ryan Expressway. New Life Covenant Church officials put it together. Mayor Richard Daley joined them. It was an impressive and inspiring event. But then it was over. And the killings went on.

Police have a job to do. But so do the people. They need to do it week in and week out. It would have quite an impact if, this weekend, 3,000 people marched into the offices of community groups and signed up to mentor young people, who are often the perpetrators and the targets of violence.

Mentorship is a critical piece of many anti-violence initiatives, from the Roseland-based Kids Off the Block to the nationally known Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Adults who volunteer their time and knowledge to help kids make a world of difference. Case in point: mentoring was an enormous factor in the success of the first graduating class of the Urban Prep Academy for Young Men. Every graduate has been accepted to college.

Yet community activists tell us the spike in Chicago violence has not led to a spike in volunteers to fill much-needed mentoring positions.

Mentors are especially critical in the summer, when organized activities are few and far between for at-risk youths, said Phillip Jackson, founder and executive director of the Bronzeville-based Black Star Project. Anti-violence programs need many more volunteers than they have available.

"On any given Saturday or Friday night, you might see 2,000 or 3,000 people in the streets praying," Jackson said. "But where is the positive, direct action that could make a difference in our communities?

"We wish we had one volunteer to mentor each of the girls and boys in our program," Jackson said. "As it stands, we only have one volunteer for every 100 children. The little boys in particular need these male mentorship figures, and we can't currently meet that demand."
It is often difficult to find men willing to participate.

Whitney Young Dolphins Making a Difference, a budding mentorship and tutoring group started by Whitney Young High School alumni, has had some early success at this. Nine men and 11 women served as mentors for West Pullman Elementary School students this year. Leaders hope at least 150 men and women join by this time next year.

"We just started and we can do what we need to now," said Bronzeville attorney Keisha Hooks. "But already, the little boys line up early, just waiting for mentors. They know they need the help. They really do."

Of course, an entire army of volunteers, no matter how well-intentioned, can't circumvent all of the issues that contribute to community violence. Chicago needs jobs and better education and strong block organizations and public cooperation with the police.

You may not be able to turn around tomorrow and create a job or a school or stop a crime. But you can step up and help a child, be a mentor.