We watched with grief and sadness the tragic shooting of a Northwestern University student in our own backyard weeks ago. There are no words to describe the pain this student’s family and friends must be feeling, and the fear surely experienced by other students in the area. No life should be cut short by gun violence, and no life should be taken by senseless and misguided fighting between individuals in our community. Undoubtedly, there will be politicians, community advocates and organizers, police, businesses, and others from inside and outside our community who step up to make proclamations, decisions, and requests for change. Before they do, though, we ask you to pause and remember the humanity standing on the opposite end of the gun.
As people who have lived and worked with individuals involved in gang activity in Rogers Park for quite some time, we want to bring one voice to the forefront, before the swirl of chaos comes: the voice of those involved in violence in this neighborhood. We do not know who the shooter was, but we do know they are an individual created in the image of a God who embodies Love to the very core. We know they are a person who is gifted in some ways and lacking in others. And we know they live in a community that does not offer a level playing field for all its members.
We have seen time and time again the issues of gang violence and gun violence come to the forefront of our community’s discourse. These conversations are necessary, but can be polarizing and they by no means offer broad and easy solutions. Too often we leave the ones involved in neighborhood violence out of the conversation completely. We demonize them, stereotype them, and pretend there are simple and unmalleable reasons they are involved in criminal activity and violence in the first place. This is not to condone the act of shooting someone. Or of committing any crime. Or of looking to the arms of a gang for bonding and community. This is a request to reconsider each individual for who they are, the totality of their life, not just one action that makes headlines.
We simply believe each life represents a unique set of past experiences, current contexts, and future outlooks. It does us no good to think of individuals as “bad people” who are permanently fixed as such. This view only causes us to embrace policies and community actions that have failed time and time again. It creates a system of people trying to solve contextual problems with one-dimensional solutions. This view can also divide us along racial, class, and geographic lines when, in reality, we all have more in common than news headlines help us realize.
What if we could walk with individuals in the neighborhood, helping them empower themselves to build better lives and a better community? What if we could strip away the lure and ease of falling into gang activity by showing our neighbors love that holds no record of wrongdoing? What if we could create effective policies and policing strategies while also making sure each individual knew they were a worthwhile child of God?
Our work at C24/7 is trying to do just that. We build relationships with children and families in the neighborhood, with the first and only goal being a strong relationship that lets them know they are a valuable human being, loved by their neighborhood family. This feeling of worth is unusual for our neighbors, as they are too often told, if only implicitly, their voices, their lives, and their feelings are worth less than others in our city. Relationships — truly getting to know each other and work through life together — form a base for empowerment.
This approach is not popular. It provides a long-term view for solving problems, and the phrasing sounds soft compared to “increased police supervision” or “violence prevention task forces.” But both sides are needed. Both sides can work.
We invite you to consider the lives of our neighbors. Consider the good and the bad in each person, while remembering each choice helps define us, but no one choice defines us forever. Pray, support local businesses in the neighborhood, volunteer at organizations who work with individuals needing an extra layer of support to become empowered citizens, help provide our students with the resources they need to succeed in school, and try to build relationships with people from the neighborhood in whatever way you can.
We are each unique. We are each broken. Together, we can build a safer community for all of us.