Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Bearing the Burdens: Gun Violence and Urban Kids

If you care about youth gun violence, I strongly recommend these two episodes of This American Life about Harper High School in Chicago (Part 1 and Part 2).  In the past year, 29 Harper students or recent former students have been killed or injured by guns.  The episodes explore Harper and the surrounding neighborhood from multiple points of view.

One of the interesting finding in the episodes are an urban landscape organized by relatively disorganized, non-heirachical micro gangs.  These aren't the big money narco-trafficking outfits of the 1980s and 1990s, instead they are just kids will a lot of guns, living in neighborhoods that have experienced high levels of violence for generations.  Based on my knowledge of youth gangs before the 1960s, neighborhood gangs in present-day Chicago have reverted to an older model, one common in Chicago between the 1920s and the 1960s.  The difference today is the large number of guns.  Back in the day, guns were not unknown, but relatively uncommon.  Kids fought with fists, and sometimes with bats or knives, and while the effects were frightening, they were less deadly.

When I read about child soldiers or civil wars in other countries, I think about our city kids here in the US.  Even children who are not physically injured or killed, have often lost a loved one or been witness to a murder.  This article by Alex Kotlowitz about the violence experienced by witnesses to gun crimes.  From my own experience, I have seen that human beings are very good at adjusting to a high level of violence in order to function in violent environments.  Unfortunately that functionality comes with a deep personal and social cost.

If you work with young people who live in dangerous neighborhoods, as B and I have, you often hear "You know what happened?  My cousin died," "My uncle got shot," "I saw a body."  For students at the elite college where I teach, any of those experiences would bring visits to the counseling center, chats with the dean, the option of a reduced course load, perhaps a bereavement support group.  For kids who experience the highest levels of violence in this country, their are few of those supports.  Fortunate kids might encounter a sympathetic social worker, pastor, or youth group, but the sort of therapeutic milieu that I that, I think, is needed by a person who has experienced high levels of personal or social violence, simply doesn't exist.  Schools might be part of the solution, but in reality they seem uniquely unsuited to support grieving, frightened, and confused students.  School structures have little flexibility to deal with the normal patterns of acting out and reactivity that come with experiencing and witnessing violence.  With nowhere to turn, young people work it out for themselves, and their solutions are often destructive to themselves or others.

As a society, our reaction to violent communities is much the same as the urban principal who tells a young child who recently saw a relative murdered to "get it together." We have to turn away because we don't know how to fix it, we have to believe that the problem is a disease that only infects certain communities, we don't know how to have painful conversations with young people about why they are chosen to suffer.

This is the place where I should humbly say that I know I don't have all the answers.  Actually, I think the answers are pretty simple and they certainly weren't invented by me: jobs, education, investment in community, utilization of the vast human resources in poor communities, philosophy, radical self-awareness through humanistic education, political involvement, leadership training, conflict resolution (starting with very young children), therapy as needed.  Give me all that and see if it works.  Sadly, I think we live in a society where we have the answers, but we lack the will, and that is a problem for which I don't have an answer.

I know a lot of people who are fighting this fight to get kids safe neighborhood and good schools much harder than I am.  Most of them are burned out, some of them are paying for their good deed with  diabetes and hypertension.  There's never enough money or enough time to do what needs to be done. It is so frustrating to see good people who are trying to make the world better met with "towns make gun, and cities make problems" mentality.

In the midst of so much frustration, I did get a laugh from this purported expose of an NPR piece on Chicago and gun violence (the transcript is helpfully included at the end of the post).  The author is shocked and appalled that NPR identified Father Pfleger of St. Sabina's only as a social activist, and didn't identify academic Cathy Cohen as a lesbian and member of "a homosexual activist group."  Father Pfleger is one of the most prominent lefties on the South Side, and it is hardly a secret that you could put the word "radical" in front of social activist to describe him.  In the case of Cohen, maybe the author of the article will have his way and all people interviewed on NPR will have their sexuality noted.  We know what to call the homosexuals, deviants, and queers, but what do you call everyone else.  Do straight conservatives embrace the term straight, which is language that comes directly from gay communities?  Perhaps they would prefer "sexually typical"?  Gallows humor, my friends, at least I have that.

I've edited this post a couple times already to add info, and will probably do so again.  As I was reflecting on my frustration, and how little I personally do to address something I see as a huge social problem, and how feeling helpless and angry can keep us from doing anything, I though of this film.  The Interrupters here on PBS.  They are walking the walk.

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