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Anti-violence activists share ways to build a safer Chicago

Drawing from their experience on the ground in Chicago’s most affected neighborhoods, leading anti-violence experts spoke to nearly 100 Jewish philanthropic and community leaders on May 1 at “Combating Violence in Chicago.” 

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Gigi Pritzker of the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation and Pastor Chris Harris Sr. of Bright Star Community Outreach were among the panel speakers at the summit. (Photo by Robert F. Kusel)

When it comes to finding solutions for gun violence in Chicago, activists and researchers are promoting collaborative and holistic approaches. Drawing from their experience on the ground in Chicago's most affected neighborhoods, these leading experts spoke to nearly 100 Jewish philanthropic and community leaders on May 1 at "Combating Violence in Chicago." 

Co-sponsored by the Center for Jewish Philanthropy, JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council, and the Jewish Women's Foundation, the summit featured Gigi Pritzker, president of the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation; Dr. Sharon Holman, president of the Sinai Urban Health Institute at Mt. Sinai Hospital; Pastor Chris Harris Sr., founder and CEO of Bright Star Community Outreach and The Urban Resilience Network (TURN) Center; and Teny Gross, executive director of the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. 

The idea for "Combating Violence in Chicago" came from a commitment to educate and engage Chicago's Jewish community on the issue of community violence and how it affects the most vulnerable Chicagoans. The goal was for attendees to gain a deeper understanding of effective strategies being used to combat violence in the city, said JCRC Chair David T. Brown, who emceed the event.   

"We hold firm to our Jewish values that teach us we are all responsible for one another," said JUF President Dr. Steven B. Nasatir in his opening remarks. "And we must remember that if any one child is not safe, then none of our children are safe."

Nasatir also announced that the Federation will soon launch a multi-pronged systemic violence prevention program, formed with the assistance of Pritzker and her family foundation and in partnership with United Way, Sinai Health System and the Institute for Non-Violence Chicago. The program will be funded through a trust connected to the Federation. 

Beyond stories of individuals affected by the trauma of violence, the speakers focused on community-based solutions, which require a new way of looking at the problem. The speakers agreed that gun violence is a symptom of a systemic lack of resources for the affected neighborhoods.

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Panelists (left to right) Dr. Sharon Holman, JCRC Chair David T. Brown, Teny Gross, Gigi Pritzker and Pastor Chris Harris Sr. (Photo by Robert F. Kusel)

"It will take our whole city to combat this problem," said Pritzker, whose foundation focuses on supporting innovative and collaborative approaches to urban problems. 

Holman presented findings of the Chicago Gun Violence Research Collaborative, a group of academics and organizations processing data and drawing conclusions for policy and action recommendations. One of the most striking data points, she said, is the nearly 40 percent rate in post-traumatic stress disorder among residents of the city's most violence-stricken neighborhoods, located primarily on the South and West sides of Chicago. 

That's four to 10 times higher than in neighborhoods without shootings or where shootings are rare. 

The Sinai Urban Health Institute, which houses the Collaborative, engages the entire community to figure out what solutions might work. 

"Solutions need to be driven by the community and have to be responsive to the community's needs," Holman said. "All sectors -- law enforcement, healthcare, education, etc. -- must be in involved in comprehensive solution-building through a sustainable, smart and cost-effective approach."

The idea for Harris' TURN Center came about following the pastor's trip to Israel in 2012. While there, he encountered NATAL, a program that provides psychological counseling to victims of terror. The TURN Center employs the NATAL model with a twist: It trains faith leaders in counseling techniques to create a safe space for those with mental health issues related to surviving or witnessing violence. 

So far, 60 faith leaders have participating in the trainings provided by NATAL staff, who spent five weeks in Chicago in late 2016. 

"While we always say that community-based solutions have to be by us and for us, it doesn't have to be just us," Harris said. 

To that end, TURN Center partners with Northwestern and University of Chicago hospitals as well as with the United Way to provide counseling, parent education, advocacy, and workforce development and mentoring. 

Harris encouraged attendees to engage with organizations already working on solutions and to advocate for a more equitable allocation of resources to vulnerable neighborhoods. 

For Gross, his involvement in violence prevention has roots in Israel, where he grew up as a grandchild of a Holocaust victim. He served in the Israel Defense Forces and then turned to the peace movement before immigrating to the United States as a student. 

The Institute for Nonviolence Chicago follows on the heels of similar projects in Boston and Providence, Rhode Island. The Institute focuses on street and school outreach, and building strong relationships with high-risk individuals and community stakeholders to defuse and de-escalate conflicts. 

Working primarily in Chicago's Austin neighborhood, Gross and his team respond to shootings within one hour of being notified, provide individual case management, collect and evaluate data, and advocate for victims of violence while working to reduce retaliatory violence. 

"Violence is a tool we cannot control," he said. "We can unleash violence but we can become slaves to it."

Working with a network of partners, including law enforcement and community-based anti-violence groups, Gross hopes to change the environment in Austin and create a consistent, positive anti-violence culture. 

The speakers also shared other ways to get involved beyond supporting existing efforts. Among them are attending open listening sessions being held by Sinai Urban Health Institute as well as joining peace-building faith community efforts. 

"The issues are longstanding and systemic," Brown said. "The Jewish community needs to stand up for how we can invest in the entire Chicago community and collectively make a difference."

Jane Charney is the director of domestic affairs at JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council.


"While we always say that community-based solutions have to be by us and for us, it doesn't have to be just us. "

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