Young men of color in Chicago, ages 15 to 34, are more likely to die of homicide than any other cause, according to 2013 data from the Centers for Disease Control. Gun violence claimed the lives of 650 Chicagoans last year and injured more than 3,400 others, according to statistics released by the Chicago Police Department. Life expectancy in Chicago's Austin neighborhood is 16 years lower than in other parts of the city, according to the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago.
Those were among the sobering facts learned at a JUF Women's City Council (WCC) gathering in March. Approximately 100 women came together for the event, "Taking Aim at Gun Violence in Chicago: How You Can Become Part of the Solution," to hear from local experts about ways that they might contribute to an abatement of gun violence in Chicago through work already under way in some of Chicago's most violent neighborhoods.
Teny Gross, who founded the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago (INVC) in 2016, and Rev. Dr. Marcenia Richards, a local pastor, educator, and motivational speaker who established Fierce Women of Faith several years earlier, talked about steps their organizations are taking to address gun violence on the local and state levels-and how WCC members and friends could assist in their efforts. They were joined by Jane Charney, director of Domestic Affairs of JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), who facilitated the discussion.
"As Jews, as Chicagoans, we cannot ignore the people impacted by gun violence," said Charney at the outset. "Jewish tradition teaches us that if you save one life, you save the world."
Gross, an Israeli-American who served in the Israeli Defense Forces, outlined INVC's multi-pronged approach to curbing violence in Chicago. Much of it, he said, entails creating support systems for people in communities with the highest levels of violence-particularly for the youth in those areas-and developing better relationships with police and other local law enforcement officials. It also involves reaching out to victims to make sure that their voices are heard and needs are met.
"This is not flashy work, showing up every night when there is a shooting," Gross said. "It takes dogged determination."
A community's failure to act, he observed, will result in tremendous costs to the entire society. "We're paying for a hotel called jail," said Gross.
Richards, whose Fierce Women of Faith trains women of all religious backgrounds to work for peace through advocacy and develops anti-violence educational programs for children of all ages, said coalition building was vital in efforts to stem gun violence in Chicago neighborhoods such as Austin, Roseland, and Englewood, where there is a "common thread of hopelessness."
"When people see all groups coming together," she continued, "that has made a significant difference."
Richards implored WCC members and friends to visit afflicted communities and make a difference in the lives of young people through mentoring, tutoring, and other programs. Volunteers and community members should pay particular attention to young girls, she said, who are often overlooked in discussions about gun violence, since the vast majority of those who kill and injure with guns, as well their victims, are young men of color.
Nevertheless, both Gross and Richards agreed, females are as greatly affected by gun violence as males, since the trauma left in its aftermath is both gender- and age-neutral. Most of the five- and six-year-olds with whom she has worked, added Richards, have observed gun violence.
In closing the meeting, Charney reminded those gathered that there was one more activity in which they could make a positive difference: advocacy. She noted that the State Legislature is debating gun safety bills including licensing gun dealers, banning "bump stock," and a lethal violence order of protection and investments in mental health. On its annual Advocacy Mission in April, the Jewish Federation will talk about increasing the safety of our community and other communities through legislation in meetings with the Governor, the Speaker, and other legislators.
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.