Voices of Change — What’s Going On: Getting In to Communities to Understand What Works

 |   Toni Irving, Executive Director of Get IN Chicago

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– Microsoft Chicago Staff


In 1971, lamenting a world of violence and brutality, Marvin Gaye released one of the greatest songs of all time, “What’s Going On.” This song resonated with me during my childhood, and I continue to see its themes reflected in Chicago.  

Like many, I wonder what’s going on in my city. In our communities of concentrated poverty, Chicago’s violence is up, opportunities are slow to reach the south and west sides, the state remains without a budget, teachers plan to strike, and people continue to struggle with safety, distrust, and disconnection. How can we move forward? I would like to start by suggesting we go back.  

Picket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality

When I was in elementary school and the teachers went on strike, my excitement over an unexpected vacation was short-lived. Much to my dismay, my mother, a fourth grade teacher, rounded up all the kids on our block for daily school in our house. While I saw my mother’s move as preventing free time and fun, I now see that she was actually relieving community members of the stress of finding child care. This was a time when neighbors looked out for each other. From Mr. Rufus, who was always on hand to adjust attitudes and bike chains, to Mrs. Rowland, who always made her yard available for basketball and volleyball, our network protected us and kept us engaged.

Research shows that these old neighborhood habits may hold the key to new opportunities. In particular, community intergenerational networks facilitate advice, healthy child rearing, and informal supervision of children – all factors that contribute to social cohesion and foster trust and solidarity among residents. Harvard Economist Raj Chetty calls these Neighborhood Effects, and he is one of many researchers to determine them an important predictor of youth violence and crime. His work has linked these activities to reduced homicide, reduced fear of crime, and increases in a young person’s ability to avoid violent confrontations.

THE CHICAGO COMMUNITY TRUST_2015  Photography for the Trust's Centennial Photograph Book project by Photojournalist John H. White.

As a private fund with a public mission, Get IN Chicago is dedicated to discovering the most effective ways to reduce youth violence. We invest in promising programs steeped in evidence. A key goal is to help funders assess which programs offer the best return on their community investment as it relates to acutely high-risk populations. At the same time, we provide technical assistance to community-based organizations that enable them to better meet the needs of disadvantaged youth and their families.

You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some understanding here today

Last year, GIC launched a youth baseball league in an effort to build trust between the community and police. Our findings, however, showed that the Englewood Police Youth Baseball League did much more than that. The data is in, and league participation was also associated with youths’ perceptions of greater empowerment, ability to make a difference in their community, and sense of their own agency. These encouraging results renew our assessment that community-based, community-led programs may additionally cultivate youth leadership skills and a broader commitment to better their neighborhoods.

CUL site visit 

In that vein, Get IN Chicago recently announced its Community Collaboration and Resident Empowerment (CCRE) initiative. Collaboratives from five communities hardest hit by poverty and violence on Chicago’s south and west sides received awards. The grants will provide planning dollars to convene and generate ideas from people whose lived realities tell the most complete story of what’s going on.  

Talk to me / so you can see / What’s going on

Get IN Chicago operates from the premise that crime is the result of unfavorable conditions within a community and not solely the actions of individuals within a community. We also believe that getting in to a community for a conversation is the best place to start effecting change. We believe in the strength of Chicago and the collective brainpower, resilience, and commitment of our city’s residents. We’re ready to listen and hear what’s going on. Moreover, we’re ready to work together to find a way forward.

Toni Irving, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the newly formed Get In Chicago, an innovative public/private partnership that seeks to strengthen communities hardest hit by poverty and violence.

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