Community groups look to combat the traumatic cycle of gun violence

By Vivian Kaleta, Editor of Community and Culture

Payton’s own March For Our Lives chapter meets during enrichment. 

On Tuesday, January 10, 2023, Governor JB Pritzker officially signed Illinois’s assault weapon ban into law, making Illinois the ninth state to outlaw such weapons. The passing comes just 6 months after the Highland Park Fourth of July parade mass shooting.

Conflict is rising, however, as sheriffs in 80 Illinois counties say they will not enforce the ban claiming that it “is a clear violation of the 2nd Amendment.” Law professionals predict that it is “highly likely for there to be justices inclined to strike [the bill] down.” 

With the ban’s viability and effectiveness in question, relying on political action as a solution may not be feasible. Recognizing this, Chicago’s communities are taking initiative themselves.  

Gun violence and its effects are “never accounted for in teacher training,” according to Mrs. Childress-Price, a previous science teacher at Payton. Ch​​ildress-Price experienced the effects of gun violence both growing up on the west side of Detroit, and now living on the west side of Chicago. Both neighborhoods experience disproportionate amounts of violence.

Childress-Press recalled seeing a shift in the rise of gun violence during her childhood when Detroit’s war on drugs intensified. An increase in gang activity was said to be the main contributor.   

When she taught at schools on Chicago’s west side, she explained that there were incidents involving violence. “I’ve had students hide behind my car once because someone had opened fire right outside the school building. My car has bullet holes in it.”

In another event, Childress-Press witnessed someone being shot right outside her classroom window in the middle of teaching a chemistry class. “It was almost normal, even though these things are never normal. But it became a frequent experience.” 

Seeing the need for change,  Childress-Press and her students stepped up. In one of the schools she taught in, they created a group called Peace Warriors, a national organization focused on addressing violence in schools. They met with victims from the Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting in Florida and traveled the country with Arne Duncan, creator of Chicago CRED, giving talks on gun violence. 

“I had all the support in the world as a teacher to start this work.” Childress-Press explained. “They gave us schedule changes so that we could do things like meet during advisory or have special advisories for peace circles, talking circles, [or] training. We had training three or four times a year on nonviolent tactics, and ways that you can intervene and interrupt violence. We did peace marches [as a] part of March For Our Lives. We had big festivals to create nonviolent, peaceful places. It was beautiful work.”

Mr. Bradley Johnson is Director of External Affairs at BUILD Chicago, a youth development organization that focuses on violence prevention and gang intervention. Before BUILD, Johnson worked at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. This is where he said felt prompted to focus on violence protection.

During his time at the center, Johnson worked with young people from as young as eight to those charged as adults. Johnson described the center as a “revolving door.” Many kids who were approved for release soon came right back.

“Every support system these young people had, failed them. This is what precipitates when you investigate violence becoming an issue. It’s an issue of all the system failures.” Johnson went on to explain that even if the reform system was corrected, community situations aren’t. According to him, the real solution relies on investment into community well-being. 

Within Johnson’s experience in building relationships with young people living in violence-prone communities, Johnson stressed that trauma does not necessarily stem from being physically involved in it. “It’s knowing that it happens which is what creates fear. It’s the experience of not being able to just be a kid when you actually have to worry about or imagine or think about just the likelihood of violence, there’s always going to be this fear that you have to carry with you when you can’t let your guard down.”

Young people, according to Johnson, are put within a bubble of fear and lack of support, without many options to break outside of that. Throughout Chicago, neighborhoods lack resources and infrastructure to support the holistic development of young people. That is why BUILD specifically works to create opportunities for young people to take part in and form interests. “Put guns down and say no to drugs does not work at all.” Johnson explained, “What really works is the offering of alternative paths to succeed in life.”

BUILD takes its participants on cultural tours, college tours, and field trips. These trips put BUILD’s participants “in front of all types of places and people so that learning can occur.” An activity that is especially unique is BUILD’s art program. “Art is a way that we help young people take what they’re feeling, that they may not have the vocabulary and the words to use to express, and release  themselves and their pain through creation.”

“You cannot erase trauma, but you can heal from trauma.” Johnson said, “Never take all the types of choices and decisions you can freely make for granted. A lot of people can’t do that.”

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