by Rev. Julian DeShazier
CHICAGO – May 13, 2014
When the Chicago Community Trust called and asked me to help moderate one of their “On the Table” discussions happening around the city, I wanted to know more about my audience and whether this would be a conversation worth moving out of bed on my day off. Our beloved city is known for talkies (not the movies, the kinda-judgy descriptor for leaders – politicians and pastors especially – who do nothing but talk), and I don’t want to be another talkie. In other words: I’m in the mood for conversations that might matter after they are finished.
I trust Chicago Community Trust, their experience in the city has garnered them critical social capital, and their “On the Table” series featured 1000+ meal-time conversations – breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all on May 12th – about the present and future of the city. The hook is they wanted to hear from citizens of Chicago. This sounds responsible: I’m in.
The Juvenile Temporary Detention Center – or as we called it as kids, “The Audy Home” – is the largest youth detention center in the country. By some, it has also been labeled the worst in the country. Why would anybody want to hear from these kids?
Because on the North side, they’ll be talking about the violence problem. And on the South side, the violence problem. And everyone is talking about the problem, and talking about the kids as if they are a problem. But no one wants to talk to the kids.
***In some youth studies circles, it is considered wrong to call youth “kids.” Something about baby goats or something. I get the point. But these are not criminals. These are not gangsters. These are kids. They need to be heard. If anything will change in this city, they are the most important voices to be heard in this process. //ends rant***
This is one of, if not the only conversation in the city to NOT have pictures, for obvious reasons. But when you first walk into their…um…living space?…you notice something immediately that I was not expecting to find: this is a SCHOOL! The hallways have banners about excellence and achievement and writing skills. There are classrooms, and a chapel that doubles as a multipurpose room. One assumption about detention centers is nobody working there wants to work there. That’s false. It is more true to say that everyone there is invested in the kids, and also probably beleaguered by the constant turnaround, the face of violence, and watching children treat their own life and potential with such ignorance. (Admittedly, a staff member told me this). And that’s what it is: Ignorance. They don’t know what they truly have in talent or identity; they don’t know life exists outside the boundaries of poverty and pandemic abuse, or what it looks like, and when they do, it’s the wealthy of this city that want nothing to do with them.
See, that was an assumption too. The truth is there are many assumptions, about JTDC and the City’s response to our children, and the children themselves. I bet if you ask a citizen of Chicagoland what the violence is all about, they’ll tell you one of the following: Money, Drugs, Gangbanging. The more critical theorist will add that violence is merely a byproduct of pervasive hopelessness.
My experience at the Juvenile Center was one of breaking assumptions. For example, when we asked them what they planned to be doing at 25, most…no, wait…100% of them said they would either be in college, pursuing a career using their talent, or working somewhere (even if it was a job they didn’t like 😉 ). Other options were “incarcerated” and “jobless,” which got 0 respondents. So there is actually a ton of hope. These kids want something for their lives. Many of them don’t know what it looks like, yet. Could we help?
So the gangs. The gangs replace healthy families. Nope. These kids are home and in gangs, and there is a lot of confusion about gangs. In my close conversation with 4 of the youth (hard to say “youth” to describe a young man facing life at 18, heartbreaking actually), they don’t have much sense of the Folks and People divisions, they recognize that the anti-gang efforts of the city have only turned gangs against each other; every block is a new set, and this makes the violence MUCH worse. (We didn’t know this in the early 90’s because we didn’t talk to gang members. They weren’t people to us). The kids have no real relationship to gangs. In their own words: “It’s just something to do.”
The same thing with drugs. Weed is ubiquitous (that means everywhere, I can attest to this), so there is a lot of drug use, and some of them think it helps them stay out of trouble. There needs to be more education on this. But the kids I met really don’t want to sell drugs. It’s easy to do, and it’s a quick buck, but these aren’t potential kingpins. Our conversation revealed that these aren’t kids thinking about getting money but really thinking about their place in society. This is a place. (The old “got a baby to feed” line is also widely FALSE). ALL the kids I heard from were actually leaving drugs alone because they saw imminent death, and only got arrested because they were trying on other identities – mostly, petty armed thief or guy with a gun – and got caught.
Aside: another quote directly from our children: “It’s no point in having a gun if you aren’t going to use it.” He didn’t want a gun; he felt he had to have one, and that meant he had to use it. Let these words inform our state’s gun policy, especially carry-and-conceal.
When we actually take the time to listen, we learn that these are children with unborn dreams, rushed to a broken sense of maturity, and failed by educational, economic, and political systems around them. We learn that they aren’t searching to become the next Al Capone but end up here because they took the first readily available opportunity. Now they want out, but aren’t sure how. Could we help?
HORSES AND FOXES: The City’s Next Move
The response to all of this is confounding. I, and probably the Chicago Community Trust as well, left with a renewed sense of humanity. It was good to hear from our city’s children. It was RIGHT to include them. 10 of the city’s tables could have been between there and 26th/California (the County Jail)…easy. But what we do with this information is most important. I’d like to make a suggestion, using the animal kingdom as our guide.
The city is in a rush to fix this issue, as if violence is a technical problem like a broken light bulb. We’ll try something, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. But it’s got to be ONE THING, right? Gangs, Drugs, Guns. Schools. Some THING, not many things in concert. This is wrong thinking, and our kids are telling us plainly. We are the wandering horse, which at a certain point wants nothing more than to return home. Have you seen them gallop, and stumble? Such anxiety: Horses ignore everything when they want to get home. It seems now the City of Chicago is in a “race for the barn.”
This is truly an animal of a problem, and like many actual animals we are taking a linear approach. Perhaps too linear. Take for example the Arctic Fox, which after having babies knows only one thing: she needs to feed them. But she won’t search near her den, and most animals and humans have something called a “home range.” No: she is willing to wander. And the fox wanders into new territory. They don’t hibernate. They discover. And the fox doesn’t have a home, per se, or a tradition, except that when it gets cold, they wander intently to discover new opportunities. The possibilities of wandering.
I believe our city needs to become more like the fox. We need the courage to wander, to listen to unheard voices – the courage to be not so sure. We need to not hunker down and hibernate but always be active, and active doing a lot of different things. We don’t know what the barn looks like, how can we race for it? What needs to happen to, with, and for our children requires someone to say, finally, hopefully, “I don’t know.” And let’s discover together.
The linear approach of “fix the schools and we’ll be…” or “get rid of guns and…” is failing thousands of incarcerated men and women. Our children have no home and no range it’s time for us to start acting like it. We churches and leaders and thinkers and writers and artists must have the courage to wander. The barn has proven to be an oasis. The entire City of Chicago must now become smart like a fox. Can we help?