Community-based solutions used as Chicago endures two public health crises

'Don't shoot'
March 2020 marked the first month without a school shooting in the U.S. since 2002. But while some schools remain remote amid COVID-19, gun violence persists in Chicago and nationwide. (Stephen Melkisethian/Creative Commons)

By Monique Beals
Medill Reports  

Kirah Moe’s car was shot in front of her South Shore home just a week before she hosted a “peace party” for the neighborhood’s children. A Hyde Park restaurant employee bonded with Mary Stonor Saunders’ 3-year-old son but never returned to work after being fatally shot on his day off. In what’s expected to be the city’s deadliest year in two decades, Chicagoans need not look far for people who turn gun violence statistics into familiar faces. 

“I took it so personal, because I love the city of Chicago so much,” said Moe, a South Shore native and community organizer, after her car was shot. “It kind of discouraged me, but then, it gave me more of a reason to actually do something.” 

Activists like Moe believe that local, community-based leadership is a fundamental part of combating gun violence. It is a tactic organizations across the city are using especially as they engage with at-risk community members individually. 

“We understand that the only way we can fix this issue is through the beloved community,” said Joshua Coakley, senior director of outreach at Target Area Development Corporation, an organization that works in five South Side neighborhoods heavily impacted by gun violence.

Coakley describes his approach as one that employs “credible messaging”. This means potential threats are monitored and ideally prevented by credible community members who have reformed their lives after prior gun violence involvement or people with lived experiences who can relate to these community issues.

Joshua Coakley
Joshua Coakley is pictured at work with Target Area Development Corporation. Outreach workers like Coakley are deemed essential and continue their work during the pandemic. (Bridget Hatch/Communities Partnering 4 Peace)

Just this morning, Coakley received a call thanking him for a warning he provided a week ago about a shooting that came to fruition at a South Side dance studio this week. 

“The work never stops,” Coakley said. “We don’t want to respond to a shooting. We want to prevent a shooting.”

Neighborly community efforts like this grow complicated as COVID-19 infections overwhelm Chicago. As of Nov. 13., 1 in 18 Chicagoans actively had COVID-19, and the pandemic’s economic fallout has not helped violence in the Windy City, according to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. 

“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant economic downturn have exacerbated violence, and we have experienced an unacceptable increase in shootings, domestic violence, and homicides since the pandemic began. We must act now to reverse this trend—lives are literally on the line,” Lightfoot said in a letter released with her comprehensive plan to reduce violence in Chicago.

However, Coakley and his team of outreach workers are deemed essential workers and are among the many organizers fighting Chicago’s gun violence plague while also living through a global pandemic.

“We take a public health approach [to violence]. We understand that in order for a disease to stop what you have to do is stop the transmission of the disease,” Coakley said. “At the end of the day, we never stop working because the violence is still out here.” 

Paradoxically, Illinois has some of the strongest gun laws in the country including universal background checks, minimum age laws, waiting periods, and open carry regulations. Yet, Chicago’s murder rate has increased by 52% since last year, and the city remains among the worst in the country for gun violence as guns are trafficked in from neighboring states, according to the Giffords Law Center.

Because of this, Moe and other community organizers took action working collaboratively with each other and Lightfoot to establish Hit the Hood, a peace initiative aimed at getting the community involved in providing safe spaces on holidays like the Fourth of July and Halloween when gun violence is more likely. 

“Because I live in South Shore, I hear the gunfire that goes off,” Moe said. “It saddens me because there is so much more to do. We are literally maybe seven minutes from the lake walking.” 

Meanwhile, a seven minute walk from the lake on the North Side would take someone to Chicago’s Ritz Carlton hotel or through affluent streets lined with multi-million dollar greystones. But in notoriously segregated Chicago, gun violence disproportionately impacts communities of color.

At least 95% of victims in fatal shootings this year were people of color, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. Additionally, just 15 neighborhoods in the city’s South and West Sides accounted for 50% of all shootings in the past three years, according to Lightfoot’s plan. 

Local organizations like Strides for Peace are attempting to bring the divided city together to combat gun violence with their Race Against Gun Violence. While the race was virtual this year due to COVID-19, in 2019, 36% of attendees were from Chicago’s wealthiest zip codes, and 34% were from Chicago’s poorest zip codes, according to Strides for Peace Executive Director Mary Stonor Saunders. 

Strides for Peace also tackles gun violence with a community-based approach working to financially support and bring together existing local organizations to increase their collective impact. Looking forward, Saunders believes that changing the power dynamic to be more community-led in the non-profit sector is critically important in structurally addressing gun violence. 

“The pandemic has really created a window of empathy and understanding in the philanthropic community and the government community,”  Saunders said. “The community organization or the people receiving [the funding] on the front lines know what’s best for their community.”

Activists, community members, organizations, and local government continue to call for community leadership and brace for the long battle ahead to make Chicago safer. 

“This is not short term. This is not an overnight fix,” Coakley said. “We have to stop thinking we are going to put a band-aid on something, and it’ll be healed. It’s going to take a long term investment and a strategic plan that’s implemented by everyone.” 

Monique Beals is a government and politics reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @monique_beals.