Former University of Chicago sociologist Forrest Stuart spent months hanging out with gang members on the South Side in an effort to understand how social media, particularly the proliferation of homemade “drill music” videos featuring gun-toting rappers, was related to gang violence.
His work was recognized Tuesday by the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, which awarded Stuart with what’s come to be known as a “genius grant.” This year, it means Stuart will receive $625,000 to continue his work on challenging assumptions about the forces that shape urban poverty and violence.
He’s among 21 MacArthur Fellows in this year’s class, a group of grant recipients that also includes Nels Elde, an evolutionary geneticist who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 2005, as well as others from around the country in a host of other disciplines: writers, a chemical engineer, a cognitive neuroscientist and an anthropologist, to name a few.
Stuart, 38, who moved to California last year to teach at Stanford University, was taking a shower when he heard his cell phone ring and saw a number with a 773 area code, but he wasn’t expecting to hear folks from MacArthur calling.
“My stomach dropped when I saw it was a call from Chicago,” he said.
Violence has recently rippled through the lives of young men Stuart came to know on the streets of the South Side, and they’ve been calling him for support.
“I was kind of bracing myself for the worst, but it was actually one of the best calls I’ve ever received in my entire life,” he said.
Stuart gained the trust of one particular gang that he describes using pseudonyms in a book published earlier this year: “Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy.”
Stuart helped run an after-school program teaching kids how to use podcasts as a creative outlet to cope with the trauma of growing up around violence.
The kids in the program had older brothers who were involved in the gang. “They saw the affection and trust their little brothers had for me and they let me in,” he said.
Pretty soon, Stuart was spending all day with the gang, watching YouTube videos for hours, playing dice and walking laps around the four-block turf they controlled. He became their go-to option for rides to the courthouse, medical appointments and family gatherings. And his passenger seat turned into a confessional of sorts.
“They’re seen as these hardened guys who are in gangs — callous, hardened killers. But they’re also highly traumatized, scarred and victimized guys under that bravado,” he said, noting that several opened up and told him they carried guns because they were scared.
Guns were never allowed in Stuart’s car. And he struck a deal with the gang: “If a rival gang carried out a drive-by shooting, call me right away and I’ll pick up as many of you as possible and we’ll go to TGIF and eat $5 appetizers until things cool down.”
One of Stuart’s main conclusions: Insults on social media and violence portrayed in music videos is less of a conduit to real life bloodshed than politicians and police would often make it out to be — quite the opposite, actually.
“If anything, I think social media is giving young men an outlet, allowing them to be seen as a bada-- without having to act on it in the streets. But at the same time it works the other way, too. Guys with too much clout and recognition from drill videos become easy targets for people who want to do them harm,” he said.
With help from the grant, Stuart plans to return to the same South Side, and focus his research on women and how the violent loss of a gang member effects the lives of sisters, girlfriends, daughters and mothers.
“It gives me license to think more outside of the box,” Stuart said of the grant.
There have been 54 “genius grants” awarded to people in Illinois dating back to 1982.
They have included renowned architect Jeanne Gang and ragtime pianist and composer Reginald R. Robinson.