James Robinson

James Robinson, 20, convened a peace circle last week at the Chicago Torture Justice Center at 63rd Street and Woodlawn Avenue.

Mariah Woelfel/WBEZ

Johnson builds on promise to hire more young people for city’s summer jobs program

Chicago slightly grew a youth jobs program this summer, including hiring 100 people to learn conflict resolution and relationship-building.

When 20-year-old James Robinson stands on 63rd Street to hand out food to people in need, or leads a so-called “peace circle” for his peers, he thinks of his mom, who spent her life helping people.

“It’s all she did,” Robinson said. His mom died from heart failure five years ago. Now, Robinson struggles to describe the sensation he gets doing good deeds in her honor.

“It’s just a feeling that I get — it just makes me take life more serious and understand it more,” Robinson said.

Robinson is one of thousands of young people taking part in the summer jobs program known as One Summer Chicago. And he’s part of a new aspect of the program this year called “peacekeeping,” where 100 young people are paid to learn conflict resolution and relationship-building.

Overall, the summer jobs program for kids that’s pegged as a violence prevention tool in Chicago is seeing yet another year of incremental growth.

Roughly 27,140 young people are working in the One Summer Chicago program this year, according to figures provided by the city’s Department of Family and Support Services.

That falls short of Johnson’s goal of hiring 28,000 young people (though the number may grow this summer) and far below his campaign promise to double the program in size.

But under Johnson, One Summer Chicago has grown significantly, by 32%, compared to the summer before his first year in office. In 2022, 20,544 kids got jobs — less than half the number of applications received. By comparison, the program hired upward of 30,000 young people before the pandemic.

“I think what you’re seeing us do is really try to make sure that we are looking at every resource and opportunity that’s available for us to enact,” said DFSS Commissioner Brandie Knazze.

Johnson has made opportunities for youth a cornerstone of his crime reduction plan. And he frequently references it at news conferences on the city’s intransigent gun violence.

“If you know that there are wayward youth who have lost their way, snatch them up. We have opportunities for them. I’m so sick and tired of losing Black boys to violence in this city,” Johnson said Monday, as Chicago reeled from a holiday weekend where more than 100 people were shot and 20 were killed.

There is evidence that summer jobs programs can help curb crime, though the city’s program has been criticized for failing to reach people who need it most. The city has tried to address that in recent years by prioritizing applications from kids who are out of school, kids enrolled in a lower-achieving CPS schools, people with disabilities, or non-English learners.

The need for ‘peacekeepers’

On a recent Friday afternoon, one of the peacekeepers, Robinson, led a peace circle at the Chicago Torture Justice Center in Woodlawn on the South Side, where kids talk through anxiety, fear, and hope.

They talked about their dreams for their futures. The circle consisted of aspiring lawyers, engineers, carpenters, professional athletes and a future bed and breakfast owner.

They also brainstormed how a lack of resources in their community could stunt their future.

“The real question is what don’t we lack? I feel like schools, for real, for real — it starts there,” one young man said.

Everyone in the circle is getting paid to be there as a peacekeeper. But one of the group’s lead coordinators, Assata Lewis, said that’s not technically what the kids are being trained to do. She said the program is more focused on discussion and art.

‘Peacekeeping’ as a way to prevent retaliatory violence

Formal peacekeeping is an established, high-risk violence intervention tool in Chicago where former and current gang members, or people with strong ties to them, are paid to intervene in and defuse conflict to prevent retaliatory violence. Lewis said this program is a “very, very, very small fraction” of that type of work.

“It sounds like community violence intervention,” said Steve Perkins, director of field instruction for Metropolitan Family Services, which serves as an umbrella organization for formalized peacekeeping work in Chicago.

“It’s still included. It’s a part of it; it’s needed. I don’t want to appear as if I’m discrediting what they’re doing because it’s needed as well … but it shouldn’t be considered peacekeeping,” Perkins said.

Perkins said he would also like to see funding for formal peacekeepers as part of the One Summer Chicago program.

Robinson, who has worked with Good Kids Mad City for a few years now, said regardless of the formal title, he hopes the program becomes as pivotal for his peers as it has been for him.

“At first I was doing it for the money, just because I needed a job, but as you get to doing the work, it kind of builds you into a different type of person,” he said. “When my mom died, in that situation, it’s either the streets, or the money. I just feel like God has sent this opportunity to me.”

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government for WBEZ.

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