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Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pick for public safety czar rankles some activists

Grassroots activists fear their voices will still not be heard despite the the appointment of a public safety czar.

Susan Lee

Two years before Hal Baskin passed away, he sent me an email that now seems prophetic.

It read:

Mary …my heart is heavy with all the violence with black on black, brown on brown murders. [T]here [are] some ways to alleviate some of the murders, but the voices of those who want to help haven’t been heard and the powers that be don’t want to hear them. [A]t this juncture, with 778 murders in Chicago, all of us need a different dialog with each other-- with traditional as well as nontraditional means-- to combat this pressing issue.

Many of us want to be a part of the dialog, but are not invited. The older guys who are still around would work with an appointed violence [Czar] if one is appointed and help critique a realistic plan of action. Remember many of us have experienced violence brought on our families as well and we are tired.”

I thought about Baskin on Wednesday after reading that Lightfoot named a deputy mayor for public safety.

Susan Lee, the senior director of Safe Chicago Network at Creating Real Economic Destiny, or “CRED,” was named to the critical post, raising concerns among some that people who’ve worked on the front lines were overlooked.

“I truly believe that Lori Lightfoot is overlooking qualified African American leaders that can hold a position. It is disrespectful. That person doesn’t understand Chicago’s gun violence on a street level,” argued Tio Hardiman, executive director of Violence Interrupters Inc.

CRED was created by a social impact organization founded and run by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, and former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

While it may be debated whether CRED has street cred in neighborhoods plagued by violence, there’s no question that it has the reputation needed to attract donors to this cause.

Last week, I stopped by a standing-room-only event celebrating the release of writings penned by the 2019 Author’s Circle.

The book is a collaboration with Chicago CRED, Contextos, an intensive writing program that incorporates conflict resolution, and Inner-City Muslim Action Network (“IMAN”).

The reading was held at Gallery Guichard in Bronzeville, a spectacular gathering spot for artists and activists.

The authors took turns at the microphone reading aloud heart-wrenching stories that were bound in a 110-page book available for a $20 suggested donation.

Duncan was among a handful of whites in the room that included program leaders.

It was hard to shake off the visual.

While one group of black males was being led to redemption, somewhere else another group was being led to the lock-up in orange uniforms.

CRED’s approach to stopping that cycle is similar to the approach Baskin and other black community organizers have fought for — for decades.

Though often ignored, these street activists also argued that to reduce violence, you needed to recruit the men, most likely gang-members or drug-dealers, and train them for jobs and pay them more than they earn slinging drugs.

As is too often the case, those voices were not heard. But Lightfoot’s hire guarantees that will change.

Still, Willie Wilson, a former mayoral candidate who endorsed Lightfoot and paved the way for her strong vote totals in black wards, was skeptical that in a city starkly divided by race, an Asian American could get at the root of the violence.

“I do question that. How is she going to understand the minority community where violence is at and relate to that unless she really has experience in those areas?” he asked.

A report Lee co-wrote in 2007 that uses the model she intends to duplicate here is credited with dramatically reducing homicides in L.A.

Harold Davis, founder of a for-profit program that trains youngsters for work in the trades, is in agreement with Lightfoot naming an outsider with ties to Duncan’s organization.

“I don’t know if we should keep giving money to groups that have been getting money for 20, 30 years, and we haven’t gotten anything for the money that we’ve spent,” he said.

Still, for some long-time community anti-violence activists, especially those who have been on both sides of the fence, this critical hire is being squandered.

“Is the new director of public safety willing to reach out to people that have a vested interest in helping with the violence piece?” asked Wallace “Gator” Bradley, a former gang-member who turned his life around.

It is a strategy that Baskin pushed until the end.

Hopefully, this deputy mayor realizes early on that she can’t do this alone.