For Arne Duncan, the violence killing Chicago’s children is personal
The former CPS chief now runs a program that worked with the father of Sincere Gaston, the toddler killed by gunfire in June: “Seeing him in a casket several days ago — I’ve never seen a casket that small. I hope I never see one again.”
During Arne Duncan’s seven-and-a-half-year run as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, he said a student was killed, on average, every two weeks.
Young lives were cut tragically short while riding home on a bus; walking to a corner store; or in a living room, getting ready for school.
“To show how naïve I am, when our family left to go to D.C. in 2009, I thought as a city we were at rock bottom,” said Duncan, who went to Washington to serve as U.S. education Secretary under President Barack Obama.
But Chicago has reached a new rock bottom. Homicide levels not seen since 2016. Three straight weekends in which at least two children were killed.
The youngest of those victims was 20-month-old Sincere Gaston, killed when someone opened fire on his mother’s car as she drove home from an Englewood laundromat.
Sincere’s death was personal to Duncan. The non-profit Duncan now runs to help at-risk youth — Creating Real Economic Destiny — has worked with Thomas Gaston, Sincere’s father, for the last two years.
“He’s had a lot of challenges, but has really been working hard to get his life together. He’s actually doing a really good job with us. Having his son really helped to get him more on the straight and narrow. He’s actually been an amazing father,” Duncan told the Sun-Times.
“And the part that’s so heartbreaking is, he brought his son to our program all the time. People saw him grow up. Saw him start to walk. Seeing him in a casket several days ago — I’ve never seen a casket that small. I hope I never see one again.”
Adding insult to injury was how Thomas Gaston and his wife say they were treated by Chicago police. Investigators have said they believe the gunman who killed Sincere was actually targeting the child’s father.
“The day after they just lost their 20-month-old, who was sitting in the back seat of his mother’s car on the way to the laundromat to get clean clothes because he was supposed to start day care last Monday, they were called into the police station and basically re-traumatized by the police. There has to be a better way,” Duncan said.
It wasn’t the first time.
“We had a young man … a high school student … teaching peace in the community [who] is so brilliant, he had the idea to start our peacemaker program, working with young kids across the city to learn conflict resolution skills. Tragically, he was shot on his porch sitting with his grandfather. And when he was taken to the hospital, he was handcuffed to the bed because he was just assumed — because he’s a young black man from the West Side — that somehow, he was a gangbanger. That’s the kind of thing that’s just unconscionable. But, that’s reality. We have to confront those hard truths,” Duncan said.
Chicago CRED is working with roughly 500 young men, ages 17 to 24, disconnected from work and school and most in danger of being victims or perpetrators of gun violence.
The painstaking process starts with what Duncan calls “street outreach teams with tremendous credibility with different cliques.” They approach young men who are, Duncan said, justifiably cynical because “they’ve been lied to so many times” and had so many programs give up on them. They ask these forgotten young men to “give us a chance,” Duncan said.
Those who agree are “surrounded by a team of adults totally focused on their long-term success” — with counseling, education, job training and job placement. Some of the “life coaches” are ex-offenders themselves.
“Many have dealt with trauma their entire lives — from birth. We have to help people heal. Hurt people hurt people. That healing, that journey, transforms them, but can take some time,” he said.
“To see young men who never thought they would graduate from high school — some of whom actually left school before they even made it to high school — getting those high school diplomas and seeing some now going to college has been extraordinary.”
Program participants are now working in health care, manufacturing, hospitality, culinary and construction jobs. Some are at downtown law and accounting firms.
“We just need employers to decide that they’re going to be part of the solution. If they’re not willing to hire — if they lock people out of the legal economy — they force them to go back to the illegal economy,” Duncan said.
As bleak and bloody as the last few weeks and months has been, Duncan sees signs of hope.
In Roseland and Pullman — two South Side neighborhoods where Chicago CRED has been deeply invested for several years — fatal shootings are down 38% despite being up 38% percent citywide. And only one of the roughly 64 shootings over the July Fourth weekend took place there.
Roughly 3,000 young men in Chicago need a similar “first chance,” if only the city, the business community and philanthropic communities would give it to them, Duncan said.
“A city with all of our corporate and philanthropic resources — if we’re unwilling to help a couple thousand men have a chance at life, then shame on us,” said Duncan, managing partner of the Emerson Collective, a venture fund founded by the widow of billionaire Steve Jobs.
“We’re not gonna arrest our way out of this. We’re not gonna incarcerate our way out of this. The police ... really struggle to solve crimes. We have to give guys a reason to put down the guns. To have hope. That’s what this is all about.”