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Anti-violence business group awards funds to help at-risk youths

A technology mentoring program will teach coding to 150 youths in Englewood, Humboldt Park, Austin, North Lawndale and Roseland, providing Ventra cards, lunch and a laptop to keep when it’s over.

A Micro Jobs program will allow teens in those and similarly impoverished neighborhoods to work on online projects for cash, while hanging out with friends. And an Urban Oasis program will hire youths to transform vacant lots into community spaces.

The initiatives are among 20 Chicago anti-violence programs receiving $4 million in funding this week, as corporate leaders ramp up a mission that started after Hadiya Pendleton’s murder two years ago.

The business group, now called Get In Chicago, solicited by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to step up and help fight escalating violence, plans to spend at least $9 million this year of the $50 million it was charged with raising to fund programs targeting at-risk youths.

“We know violence spikes in the summer when youth are out of school and have less structured activities, so we have zeroed in on programs that are structured, pro-social and have skills connected with them,” said Toni Irving, executive director of Get In Chicago.

“The project we’re doing with Smart Chicago, for example, will provide free coding classes to youth in those communities, all day for six weeks. In the long term, they’ll have skills on their resume in one of the fastest-growing job fields. In the short term, they’ll come out knowing how to build websites and thinking entrepreneurially,” she said. “We’re not giving them a fish, but teaching them how to fish.”

Headed by Allstate CEO Tom Wilson and Loop Capital Markets CEO Jim Reynolds, Get In Chicago made its first awards in June 2013, months after the Jan. 29, 2013, killing of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old King College Prep honor student, which made national headlines.

With its stated mission “to identify, fund and rigorously evaluate evidence-based programs that lead to a sustainable reduction in violence for individuals and communities most affected by violence and poverty,” it doled out $1.7 million to 11 organizations running summer programs in 23 neighborhoods in that first round.

In May 2014, it doled out $1.9 million to 11 groups operating community and school-based programs. Only five of the first-round awardees received grants in the second round.

The business group brought in Irving in September 2014, then in November, awarded $2.2 million to 12 more groups. The third round funded mentoring and cognitive behavioral therapy programs. In making those decisions, Get In Chicago was guided by a breakthrough University of Chicago Crime Lab study in 2013 which found anti-violence programs combining jobs, therapy and mentoring yielded significant reductions in youth violence. The Crime Lab, however, had no direct role in evaluating or awarding the grants.

The 20 new awardees announced this month include six of the community and school-based organizations funded in May 2014.

“Others weren’t working out for a range of reasons. These are the ones that are the most promising,” Irving said. Youth Guidance, for instance, which runs the Becoming a Man program lauded by Emanuel and President Barack Obama, has been in every funding round.

The 10 summer programs among the 20 will offer everything from jobs and job training to cognitive therapy and sports. The remaining four programs emerged from a Youth Shout Out initiative designed by Allstate to allow youth to identify their own needs.

Teams of youth and designers worked together over the past several months to flesh out eight ideas, four of which are being funded.

“We wanted to see what would happen if we approached programming from a market research point of view — from talking to the customers,” Wilson said. “We have hope deserts, which lead to violent behavior, despair, depression. At the community level, hope is the very thing that brings communities together. These kids are the ones who can take away the hope deserts and turn them into green pastures.”