Arne Duncan On Violence Prevention In Chicago: ‘It’s Not Rocket Science’

Arne Duncan
Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stops by the 'Morning Shift' to talk about his group Chicago CRED and their approach to violence prevention in Chicago. Jason Marck / WBEZ
Arne Duncan
Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stops by the 'Morning Shift' to talk about his group Chicago CRED and their approach to violence prevention in Chicago. Jason Marck / WBEZ

Arne Duncan On Violence Prevention In Chicago: ‘It’s Not Rocket Science’

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We’re approaching the season when law enforcement officials start announcing how they plan to staff the streets, in anticipation of more shootings as the temperatures climb. 

Chicagoans sadly have gotten used to this reality—that the joys of the city during warmer temperatures are accompanied by the worst violence

But one organization says the focus on arresting and policing is all wrong. Instead, the focus should be on the people doing the shooting—and helping them to get jobs, counseling, and other support. The group is called Chicago CRED (which stands for Creating Real Economic Destiny). It was launched by former U.S. Education Secretary and Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan, who joined the Morning Shift to talk about his group’s blueprint for curbing violence in the city.

On Chicago CRED’s focus on at-risk young men

Odette Yousef: What is different about how Chicago CRED approaches curbing violence?

Arne Duncan: We’re trying to do a couple of different things. The epiphany I had is: if you want to stop shooting, you have to work with the shooters. We have to give young men a reason to put down the guns. And as I started to come back and come home [from D.C.] every couple of months, I’d go to Cook County Jail, I’d go to the juvenile detention facility, I’d talk to policymakers and guys on the streets, and the stunning thing for me is they all knew they weren’t winning. 

There’s this myth that everyone’s making money selling drugs — [but] our guys are making very little money on the streets. They’re tired of getting shot. They’re tired of police chasing them and they want something different. So we’re working with our partners doing a combination of things [including] employment. These are men, not boys. You have to give them a reason to stop doing whatever they’re doing in the illegal economy and move to the legal economy. You also need wrap-around services. You need trauma care. We have amazing life coaches and mentors. And we’re seeing entire groups who have been perpetuating a lot of violence, frankly, walk away from that and do things like literally build a playground for their children and their communities.

On a violence prevention strategy that goes beyond policing

Duncan: We work with some amazing police, and we think there should be consequences if folks do things, but obviously in the big picture trust between the police and community is at a pretty low point right now. Very few crimes, very few shootings and homicides get solved. But at the end of the day that’s all after the fact. It doesn’t bring back the person who was shot. Locking someone away for 30, 50 years breaks that family as well.

What we want to do is challenge the city and the state to do the kinds of things that all of our non-profit partners are doing: providing wrap-around services, providing mentoring, providing jobs, providing cognitive behavioral therapy. Helping young men deal with their lifelong sense of trauma. We think that’s a public good. We’ve had great conversations with Mayor-elect [Lori] Lightfoot, and obviously Gov. Pritzker is a good friend as well. This is an opportunity across the state but obviously here in Chicago where the crisis is most acute to start to invest in these young men to give them the opportunity to transition out of this world.

The truth is the overwhelming majority of guys want out of this life, they want to do something better. They want to grow up safe, [and] most importantly they want their kids to grow up safe. Our failure to provide those kinds of opportunities have actually exacerbated the violence. Now we’re just giving them another choice. That’s the public investment we need to make, is to reach these guys, and give them the chance to be positive community leaders so many aspire to be.

On what Chicago can learn from the violence prevention strategies of LA and NYC

Duncan: We did a mayors’ forum here a few weeks ago — mayors from L.A., Philly, D.C., Minneapolis and New Orleans—cities which] have done a great job in reducing violence. And I think we have a moment of opportunity here — [with] a new mayor, a new governor—to challenge both the city and the state to invest in the men who are transitioning from the world of streets to the legal economy, if we have the kind of significant investment that we need.

This work is hard and complex, but honestly it’s not rocket science. Every one of those other cities had an office of violence prevention. We didn’t. We have had one strategy here which is basically an “arrest strategy,” that doesn’t arrest much of anybody. [The other cities] find ways to create jobs, and [former Los Angeles] Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa over his term [saw] about a 45% reduction in violence. [Former Philadelphia mayor Michael] Nutter made a real point of hiring folks with criminal backgrounds with felonies into city government and helping them transition. 

I can go city by city. It’s [about] trying to reach guys where they are on the streets, partnering with them, working with them, listening to them.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click “play” above to hear the full interview.

GUEST: Arne Duncan, Managing Partner of Chicago CRED; former U.S. secretary of education under Obama

LEARN MORE: ‘I always thought I’d be a statistic’: South Side program helps men rebuild after prison (Chicago Tribune 4/17)