On Thursday, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a major new effort to tackle youth violence in Chicago. It’s a cause he has long wrestled with. He’ll focus on “disconnected youth” - young people who are neither in school nor working. One recent study shows 47 percent of young African-American men in Chicago fall into that category.
Duncan’s project will be funded by Emerson Collective, a philanthropic group founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple.
Saying Chicago is in “a crisis with devastating levels of violence,” Duncan told WBEZ he aims to attract private sector jobs and connect young people to them. The former head of Chicago Public Schools said “a good paying job in the legal economy” has been a “missing piece” of efforts to help young people. “Young men who have hope—I don’t think they pick up guns,” Duncan said.
He said the private sector will play a critical role in the effort.
“No employer now—no big business—can feel proud of the murder rate here in Chicago today. All of us have both an altruistic and a self-interest in challenging that status quo,” he said.
WBEZ’s Melba Lara spoke with Duncan about the challenge of addressing neighborhood violence and his hopes for the Emerson Collective’s Chicago effort. The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness. Listen to the full interview above.
On addressing violence in Chicago neighborhoods
“I don’t think we can arrest our way out this, I don’t think we can police our way out of this. I don’t think we can Taser our way out of this. I think the only way to create safer communities and give young men and women a chance to build successful lives is to give them a concrete reason to hope, which would mean real jobs. And if we can do that then I think we can compete with the gangs and we can compete with life on the streets. Without that, it’s a lot of words and rhetoric and not complete enough.”
On why existing systems have failed the young men he’s trying to help
“Unfortunately, right now, in many of these communities the gangs basically have a monopoly. They are the only ones hiring. Every single day, 24/7, rain, snow, sleet, shine, it doesn’t matter in Chicago, they know who the young people are who are falling through the cracks. And many young men make this choice not as a first choice, but as a choice of last resort.”
Duncan later came back to this topic:
“Lots of folks have been working on this from lots of different angles for a long time—including myself when I was here [as CEO of Chicago Public Schools]. But the honest truth, the brutal reality, is given the level of violence, given the fact that almost half of our black men are disconnected from the world of work and from school, our collective efforts have been nowhere near large enough to tackle the size of the problem. So we have to collaborate in very different ways but we have to work at scale at an entirely different level to try to get to the root of the problem.”
On how this initiative will be different from previous efforts
Duncan said the Emerson Collective will be able to financially support young people as they get skills training for jobs in industries like technology and manufacturing.
“If we can provide the opportunity for young men and women to get paid, to get that training they need, for me that’s been the missing link here.”
On why he’s choosing to focus on young men specifically
Duncan said statistics show that “devastating levels of violence” in Chicago stem mostly from young men, especially ages 17-24.
“You start to target where the biggest immediate crisis is, where the greatest sense of urgency is.”
On the role of the private sector in addressing violence
“This has to be private sector stepping up. Government can play a role, philanthropy can play a role, but we need the private sector to say: ‘These young men actually have immense talent, they have immense skills, they’re often very entrepreneurial, they’ve very hard working. We want to give them a chance, not because it’s a charitable thing to do, but because it’s the right thing to do for our places of business…No employer now, no big business can feel proud of the murder rate here in Chicago today. All of us have both an altruistic and a self-interest in challenging that status quo.”