Last Saturday, almost 50 people of various ages and backgrounds met at IIT for a “Youth Against Gun Violence” design thinking workshop.
The event was organized by Target Future, a group of four IIT Boeing Scholars — Adam (Lane Tech), Brian (Northside), Josh (Whitney Young), and Karl (Riverside Brookfield) — as part of their Leadership Grant Project.* Alarmed by the rate of homicides in the city and armed with the belief that youth have valuable perspective and ideas on these issues, Target Future reached out to Professor Jeremy Alexis and doctoral student Amanda Geppert, both of IIT’s Institute of Design, to provide teens with this opportunity to develop innovative solutions to these issues.
High school students from around Chicagoland were invited to apply to attend the workshop, and in the end 24 students from 18 different high schools were selected. Public and private schools in the city and suburbs were represented at the summit: Aqsa, Carmel Catholic, Chicago High School for the Arts, Eisenhower, Fenger, Gary Comer, Global Citizenship Experience, Gwendolyn Brooks, King, Lane Tech, Lindblom, Naperville North, Northside, Perspectives-Leadership, Perspectives-Technology, Riverside Brookfield, Wendell Phillips, and Whitney Young.
At the workshop, Professor Alexis and Ms. Geppert guided the teens through the “design thinking” process utilized by professional engineers to brainstorm, develop, prototype, and propose visionary solutions to address the gun violence problem. Working in small groups over the course of three hours, students went through the process of identifying and building “profiles” for key stakeholders, by mapping out what those stakeholders might say, do, think, and feel about the issues at hand. Students looked for common themes, contradictions and conflicts, and patterns, and wrote down what they found to be most polarizing, surprising, or new in those “empathy maps.” From there, students sought to understand these “users” in relation to their needs and contexts, and brainstormed “how might we…?” statements to re-frame the problem in terms of those needs and potential solutions. Finally, students were challenged to come up with ideas of specific things that could be done to help address these needs and solve these problems. Within this framework, different groups of students took different approaches, with some identifying a set of categories and characteristics to be considered and with others drilling down to the specifics of one or two ideas.
IIT Boeing Scholar Adam shares his group’s ideas with Melinda Kelly, Executive Director of the Chatham Business Alliance (left), and Pat Dowell, Alderman for the 3rd Ward.
At the conclusion of the event, students presented their work to the following community leaders, who were happy to listen to, discuss, and provide feedback on the teens’ ideas:
- Pat Dowell, Alderman, 3rd Ward
- Beth Ford, Deputy Director, Bureau of Patrol, Chicago Police Department
- Anterio Jackson, Education Program Coordinator, Chicago Urban League
- Shango Johnson, CeaseFire Illinois
- Melinda Kelly, Executive Director, Chatham Business Association
- Diane Latiker, Founder and President, Kids Off the Block
- Benneth “Benny” Lee, Community Liaison and Reentry Specialist, TASC; Northeastern Illinois University, Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies
- Samia Malik, Project Manager, Chatham Business Association
- Shauna Martin, Founder & Director, The Society of Lights, Inc.
- Monica Moss, Trinity Church
- Brian Thompson, Assistant Executive Director, PSI Family Services Foster Care and Mental Health; Founder, B-Fit, B New, 4 Life
- Mae Cheri Whiteside, Principal, Cheri K. Lewis Engineers, LLC
- Mandel Williams, Executive Director, Knights of Omega Mentoring
Special thanks to IIT’s Jeanne Arens (Associate Vice President, External Affairs), Jerry Doyle (Vice Provost, Student Access, Success, and Diversity Initiatives), Leroy Kennedy (Vice President, Community Affairs and Outreach), and Lisa Montgomery (Director, Student Center for Diversity and Inclusion) for reaching out on Target Future’s behalf to get such an amazing group of people in the room.
A summary of students’ ideas from Saturday, as compiled by the members of Target Future, can be found below. If you are interested in continuing the conversation from Saturday, please join our online discussion forum (click on the link, and then click “Join Group”)! Photos from the summit are available here and here. An album with photos of EVERY IDEA recorded on the whiteboards is available here. Please note that these opinions and ideas are those of participating students, and do not necessarily reflect those of the program or university.
One group of students focused on developing solutions that could help build more self-sufficient communities, with the idea that such approaches could provide a platform for a community to expand economically and socially. This group discussed how quickly and easily neighborhoods decay when money doesn’t circulate through them and when few economic incentives are available. By having members of a community take on a few simple tasks, a neighborhood could serve as a provider for employment and services. This could, in turn, build trust among neighbors, which could provide for lasting relationships and a more prosperous community.
One way to connect a community, as well as provide jobs and services, would be to establish a community-based shuttle bus or carpooling system. This could provide low-cost door-to-door transportation for riders and allow for safe passage through neighborhoods threatening by rivaling gangs. Beyond providing safe, economical transportation, a shuttle bus system could provide employment for community residents and might help attendance, retention, and graduation rates among local high school students. Students cited, as a potential resource, a German company that was created a decade ago to provide prospective carpoolers with services to help them organize themselves; more recently, this company has begun outreach in the US.
This group also discussed creating a community postal service. Instead of people seeking employment from newspapers (like delivering papers to other neighborhoods) or having large private companies deliver packages in their own neighborhoods, a community mail service could provide employment and services for members within their own neighborhoods, where it is helpful that they know the streets.
Students proposed establishing more community gardens, arguing that they could reduce the number of existing vacant lots, as well as push for vacant buildings to be destroyed to create space for more gardens (and thus prevent abandoned establishments from being used for illegal purposes). Besides bringing together willing members of a neighborhood to collaborate on a project, residents could learn important skills in gardening, managing projects and people, and running a business. The garden could be organized to offer economic incentives to community garden contributors. The fresh produce could be used for home cooking or sold at a neighborhood Farmer’s Market. By involving and fostering relationships with children, community garden programs could help prevent potential gangs and gang tensions from forming from a young age. This group discussed the idea of offering people who are on parole or other people with a criminal record the opportunity to participate in building the community gardens. Their service could help transform the vacant lots, teach skills in horticulture and gardening, and re-connect them to the community.
These students concluded that, to create a self-sufficient community, incentives must be offered so that all residents will have something at stake. Economic incentives could contribute to monetary circulation throughout a community. By offering jobs and safe transportation, crime could be hindered and residents could help break the current trends in gang membership and other hostilities.
Another group brainstormed solutions to address three main sub-issues related to gun violence among youth: (1) how the media plays a part in crime and violence, (2) pre-judgment that stems from a lack of communication with one another, balanced with people’s need to feel like they belong, and (3) the ease at which guns, drugs, and ammunition is accessible.
For the first issue – how the media plays a part in crime and violence – students advocated for more equitable media coverage of most or all deaths, both online and through news. Rather than focusing on one person, media should focus on the broader number of victims and recognize them all individually. Regardless of neighborhood, a life is a life and deserves to be commemorated. There should be a memorial for every death.
Considering that people need to feel like they belong, students proposed offering more after school activities for youth and job placement for teens, so that young people can develop more positive peer groups as well as mentors. Communities could create art shows where young musicians and graffiti artists could sell their goods and services for money to help sustain a positive lifestyle. Governments could create incentives (like money, awards, or opportunities) for whoever does the most good in the community. For any youth programs, it would be important to address the time at which children come home from school or work. One suggestion was for schools and local businesses to work together to create opportunities for students to work during the school day (co-op) or on weekends, rather than when it is dark outside.
Connecting these ideas, students suggested community therapy sessions or conferences, where residents can exchange stories on their life, experiences, and interests. Doing so could combat prejudgment, build stronger relationships across a community, and highlight the importance of respecting the lives of others.
Addressing the ease at which guns, drugs, and ammunition is accessible, students argued for conducting background checks when people buy ammunition for guns, not just guns, and for stronger police checks on vehicles of interest traveling into the state.
A third group of students identified fear, survival, money, and protection as major themes. They focused on the question — How do we prevent neighborhoods from turning into crime ridden areas, or reduce gun/gang violence in areas that already have it? – and spent their day developing an idea for a teen program that would help address this set of issues.
Their idea was to create a “support group” called Createens, offering an AA-meeting style forum for gang-involved teens (under age 18; specific gang affiliation must not be announced), which would meet twice a week from 4-6pm. The most important part of this program would be outings to museums, theaters , movies, art exhibitions, and sports games, all of which could provide the teens with an opportunity to experience culture outside of what they see every day. It could also give them an incentive to stay in the Createens group – a more positive peer environment where they could share their thoughts and feelings – and an incentive to get off the path they are on.
In addition to these outings, Createens would offer lessons in the arts – such as dance, multimedia art, music, writing, and drama – which would give these students an opportunity to explore themselves and practice skills without judgment from others. Once a year, they would have an arts show for the community for students to display their work. The students would be able to sell their work, and the event would bring the community together around a central project. The outings and arts activities could happen on Saturdays from 8am-5pm.
Createens chapters could be run out of park district facilities located near colleges and/or schools, maybe with some funding for those organizations, since the program would serve the neighborhood’s greater good. The program could be run by teachers and counselors from those schools, as well as by former “gang veterans” who could show the teens what life after gangs could be like. The park could utilize the teen group by paying them to do tasks like cutting grass and tending to plants; this would somewhat help out the teens’ economic situation. The group could also organize recreational sports tournaments for others in the community.
The main idea behind an approach like Createens would be to bring a community together while also influencing the younger generation to not follow gangs and to realize a world outside what they live in now.
Diane Latiker, Founder of Kids Off the Block, shared heartfelt appreciation for the teens, who gave their Saturday to collaborate to develop such thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas.
A fourth group proposed creating an online forum or other website format to offer a monthly reflection on the lives of recent victims, including their dreams and aspirations, as well as interviews with their friends and family. Beyond memorializing lives lost, the purpose of this would be to humanize the rising death tolls, which otherwise are often reflected in numbers alone.
Students also suggested making parent involvement a requirement for enrollment in school. If parents didn’t attend monthly meetings, their child wouldn’t be able to stay enrolled in that school or participate in school-based extra-curriculars like clubs or sports.
They also suggested developing a “corporate welfare” system, having the government incentivize opening new food markets in food deserts, with programs to put the youth to work in those markets and to stimulate the local economy. Students brainstormed ways to get youth under 16 involved with these activities, to keep them off the streets.
The student organizers — IIT Boeing Scholars Karl, Josh, Brian, and Adam — with IIT Institute of Design Professor Jeremy Alexis (left) and IIT Boeing Scholars Academy Program Director Marya Spont (right).
While it was inspiring to see so many students from so many communities gather together to discuss how to make our world a better place, it was almost more impressive to see how very many adults believed it was important to pay attention to youth voice and ideas, and to share the wisdom of their own experience. I am excited to participate in the conversation as it continues.
Please join us online to share your feedback and ideas, as well as other opportunities to get involved in addressing the crucial problem of gun violence in Chicago.
*During the summer, IIT Boeing Scholars collaborate in teams to propose Leadership Grant Projects (LGPs) of their own design to be implemented over the course of the next 10 months (July-April), with the help of Project Mentors. A capstone of sorts, LGPs empower students to promote positive change and create opportunities in their communities.