Reclaiming Chicago One Corner at a Time

May 9, 2018

This is an Op-Ed from October 22, 2017 written for the The New York Times by Tamar Manasseh, Founder and President of Mothers Against Senseless Killings

Why is the Trump administration so obsessed with my city? Just last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a Senate hearing that “the murder rate is a cloud over the city.”

I am a black, Jewish woman from Chicago. Since the truth about my city will never come out of this White House, I’ll tell it myself.

Every single day in the summer, especially on weekends, we sit in lawn chairs on the corner of 75th Street and South Stewart Avenue in Englewood, one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. Each day, volunteers cook dinner for 75 or so neighborhood kids, who range from infants to teenagers.

I give them chalk so that they can create their masterpieces on the sidewalks, scold them when they fight over the blue and orange foam football, and take great pains to make sure that the child with the racing strip down the center of his head doesn’t sneak a morsel from the treats the other kids patiently line up to get, because he can’t eat sugar.

These children are now my children, too. For the past three years, the volunteers in an organization I founded, Mothers Against Senseless Killings, have made it our mission to give them their childhoods back — the kind of carefree childhoods so many people in our generation had but too many children in poor neighborhoods are denied.

What we do is simple. We sit on the corners and watch over the children in the neighborhood. My two children always behaved better when an adult had eyes on them. So I thought this would work for the other kids here, too.

This is not exactly an avant-garde idea. I learned it from my mom, who learned it from hers, and so on, back until what I would imagine was the dawn of time. This has always been the role of the black mother in the community. We watch the kids. All of them. This is that “village” that we hear so much about but that has somehow been forgotten. All I’ve done is try to revive its spirit.

We were brought to that corner in June 2015 when a mother was murdered while breaking up a fight. That summer there was another murder one block to the east and then another one block to the west. A police siege and an unlawful search of a 94-year-old woman’s home also happened on the block that summer.

The children saw all of this, and unfortunately, those will always be their memories. They’ll never forget the sobbing over an aunt shot on the street, the fear of the police who lined the big boys up and took them to jail. This was what their summers had looked like for so long. As a mom and a human being, I could not go back to my home unbothered. These were my memories now, too. I didn’t want them, and I didn’t want the children to have them. So we made brand-new ones.

After just three summers on the block, violent crime and gun-related incidents in that census tract have declined dramatically.

And this has had a ripple effect as far as a mile out. The neighborhood elementary school attended by a majority of our children has also seen improvements in student performance. All of this has happened with no real resources, new jobs or governmental assistance.

The most frequently asked question we get is: How did you do it? It’s simple. We cared. We put on hot-pink T-shirts, got our lawn chairs and a couple of packs of hot dogs, and went to the corner and cooked some dinner. We showed up and established a presence in the neighborhood. We’re also creating small community centers in vacant lots around the city, where kids can play, study and get a hot meal.

We also listened to the people there. They told us how to stop gun violence in their neighborhood and pretty much all the other ones just like it. They told us they needed resources, jobs and skills training. They told us they needed schools that could prepare their children to compete in a world that will soon be run by computers. They need a share of that $95 million planned for a new police and firefighter training center, because now the community polices itself.

They told us that it was great that their children were learning their rights in school but that they wanted more qualified teachers who could teach them to read and write. And with a chunk of that $95 million, we could afford it. Sure, we still have gang violence. The cure for that is bringing jobs and resources to impoverished neighborhoods. We know that.

I’m not going to lie and say that there is just one solution that will cut down on gang violence. We did it, though. We showed up and we cared. It is really that simple. I have serious doubts, however, that the man who thought repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act would be easy will ever be able to end the scourge of gun violence.

Click here to watch a video by Great Big Story of Tamar and her team in action.

Meet us at 75th & Stewart Ave on May 12th from 3pm to 7pm in Englewood where we’ll be giving out mini bouquets with empowering messages to moms affected by gun violence.