Each year, hundreds of young people in Chicago die from gun violence. Many organizations are working to address this problem. But often there are deep rifts between the individual initiatives – or they develop similar projects without even being aware of it. This is where the Global Diplomacy Lab comes in: by bringing together people and organizations that do good work but do not know each other, even though they would be stronger together.
Fences and thick concrete bollards protect Barack and Michelle Obama’s home in Chicago. Hyde Park is a posh neighborhood on the city’s South Side, with impressive stone buildings. Next to a Secret Service sign, Monserrat Ayala and other young people are taking selfies in front of the fenced-off building. It is freezing, and their hands are cold in the yellow glow of the street lamps. But it is Monserrat’s first visit – no selfie, no evidence. The Obamas’ house is not that far from where she lives, but in Chicago geographical proximity does not necessarily mean easy accessibility.
Global Diplomacy LabThe Global Diplomacy Lab (GDL) brings together academics, artists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and diplomats from all over the world. Together they reflect on what the foreign policy of the future should look like. The 9th Global Diplomacy Lab took place in Chicago and dealt with “Strategies for Overcoming Urban Violence: Exploring Global Perspectives & Engaging for Local Prevention.” The GDL challenge holders for 2018 included the Chicago Mayor’s Office and the Obama Foundation. The 10th Lab will kick off in Accra, Ghana, on June 16, 2019. This year's curriculum is developed and implemented in partnership with the Federal Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany as its challenge holder. The GDL is an initiative of the Federal Foreign Office, the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, Stiftung Mercator, the Global Leadership Academy, and the Robert Bosch Foundation.
The 24-year-old lives in a neighborhood in South Chicago that used to be populated by Irish and Polish immigrants, but today it’s mostly Latinos who live in the area’s bungalows. This is the name for the houses whose rows of lots make up the classic “block.” But for most of the city’s residents, Chicago’s South Side is synonymous with violence, shootings, and problems.
There’s hardly a day when the news does not report on a crime committed on the South Side. Few downtown or North Side residents would voluntarily visit the neighborhood that has earned Chicago its bad reputation. “For me, they are culturally beautiful neighborhoods,” says Montserrat. “But, unfortunately, they are known for their high gang crime rate.”
Montserrat works as an organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project. Its mission is to build a broad-based organization of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faith institutions, local schools, and other institutions in Southwest Chicago, which will enable families to exercise common values, determine their own future, and connect with each other to improve life in their neighborhoods.
For years, Chicago has been struggling with violence. In 2018, the Chicago Police Department reported 555 murders in the city. In August 2018, a week of riots with more than 70 shootings and 16 deaths was followed by a Sunday when 40 people were killed within a mere seven hours. The summer of 2018 thus became one of the bloodiest in Chicago’s history.
Chicago derives its notoriety from the gangs that divide up the city into different zones which can be more or less clearly mapped. African-American and Latino gangs dominate the city, and it is mostly young men who die in the fights with rival gangs or the police.
When driving through certain neighborhoods, Montserrat rolls down her car windows – for safety reasons. “I want them to see that I am a woman and that I work here,” she says. “I want to show them that I am not dangerous.” She has worked for years with young people on the South Side; she just started to work in a project that wants to increase parents’ involvement in their children’s school lives. The parents’ presence is also to communicate greater safety.
“I want them to see that I am a woman and that I work here.”
Chicago has done a lot to make everyday life safer. The city has created a host of programs and invested in expensive technologies such as databases that register perpetrators – and still the problem remains unsolved. The state of Illinois, and the city of Chicago, have prevention programs, predictive policing, even rather strict gun laws. But unlike in New York or L.A., the rate of youth violence in Chicago has hardly fallen, although the city is much smaller.
Violence is everywhere. Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood has long been a hotspot of gang warfare; today it is home to many artists and students, the neighborhood is being gentrified, crime has gone down. At the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, Monserrat Ayala is talking to a group of people from all over the world, including Germans and Brazilians, who are standing around a table. She tells them what it is like to grow up in Chicago. The visitors ask what it is like to work with children and teenagers who experience death almost on a daily basis and who grow up with this trauma.
A mixed international group of diplomats, academics, activists, and journalists – all of them participants of the Global Diplomacy Lab, an initiative aiming to develop new, interdisciplinary political approaches and strategies – have come together in Chicago for a few days to explore the roots of youth violence in Chicago and to find out whether there is a solution to it. Chicago is not the only place that has a problem with violence; cities around the world are facing similar challenges. So how can the experiences in Chicago be translated to other scenarios?
Cure Violence is one of the most successful pioneering projects against youth violence. The Chicago-based NGO sees violence as a health problem. “We prevent the spread of violence itself. With the aid of data and analyses, we figure out where a crime could happen and stop it from spreading. What is special about this kind of disease control is that you look where the measles, i.e. the high-risk individuals, are, the small part that spreads, and then you go directly to this person,” says Gary Slutkin, the director of the organization.
“With the aid of data and analyses, we figure out where a crime could happen and stop it from spreading."
After working as an epidemiologist in Somalia, where tuberculosis and diarrhea were epidemic, he came here twenty years ago, bringing his experiences to violence prevention work in Chicago. In his view, violence is like a contagious disease. The carriers of the disease are the inhabitants themselves – they pass it on to others, and then the violence snowballs. Like with an epidemic, the transmission cycle needs to be broken. It sounds very logical and easy. This is one of the reasons why the public health approach to the violence problem has become so popular and been copied by other cities such as Glasgow. Cure Violence today is active in many countries with high rates of violence, including Honduras and Mexico.
Cure ViolenceCure Violence is an NGO founded by public health epidemiologist Gary Slutkin. After working with the WHO in Africa, Slutkin returned to Chicago, where he came to regard violence as a public health disease. Cure Violence's core methodology lies in using disease control and behavior change methods to reduce violence. The NGO relies on street workers, so-called "interrupters," who can intervene in critical situations. These interrupters come from the community, some of them have been involved in criminal activities themselves. According to the Cure Violence perspective, the solution can only come from within. Cure Violence now operates in more than 20 cities across the United States and is also active in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.
Instead of using police force to clamp down on potential criminals, Cure Violence, through its “Interrupters” program, relies on social workers. “If you stop the spreading, you prevent additional crimes. And people’s opinion changes in the long term: When the residents see an intervention into violence and understand that there will be no revenge, their expectations change. Even today, many expect a crime to be followed by revenge, but this is changing thanks to us. They know that they can call in an interrupter, that is, a staff member,” says Slutkin.
While Gary Slutkin has been running the organization for many years, his staff is out on the streets of Chicago – for they are the ones who are affected themselves. Successful interrupters are those who come from the community or who have made similar experiences: former gang members or other people affected by gang violence.
Many who started out working with Cure Violence have moved to other organizations. Some of them are also active in the outreach program of the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. The initiative brings together organizations from all over the city. In the summer, they meet every week to “canvass” in problem neighborhoods: they go from house to house to recruit the people on the streets. The idea is to break the cycle of violence through peaceful conflict strategies.
“Attention and awareness are important,” says Chris Patterson, who started out with Cure Violence. Having worked for ten years in violence prevention, he is today a fixture of the outreach group at the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. In June 2018, Patterson came to Berlin to give the Global Diplomacy Lab group some insights into his world in Chicago.
At the meeting point in West Garfield Park, the smoke wafting off the chicken pieces on the rusty street grill gives off some warmth to the snow-covered intersection. The group patrolling the dark streets wears yellow neon jackets – to be immediately visible and recognizable and to show, “We are not enemies, we are here to help.” For a big group of strangers can be easily mistaken for a rival gang. Now, in winter, when it is dark and cold, they meet less frequently. Occasionally, a passerby stops and asks questions, others are given flyers. “Stop the killings, stop the violence!” – the words, amplified by megaphone, echo through the night.
“Attention and awareness are important.”
But it isn’t quite that simple. The reasons for the violence in Chicago are complex – and include structural problems such as racism and political opportunism. Chicago’s system of inequalities has been a long time in the making and cannot be changed overnight. There are, in fact, a lot of organizations that work to address the problem and that for years have tried to bring about change in different ways. But as they jostle for favor, money, and success, the competition between the groups also poses a challenge. Chris Patterson, Director of Programs at Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, wants to unite the groups: “We don’t do this ‘gang banging’ between organizations, we want to work and change something together,” he says. The big group accompanying him is evidence that this can work.
Often, however, there are deep rifts between the different initiatives – or they develop similar projects without even knowing it. This is where the Global Diplomacy Lab comes in: by bringing together people and organizations who do good work but do not know each other, even though they would be stronger together.
At a meeting at Malcolm X College on Chicago’s West Side, the invisible borders become apparent: Some of the guests from Chicago know each other by name or the organization they work for. “But we are usually not sitting together at one table. There are so many groups that do a fantastic job and we don’t know it,” says Colleen Daley from the Illinois Council against Handgun Violence, sharing her knowledge with the group. She doubts that the GDL will bring about a big change in Chicago’s violence problem, “but I think it helps existing organizations to be more effective, and it gives people the opportunity to create awareness.” She continues: “I like the idea that people from all over the world with very different ideas come together and provide an outside perspective on a topic that is so American. It is important that our city listens to this kind of input and advice.”
"There are so many groups that do a fantastic job and we don’t know it.”
Angela Hurlock takes a similar view. For more than thirteen years, Hurlock has worked in the southernmost section of Chicago. Her workplace and her house are only a few minutes’ drive from the state border separating Illinois from Indiana. She knows how difficult it is to really change something in the city. When the steel mills, one of Chicago’s largest employers, closed down years ago, many people lost their jobs and sense of purpose. It is therefore all the more important to provide people with a perspective and to get them off the streets.
“We work a lot in the field of trauma management, for this feeling of being left behind is, after all, the only feeling many young people know.” In her neighborhood, she and her organization, Claretians Associates, fight for affordable housing and for safe spaces for children in an environment that offers few opportunities. They fight for a fenced-off playground and club houses where people can meet instead of hanging out on the streets.
In her thirteen years on the job, she has seen many cuts and reductions, but Hurlock wants to think positive. She believes that outside input from people such as from the international GDL experts is important – also to help one reflect on one’s own point of view. “It is interesting to see the outside perspective on our city,” she says. “If it is only negative, we need to change something. Of course, we have big problems, but I believe that we can overcome them, otherwise I would not be doing this kind of job.”
"This feeling of being left behind is, after all, the only feeling many young people know.”
The international dialogue promoted by the Global Diplomacy Lab is also designed to help develop concrete tools and strategies, which the local organizations can then use in their fight against violence. “Just yesterday I was talking with a staff member. She asked me: Where is the toolkit we need so urgently right now?” says Hurlock.
There are no quick fixes, but Hurlock still thinks that the Global Diplomacy Lab meeting in Chicago is a beginning: “The GDL was a test run that threw light on some things and that offered people a platform to talk about the problems. If getting the city and foundations to cooperate on this topic is the only thing [to come out of this], it is a good thing – because it has brought us to the table and to collaborate.”
In 2018, Illinois elected a new governor, J. B. Pritzker, on whom many people have been pinning great hopes, and the 2019 mayoral elections in Chicago resulted in the election of the city's first African-American female mayor, Lori Lightfoot. But many things that really change the city are initiated by social workers such as Angela Hurlock, Chris Patterson or Monserrat Ayala. Their work is, after all, not just about providing immediate support to affected families, but also about addressing structural challenges, such as the urgently needed police reform.
Monserrat Ayala has frequently experienced the difficulty of looking for solutions at the local level. “It would be utopian to think that an event such as the Global Diplomacy Lab can bring about change soon, but it is definitely a motivation,” says Monserrat Ayala, while she is driving to a local coffee shop in Back of the Yards, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, which is a meeting place for young people eager to change things. Monserrat admits her initial skepticism of the GDL: “I did not believe that I would gel with people from Ghana, Germany or other places, but then we clicked. The realization that so many people struggle with similar problems was a big motivation. Now I feel that if I have a problem and want to talk with somebody about it, I can do so.”