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“CHICAGO isn’t just another midwest city, it’s the soul of who I am” 

I grew up on the south-side of Chicago.  I have lived in Tallahassee, FL, New York, NY and Atlanta, GA, but it was growing up in Chicago that gave me all the survival skills I’d needed to succeed in each city.  So when I watched the first episode of CNN’s “Chicagoland” special, I was excited that Robert Redford, a California native and Hollywood legend, was the executive producer.  I was even more excited that CNN, the first national network that I ever appeared on, gave my hometown a platform to help spark the change that has been much-needed.  However, I wasn’t excited about what I saw – the school closings, shootings, lack of resources for teachers, community leaders and ultimately the disenfranchisement of mostly African-Americans.  I wasn’t surprised to see this happening because this storm had been brewing since I was a freshman in high school.  Though it’s one of the greatest cities in America, it’s also one the most segregated cities in America.  As viewers continue to watch this ground-breaking series, I hope this essay can create a dialogue about following:

THE GREAT GENTRIFICATION OF CHICAGO 

My freshman year in high school I wrote a column via the Chicago Tribune Kids section on the murder of a 7-year-old boy, Dantrell Davis, killed in gang crossfire while walking to Jenner Elementary School with his mother in the Cabrini-Green housing projects.  As a high school freshman at Kenwood Academy, I couldn’t understand how someone younger than me could be murdered doing something right.  But I also couldn’t understand why Mr. Davis was getting so much national attention when he wasn’t the first child to be killed due to gang violence in Chicago.  I came to realize that the reason his murder was receiving so much attention was due to Cabrini-Green, the massive housing project made famous by the television show “Good Times”… it was in close proximity to what is known as the “Gold-Coast” of Chicago, thus making its land extremely valuable.

The more negative attention Cabrini-Green received, the easier it made it for city officials to tear down the cluster of high-rise, high-risk buildings and replace them with the landscape of high-rise, high-priced condos.  Yet on the other side of town, there sat a housing project by the name of Robert Taylor Homes that was just as violent and even more massive, but Robert Taylor Homes didn’t get nearly the amount of attention because the land wasn’t nearly as valuable.  But all of this was just the theory of a high school freshman, that hadn’t been proved yet.

Today if you visit my beautiful hometown and venture to where the Cabrini-Green Projects once stood, you will see it’s been replaced with those high-rise, high-priced condos.  I guess my theory wasn’t just a theory after all! The city eventually tore down the other housing projects too, displacing their former residents into other communities including the suburbs with no structure or foundation to follow and help them rise above their current situations.

Though these projects did need to be demolished, the violence and despair didn’t cease—it just changed zip codes.  To his credit, what former Mayor Daley did with the city is amazing.  Chicago probably has the nicest Martin Luther King Drive in America largely due to gentrification.  Despite the critics, Daley beautified The Loop, Downtown, the north side of Chicago and parts of the south side.  He made Chicago one of the most attractive places in America and even made the city an Olympic host nominee.  Anyone who visits Chicago during the summertime will probably say the same.  However, those people more than likely aren’t going deep into the south side or further west to see and feel some of the hopelessness and violence plaguing those communities.

SUMMERTIME CHI

The term “Summertime Chi” for mainstream media and non-Chicagoans was made popular by rapper and Chicago native, Kanye West.  West used this term in a rap song to illustrate the nostalgia of a beautiful summer in Chicago growing up.  However, “Summertime Chi” can also be known as “Chi-Raq:” that’s Chicago mixed with the violence of war-zones like Iraq.  Still, any kid growing up in Chicago, then and now, always looks forward to the summer as an end to the brutal winters.

Some may not think it possible, but in a city like Chicago there is a downside to the summer.  Summertime is also the height of violence season in the Chi.  Like most major cities, violence happens year round in Chicago, however, during the winter months everyone seeks shelter from the arctic temperatures and almost no one can be found wandering the streets.  But on that first warm day, gangs and other lawless characters come out of hibernation for the upcoming months.

Summer is also high time for gang recruitment of the younger kids to replace their fellow members who have been murdered, locked-up or simply looking to get stronger.  Simple mathematics…the more employees you have or in this case, foot soldiers, the more efficient the drug enterprise on the streets becomes and then the more bodies you have to defend the set turf.

 THE PERFECT STORM 

Years of a mismanaged Chicago Public School system + no home structure + dissipation of community programs.

NATIVE TO NATION

I’m a product of the Chicago Public School (CPS) system and proud of it.  I believe in the public school education system as my daughter attends a public school here in Atlanta.  And while I commend what some of the charter schools are doing for young people of color in Chicago (i.e., Urban Prep) the fact is most parents can’t send their children to a charter or private school.  Therefore, the only option becomes CPS. Regardless of their circumstances or home address, those parents are entitled to a quality education for their kids.  The 35 Gates Scholars featured on the first episode of Chicagoland was positive to see but what about the thousands upon thousands of students who aren’t Gates scholars?  Do we overlook them as if they aren’t also children of Chicago?

I have spoken to several CPS teachers over the years and they attribute a lot of the struggle to the turnstile change of leadership and lack of vision that is hindering CPS (i.e., mismanagement of budgets, teachers’ pensions).  These teachers who are in fact passionate about their students are struggling to educate them due to the minimal resources and support they receive.  The success highlighted at Fenger Academy High School on the far southside of Chicago is a great example, because it shows what can be accomplished with adequate resources and qualified leadership.  However, the $1.6 million grant that Fenger HS received to help in its progress, will soon expire. What happens then?  Does forward progress stop and leave the school at a standstill? What about the schools who didn’t receive funding at all? Will those schools ever get the opportunity to give students in their perspective communities a chance to learn at the highest level?

PARENT TO PARENT

As I listen to some people in the community, the general consensus is “this generation of children is running wild”.  Some want to blame social-media, others want to blame rap music, but no one wants to accept responsibility for themselves.  I take offense to it all.  As someone who grew up in the 90s, I can remember (minus the social-media) people saying the same things about us.  During my elementary and high school years, I was exposed to some of the negativity and even got into some significant trouble of my own.  But the one thing that saved me from going down a path of detriment was my PARENTS.  My parents were that filter, that teacher, that disciplinarian and that supporter that every child needs growing up.  It didn’t matter what I saw or was exposed to, when I got home that was no longer my reality, and if I ever thought about it becoming so, I knew I would have to answer to my parents.

Today’s children are being raised by the streets, the internet and television with no one to guide them.  What a child learns at school, if it is positive, has to be reinforced at home.  Our children in Chicago aren’t born killers, drug-dealers or gang-bangers. They are being molded into those because of the absence of guidance at home that is paramount to countering the negativity they face when they step outside their home.  As a parent under 40, I try to be involved with my daughter at every level because I understand what she’s up against. And I understand that if she fails it’s because we have failed her.

As adults/parents, if we continue to shift the blame, the cycle will continue.  We have to hold ourselves accountable and recommit to our children to ensure that they get what they need despite their circumstances because they were simply born into this world, they didn’t create it.

On my 16th birthday, 18th birthday, 21st birthday and 25th birthday my Dad would always congratulate me.  Not because those are just typical momentous ages in a young person’s life but because growing up in Chicago as an African-American male, I beat the statistics that said I wouldn’t graduate from high school and would be locked up or dead. As parents we have the power to and MUST change the stats!

PEER TO PEER

As an entrepreneur, I believe the entrepreneurial spirit is the best way to invoke change.  You have to take a simplistic approach on achieving a goal.  Lack of resources cannot be the excuse to not get the job done.  I do understand some politics and bureaucracy seems to be a necessary evil though I am not a fan of it.  The only things that can counter are to re-energize the teachers/community leaders, inspire the parents/kids and galvanize the young professionals in the city.

1.  While I think the marches and peace rallies are cool and they do sometimes bring attention to issues, once everyone goes home the streets go right back to what they were before the marches and rallies took place.  I’d rather see those resources allocated to efforts that may prove to be more sustainable.  For example, no change can be brought to Chicago if we don’t get the parents involved in their children’s lives.  A lot of parents themselves are searching for hope, inspiration, and some sense of who they are.  If we can motivate these parents to make change in themselves it will ultimately affect their children.  Again, it begins and ends at home.

2. There are thousands of committed teachers and community leaders in Chicago who go as far as using their own personal resources to see that things get done.  But this effort can be draining personally and financially.  When they become drained an aura of hopelessness is created.  Similar to the parents, there has to be programs and platforms in place that give them hope and re-energize their passion for educating our children.

3.  How do we accomplish the previous two objectives?  We challenge all of the young professionals, entrepreneurs and religious leaders to go into these communities to inspire the children and adults, alike.  Chicago has some of the greatest young talent with even greater resources.  I truly believe the most effective way for the message to be received is if parents, teachers and children see someone that they can relate to and/or someone in their peer group.  The message then becomes authentic instead of preachy and the success they see from others becomes real for themselves.

– Aaron Paxton Arnold is an Entrepreneur Lifestyle Expert | Kiss 104.1 FM correspondent for news, entertainment, lifestyle | Founder, MusicIsMyBusiness | Speaker | Host.  In 2012, Aaron was named one of 125 top Alumni in the 125 year history of Florida A&M University and was recognized by Inc Magazine in 2008 for having “One of America’s Smartest New Companies (Under 30).” Follow him @MrMimb.

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