Editorial: Criminal Justice, Violence and Trauma among Chicago's Youth

Contributing Author: Cristina Orozco

“We need to reframe what we see as the problem to have any hope at a solution.”  - Dr. Selwyn Rogers

Violence is a disease, a virulent one at that, disproportionately affecting Chicago’s young black males. This fatal narrative isn’t new, yet “has been reduced to statistics on TV. We need to talk about this in the context of humanity.” Kim Foxx said. Her panel at the Chicago Cultural Center on June 9th on trauma, violence, and the impact of the criminal justice system on young black males did just that.

Kim Foxx, Cook County State Attorney, framed the discussion with the reality of the numbers.

  • “4% of the population accounts for 50% of the murders in Chicago” she said. In 2016 alone, 754 people were murdered in Chicago.
  • 19% were between the ages of 10-19. 
  • 45% were between the ages of 20-29.

Practitioners on the panel explored the need to look at violence as a disease, the correlation between perpetrators and victims, and how a trauma informed approach can drastically alter the perception and treatment of these young men. Shari Runner, President & CEO of Chicago Urban League, also grounded the discussion with critical context: These young men are growing up in areas that have historically been impoverished and have struggled with unemployment.

Merriam Webster defines trauma as: “disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.” A highly contagious symptom, trauma touches all with ties to the system: “We are traumatizing people. Victims are men of color and we won’t resource it. I’m traumatized from just working in the system” said Candace Jones, who earlier in her career ran a Cook County juvenile detention center. 

Panelist Eddie Bocanegra, Director of YMCA Metro Chicago Youth Safety & Violence Prevention, made a startling confession midway through the discussion; with roots from a low-income neighborhood in Chicago he had spent almost 14 years incarcerated, punishment for committing robbery at 18 years old. But this former inmate is also an alum of the prestigious University of Chicago. Eddie gave voice to the wish that he was the norm and not the exception: “You see my suit but what you don’t see are my tattoos and scars, the psychological and emotional trauma that I’m still dealing with” he said.

Kim Foxx and many others who did not feel safe growing up in their communities are examples of positive deviance. A term introduced during the discussion, positive deviance is based on “the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges.[1]

Eddie’s story is why I am not only hopeful, but committed to inspiring action. Exceptions, or positive deviants, are changing the narrative. In my seat at the Chicago Cultural Center I realized something - I am surrounded by positive deviants who are making an impact every single day.

But this work cannot be done alone: “We need to challenge the Trump supporters who still think he is doing a good job…How do we break down these walls that were built before he brought them up?” Shari said.

While I may not know exactly how, I am hopeful that we WILL figure out how. By changing the conversation to one of chronic disease, where the “cure” is NOT working” we are shaping the solution: “The reasons why these zip codes have concentrated poverty – this is not an accident…the poor are demonized in our country. We have to decide as a country, as a community, that we are doing this wrong. We need to decide to invest in the community vs. things that aren’t working and locking everyone up” said John Legend.

In the words of Eddie: “A person has hope until they are in a box.”

Panelists: Candace Jones (Senior Advisor at Arne Duncan’s Emerson Collective), Dr. Selwyn Rogers (Director of the University of Chicago Adult Trauma Center), Eddie Bocanegra (Director of YMCA Metro Chicago Youth Safety & Violence Prevention) and Shari Runner (President & CEO of Chicago Urban League). Kim Foxx, John Legend

[1] http://www.positivedeviance.org

Christina Orozsco currently is the Senior Associate of College Success at Chicago Scholars where she works to support first generation students. Cristina attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a Bachelor’s degree in History. Cristina enjoys reading, listening to her favorite Spotify playlists, and bragging about how she is from the most important city in the world, New York.