Making a Difference

Making a Difference

Community groups take action to stop gun violence

Guns are the worst thing that ever happened to black people,” says Englewood resident Tamar Manasseh. “You think slavery was bad? Guns, guns are worse.”

In 2017, 3,567 people were shot in Chicago, according to the Chicago Tribune crime team. The city also saw 674 homicide deaths.

Long after the physical wounds from gun violence heal, the trauma of the experience lingers. Anger, sleeplessness, anxiety and depression become daily issues, affecting not only the individual but also their close family, friends and community. That’s where local organizations and individuals can step in to help.

“You don’t have to be a direct victim to the violence or trauma to experience post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Liza Suarez, co-director of the Urban Youth Trauma Center and clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “You don’t even have to witness it.” Just knowing that a loved one has been impacted by violence can lead to the same type of reaction as someone who is a direct victim, Suarez says.

Those impacted by gun violence might be worried about their own safety, get easily startled, experience problems sleeping or concentrating, become more irritable or have outbursts of emotions as they constantly react to reminders of the way that trauma and violence impacted their lives. They’re also at increased risk of physical problems like diabetes, heart disease, stroke and obesity. Some end up coping by abusing alcohol and other substances, or they participate in more violence as a way to take control or retaliate.

The Urban Youth Trauma Center and other local groups, as well as concerned individuals, are taking a stand to help stop gun violence in their communities, proving that people can make a difference.

Keeping watch

Manasseh was tired of seeing gun violence destroy lives in her Englewood neighborhood. As the mother of two children, she wasn’t content to sit on the sidelines and wait for the next headline. She wanted to change the narrative. She wanted to build up her community, not let it crumble.

What do kids hate most? she wondered. They hate being watched. So, she set out a lawn chair on her front yard and invited others to join her. She didn’t believe that teenagers would shoot people while others — especially mothers — were watching.

Summer months, weekends and late evening hours tend to be when shootings and homicides peak, according to the Chicago Tribune crime tracker, making it even more important to have a presence in the neighborhood.

Today, the mission of the organization she started in 2015, Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings (MASK), brings out more than 150 people every afternoon in Englewood, seven days a week, from when school ends in June through Labor Day in September.

You don’t need a degree. There are no qualifications. You’ve just got to care.”

In the process, Manasseh has been building up her community. As people come together every night, talking and getting to know each other, MASK has become an incubator for ideas on how to stop Chicago’s gun violence.

Now MASK groups are helping to keep watch in Englewood, Lawndale and Hyde Park, as well as farther afield in Memphis, Tennessee; Staten Island, New York; and Evansville, Indiana, showing that concerned individuals can take a stand.

The importance of building community

Community engagement, community awareness and training are the three key pieces Suarez and her team focus on at the Urban Youth Trauma Center. Their work is not limited to victims of gun violence. In fact, their partnerships have shown how their work can help others, including law enforcement, become agents of change.

The Park Forest Police Department had reached out to the Urban Youth Trauma Center because it was dissatisfied with its community service program for kids who were arrested and eligible for municipal court violations.

“They were being sent to pick up trash around the neighborhood, and [the agents] wanted to do something more,” Suarez says. “Now, instead of picking up trash, the kids are being sent to our violence prevention program.”

The program, facilitated by the Urban Youth Trauma Center and the Park Forest Police Department, teaches kids about the impact of trauma and violence in their lives and provides them with important skills to cope with challenges and make better choices.

The center also trained the police department in its violence-prevention, trauma-informed training program and organized a summit to engage the city of Park Forest and youth-service providers in a conversation about how to better meet the needs of kids who are impacted by violence.

Suarez recommends looking at our roles within the community and the people with whom we interact to find ways to help prevent violence.

Helping to heal

For those who don’t know where to begin, Help Heal Chicago is an easily searchable database with volunteer and donor opportunities to help stop Chicago violence. Chicago resident Sara Shacter launched the site after reading a newspaper column encouraging readers to do something about the violence plaguing our city. Through her research, she realized many organizations throughout the city were tackling the issue from different angles, an approach she says is key to making a difference.

It can be hard for individuals to know what to do to enact change, so the site lists a variety of organizations working to stop violence. From advocacy and food to juvenile justice and violence-prevention programs, Shacter recommends choosing a category that you feel strongly about, searching for organizations and reaching out to them to see how you can help.

There are no easy solutions to gun violence and its impact on Chicago communities, but getting involved to help change the narrative doesn’t need to be complicated. Pull up a chair, Manasseh says. It’s that easy.

“You don’t need a degree,” she adds. “There are no qualifications. You’ve just got to care.”

Manasseh might be on to something. Her theory about not believing teenagers would shoot other people while someone was watching has held up. “It hasn’t happened yet” while MASK has been there, she says. Still, she’s not planning to stop keeping watch anytime soon.


Help Heal Chicago

Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings (MASK)

Urban Youth Trauma Center

Originally published in Fall 2018/Winter 2019 issue of Chicago Health
Members of Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings (MASK). Photo courtesy of MASK