“I definitely think this neighborhood will get there,” says Lakerrie Forrest, a freshman at DePaul University from Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. “There's a lot of people who generally care about this neighborhood. This is our roots. We care about it.”

Every Friday afternoon at Carter’s barber shop on Chicago’s South Side, you can get your hair cut and listen in on the The Barber Shop Show, a podcast recorded there and hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele. It’s usually a show about all the best of life and culture in Chicago—film festivals, museum exhibits and cultural events that bring life to the Windy City.

Just after Memorial Day, though, Steele introduced a topic guaranteed to stifle the usual bustle and shop talk in the background. “Over this past weekend,” he said, “twelve people were killed and more than fifty people, including a four-year-old girl, were wounded.”

This was far from Chicago’s bloodiest weekend, but then summer, which is high season for street violence, had not yet begun.

The neighborhood around Carter’s barber shop knew what was coming. On June 7th, the city recorded its 1,000th shooting victim of the year, nearly double the number of people shot in New York and Los Angeles over the same period. The July 4th weekend left 65 people shot and ten of them dead, including a seven-year-old boy.

Violence is concentrated in pockets on Chicago’s South and West sides, and the city has been referred to as a war zone for good reason. Yale sociologist Andrew Papachristos found that the average annual homicide rate during a recent decade in one West Side Chicago neighborhood was 64 per 100,000 people, nearly the casualty rate for civilians in Iraq during the worst of the war, giving Chicago the nickname, “Chiraq.”  

That day, though, the barber-shop podcast was about a new project called Youth Shout Out, sponsored by Allstate, whose corporate headquarters are in Chicago, to find new ways to protect kids from yet another summer of bloodshed. The project was based on a simple idea: listening to kids. “You’ve got all these kids who are surrounded by this violence,” as Allstate’s program coordinator KaShia Moua puts it, “and where are their voices in this? What do they need to make their neighborhoods safer and more accessible?”

Youth Shout Out started by recruiting fourteen young men and women from some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago and partnering them with gravitytank, an innovation consultancy new to the problem of urban violence. Their young recruits began by guiding the consultants through the streets, pointing out all the no-go areas controlled by gangs.

“During the first couple of weeks of orientation we gave the kids maps,” recalls Moua. “We asked them to put a black x on blocks that weren’t safe, and pretty soon it was just a sea of black x’s.”

They also showed the consultants the routes they followed precisely to and from school every day, cognitive maps they had developed in order to survive.

One of those program participants was 18-year-old Evelyn Samano. “I know what it feels like not to want to go home,” she said on the Barber Shop podcast, “to feel like you want to stay in school to avoid going home.” Last summer five people were killed on the block where Samano lives. Two of them were children. “When you’re trying to face these issues,” she said, “you need help.”

That was the point of bringing in gravitytank, which invited the kids to their offices to tell their stories and talk about their fears and coping strategies. Then they brainstormed ideas to make their communities safer, complete with bulletin boards and post-it-notes. The kids turned out to have a lot of useful, transformative ideas and had just been waiting for the right person, or organization, to listen to them.

As gravitytank’s associate partner David O’Donnell explained, those ideas centered around some simple principles: Despite the “massive challenges they face every day, the solutions they were suggesting were relatively simple—productive activities to do with their time, safe places to do them, and a safe way to get around. So a lot of our ideas are around those three things.”

On June 4th, when the Youth Shout Out ideas were unveiled, more than 250 community leaders gathered at the Museum of Science and Industry, a large and inspiring physical space with life-sized airplanes hanging from the ceiling, serving as a reminder that every important innovation begins as an idea. The event began with a two-minute video (below), which quieted the audience and introduced the program with force and eloquence.

What followed was a presentation of eight proposals by the program’s young members to a panel of local leaders from the civic, design, media and tech communities. Get IN Chicago, the city’s only public-private partnership dedicated exclusively to reducing violence, was sufficiently impressed to pledge half a million dollars to fund four of those ideas:

  • Micro Jobs—Providing small, useful tasks in protected community centers that would give kids a safe and honest way to make pocket money;
  • Mobile Peace Leaders—Giving teens ways to help each other with conflict resolution and dealing with fear and anger;
  • Urban Oasis—Transforming empty lots into safe hangouts with cafes and recreation spaces that the kids would be paid to maintain; and,
  • Neighborhood Networks—Helping kids move safely around their neighborhoods with better street lighting, security emergency buttons, and resident patrols.

Implementation is already underway, including the transformation of a vacant lot in Englewood into an urban oasis, but the biggest test of success will come next summer.

Asked what came as her biggest surprise about Youth Shout Out, project coordinator KaShia Moua talked about Evelyn Samano, who just graduated high school and will be going to the University of Iowa this fall. “You’d think she would go, ‘Great! I’m going off to college and I’m never looking back,’ but it’s not like that at all for these kids. They have a great love for their community. What they’re saying is, ‘I don’t want to leave my family or leave what I know. I want to make it better here, make it safer. This will always be my home.”

CHICAGO’S OTHER YOUNG REFORMERS

Watch: Allstate’s “Good Starts Young” film series