Hope in Change

Protesters hold up copied photos of Hadiya Pendleton at the scene where she was killed during an anti-gun violence march and
Protesters hold up copied photos of Hadiya Pendleton at the scene where she was killed during an anti-gun violence march and rally Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, in Chicago. The mounting homicide toll in President Barack Obamaᅡメs hometown is giving ammunition to both sides in the nationᅡメs debate about gun rights and safety. Chicago has some of the toughest gun restrictions in the nation, but the despite that, the relentless shootings have made it Newtown, Conn., in slow motion. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

This month, I stood next to an Urban Prep senior as he received a red and gold striped tie symbolizing his admission to college. It was an especially poignant celebration because last summer, I stood next to the same student as he fought for his life in a hospital bed. He and a friend had been targeted by a gunman in a neighbor's yard; according to the doctor, death missed him by an inch. His 16-year-old friend wasn't so lucky; he became the 290th person killed in Chicago in 2012; a year in which at least 513 people were murdered.

As Americans, we seem to have an incredible ability to compartmentalize violence and the ways in which we respond to it. The violence that ravages our biggest cities is viewed as somehow separate from the variety that occasionally surfaces in our suburbs and college campuses. We explain away urban violence as an affliction unique to our nation's under-served demographics, be it African-Americans, Latinos, or low-income populations. It is only when violence spreads to affect the people and spaces we identify as being outside the realm of violence that we allow ourselves to acknowledge it.

And now, as the killings in Aurora, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut; Chicago, Illinois; and beyond have taught us, none of us are immune. We must all identify and acknowledge the violence that saturates our cities. And most important, we must all work to change it.

Our changes must go beyond simple gun control; they must be thoughtful, comprehensive and persistent. They must include supporting community organizations, eradicating poverty, expanding mental health and substance abuse services, funding character development and restorative justice programs in schools, and exploring strategies that empower citizens so that they don't feel like the only hope they have is in a gun. Controlling the proliferation of guns is important, but supporting educational and community programs are our best bet to break the cycle of violence. Chicago Mayor Emanuel's recent expansion of "Becoming a Man" (a mentoring program for at-risk boys) is a step in the right direction. President Obama's use of the bully pulpit to draw attention to the issue is another. And media coverage leading to greater awareness like the outstanding This American Life broadcast about the violence Harper High School students in Englewood face is yet another. It will take all of our collective steps, however, to reach our destination.

In Congressional Hearing testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee last summer, I said that we were "in a profound state of crisis," and that I hoped the future would bring a decrease in the bloodshed in our city and country. Within six months we saw another mass shooting, this time at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and over two-hundred more murders in Chicago -- including a teenaged girl named Hadiya Pendleton. For me, the violence continues to hit especially close to home. Since the start of 2013, two of our students were injured by stray bullets and two parents were shot and killed in four separate incidents. Clearly, "hoping" for the violence to end isn't enough.

Yet I still do have hope. I have hope that our elected officials will have the courage to act. I have hope that the mothers and fathers who have lost their children will be able to turn their despair into determination to fight for change. I have hope that all of us will find the necessary will to work towards keeping our communities safe.

Above all, I have hope in the young man whose hand I held when he was in the hospital and shook as I handed him a tie symbolizing his triumph over tragedy, and his responsibility to -- with our help -- change our world for the better.