Monthly Archives: March 2010

On Education in Chicago: Gangs and Drugs and a Role for Civic Media

[This post is mainly for readers of the snippet of it in the education Topic of Edemocracy’s Chicago Forum. But the darn thing took off on me and got so long I had to put the full text here. Bottom, line this post argues for the futility of continuing the decades of incremental school reform that have left so many Chicago schools in shambles. It makes a case for creating an interactive problem-solving media that will enable Chicago to address, in its totality, the underlying problems of poverty and a gang/drug economy that threatens Chicago schools and Chicago children.]

Before it can reform its public schools, Chicago has no choice but to abandon the decades of failed incremental practices that have marked all attempts at school reform since the 1960’s.

Only then will Chicagoans be in a position to address what, during these decades of neglect, has become the primary and most deadly threat to Chicago schools and children: the city’s gang/drug problem. And let’s face it: dealing with this problem entails dealing with problem of institutionalized poverty – geographically structured in Chicago along strictly racial lines – that underlies it.

Put from the perspective of Chicago students who have lost faith in the ability of adults – parents, teachers, police – to protect, let alone educate, them: Chicago school reform will be a lost cause until Chicago students can see the seemingly insoluble problem of gangs and drugs being credibly addressed and solved by their parents, teachers and city leaders. More than this, school reform will be a lost cause until Chicago students can see themselves deeply and centrally  involved in creating and implementing viable solutions.

I know it’s going out on a limb to say things like this. No one else does, which is understandable, given three factors: a) the assumption that Chicago’s gang/drug problem is a problem to be solved by adults, not children, b) the intractability of the problem itself, and c) the fact that no Chicago political or civic leader has ever attempted to engage Chicagoans of all ages in addressing a problem that, as Mayor Richard M Daley (of all people) said in 1992, has “cost Chicago two generations of young people”.

Yet Martin Luther King, were he alive today, would surely agree that gang/drug reform must precede (or go hand in hand with) school reform in America’s inner cities. In his last years, King, in his ill-fated yet conceptually sound Poor Peoples’ Campaign, struggled to focus America’s attention on the evils of governmentally institutionalized, racially structured poverty. All too clearly he saw the mechanisms that engender and institutionalize poverty in America and the mechanisms that keep Americans – even poor Americans – from addressing them at the ballot box. And since his murder in 1968, these mechanisms have created the phenomenon of gangs and drugs that blights substantial portions of virtually every city in America, to say nothing of their spread to rural areas as well.

Read “Dreams from My Father” and you will see that President Obama, as a community organizer in Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens, understands what King understood as well. Problem is, Obama has a lot on his plate and no one is pressing him, or Mayor Daley for that matter, to do anything about the inner city poverty and the gang/drug phenomenon that is its offspring.

For two generations Chicago, like the rest of America, has swept the issue of gangs and drugs under a carpet. In so doing, it has hidden from itself the horrendous economic costs of this neglect: to its schools, to the productivity of its workforce, and to taxpayers funding its overfilled jails and rehab centers. Chicago has hidden from itself the human cost as well: of hundreds of thousands of lives and families lost to gangs and drugs. And what about the civic costs of this neglect, which have divided the history Chicago since 1960 into a tale of two cities where one half of the city understands nothing of the history of the other.

In 1992, there was a flicker of awareness that for a very brief moment promised to generate real understanding and action. It came during a speech that Mayor Daley gave to a group of Chicago student leaders. No media were present, so the Mayor spoke bluntly and powerfully. He was right that day, astoundingly so, even to the point of admitting that adults had failed to solve the gang/drug problem and challenging the students present to “formulate a drug policy of your own.” But students never did, in part because their leader was a charismatic opportunist named Phillip Bleicher whose own, personal agenda would lead to a 2006 indictment by State Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Well, those days are dead and gone. But what about the future? My twenty years of experience in inner city public schools in New Haven and Chicago convince me that big city school reform, absent the solution of the gang/drug problem, is a futile undertaking. To verify this take, just ask at-risk CPS students and families if their schools can be improved without first solving the problem of gangs and drugs. They will likely tell you, at first, that gangs and drugs are here to stay, and that’s why school reform will never take hold. But press them, and they may also tell you that Chicago could solve its gang/drug problem if it wanted to. The best Chicago cops I know have told me the same thing: Chicago could solve it if it wanted to.

Granted, as things stand, with its gang/drug problem allowed to fester, Chicago will always be able to create some first rate schools in safe neighborhoods. And dedicated reformers will always find ways to work wonders at smaller schools in rough neighborhoods. But these incremental improvements will not improve the system as a whole. It will continue to stagnate as it has for the past 50 years with the exception of the leadership provided by Paul Vallas.

Why? It’s not because Chicagoans don’t want better schools: indeed they do! Rather it’s because the schools lack courageous leaders who listen to the people – especially students – and who act courageously on the basis of what they learn. Vallas, in my judgment, provided such leadership.

The capacity of genuine leaders – school superintendents – is the thesis of Mary J. Herrick’s magisterial The Chicago Public Schools: a Social and Political History (1979 and sadly out of print), perhaps the greatest history ever written of a big city school system. This great book entirely confirms the importance of citizen-responsive leadership to a successful school system.

On a more positive note: I have long been convinced that the process of school reform WILL take hold and WILL succeed when and as Chicago’s political and civic leaders and its print and electronic media decide at long last to trust and empower ordinary Chicagoans – parents, students, teachers, taxpayers, businesses and police – to address and resolve the gang/drug problem in their schools and neighborhoods.

The interactive communications technologies needed to launch such a problem-solving mechanism have existed for years but have yet to be used, anywhere, for this purpose.

Since young people in particular are the primary victims, consumers, and perpetrators in the world of gangs and drugs, responsibility for initiating this process will fall on the shoulders of a DYNAMIC CIVIC MEDIA, partnering with both public and commercial community and mainstream media, to give Chicagoans of ALL ages, including reformed and current gangbangers, an informed voice in defining and solving the gang/drug problem as it exists in their neighborhoods and schools and as it exists citywide.

These students have answers. They’re with the Mikva Challenge and they spoke out after Derrion Albert’s murder at Fenger High.

Gangbangers I’ve met consistently tell me they would prefer a different way of life were it open to them. There was at least a time in their lives – like when they were very young – when the last thing they wanted was to be a gangbanger. The creation of alternative careers to gangs and drugs will  therefore be crucial to solving the problem.

In 1990, my eyes were opened when someone told me that even if I could wave a magic wand on Sunday and make all gangs and drugs disappear, I would still have from 50,000 to 100,000 young gangbangers hanging around with nothing to do on Monday. A huge problem, this, the rebuilding of the human spirit, one individual at a time, from the depredations of a criminal lifestyle and in the absence of viable economic alternatives to the drug economy that for decades has supported many Chicago neighborhoods.

In its robust early years, Chicago called itself the “I Will” city. To solve its gang/drug problem, Chicago must become a “We Will” city. The will to solve the problem of gangs and drugs must originate with ordinary Chicagoans, from people who are just sick and tired of what’s been going on and who feel they have nothing to lose and perhaps something to gain by speaking out. The political and civic leadership needed to solve the problem will surface when, and only when, when a certain number of energetic Chicagoans – relatively small, I think, given the huge leveraging power of modern communications technologies – have publicly defined the problem, offered solutions of their own and pressed City Hall and the powers that be – really pressed them – to solve it.

I’m excited to say that in coming months, Chicago Civic Media will launch an online mechanism,, designed to enable all Chicagoans – by citizen vote informed by expert input – to solve problems like this one and to maximize the opportunities will most benefit all Chicagoans. We’re looking to team up in all kinds of ways with others who feel that the future of news in Chicago, and the best future of Chicago itself, lies in the creation of interactive communication mechanisms that make informed problem-solvers of citizens and government.

BTW, our big thing is not TRANSPARENCY, as important as transparency is in giving citizens access to key government data. We say this because it’s not by the one-way VISUAL process of citizens SEEING data that communities can define and solve the problems that matter most to them. As an alternative this visual process, we are fine-tuning an ORAL process of LISTENING and RESPONDING. We propose an ongoing, structured, mediated and refereed process of mutual responsiveness and accountability between citizens and government. This process has visual elements – you’ll be able to post photos and videos on our site – but it’s essentially an oral one that facilitates ongoing problem solving and opportunity-realizing dialog.