The room was so packed at the DuSable Museum of African American History Wednesday night the audience was lined against the wall and spilled out into the hallway.
The South Side museum and the Cook County Bar Association hosted a panel discussion on solving violence in Chicago’s African-American communities through economic opportunity.
Panelists addressed sometimes emotional audience members, and tensions occasionally ran high among panel members.
Panelists were Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp; Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin; public policy expert Amara Enyia; business owner Trez Pugh III; and Thomas Wortham III, a retired Chicago police officer whose son, a fellow CPD officer, was killed in 2010 outside the family’s home.
Boykin said young people in the African-American community need mentors and visible leadership to deter them from becoming involved in gangs or selling drugs.
“A child can’t be what he can’t see,” Boykin said. “They’re going to eat one way or another. I’d rather that they eat legally.”
Boykin said without entrepreneurship, employment or other opportunities, young black men and women end up finding alternative – and often criminal – ways to make ends meet.
Pugh said he valued mentorship but countered that as a business owner, he often finds it difficult to hire reliable people in his coffee shop, Sip and Savor. He said young people have an “attitude of entitlement” and frequently show up late, or not at all, to a new job.
He recounted a new employee telling him, “I’m only an hour late.”
Panelists hotly debated whether Chicago youth are the problem, at one point requiring the moderator to step in amid shouts of disagreement from the crowd.
Zopp said the city has programs like One Summer Chicago, which offers employment and internship to 14- to 24-year-olds unable to get a job or training elsewhere. Zopp said programs like these help better equip young people for the workplace, but she acknowledged training and soft skills should continue to be a focus.
One Summer Chicago employed more than 31,000 young people last year out of 77,000 who applied.
Other programs mentioned during the panel included 100 Black Men Chicago, a mentoring program the panel’s moderator, Rendel Solomon, said provides financial literacy training for adults. Many of the panelists agreed that providing financial literacy to African Americans is imperative to becoming more financially stable.
Boykin said another issue facing the black community is lack of unity. He challenged the audience to work to solve problems themselves, instead of waiting for city and state government to work through slow, legislative processes.
“The reality is, will we support each other? We could have collectively [worked together] but we didn’t do it,” Boykin said.
He noted that Willie Wilson, a former Chicago mayoral and presidential candidate, chipped in his own money to cover bail for those who couldn’t afford it and to help others pay delinquent property tax bills.
“That’s neighbors helping neighbors,” Boykin said.
After the panel discussion, Enyia said she felt confident the discussion would lead to actionable solutions, especially for the Austin community. She said many of the organizations mentioned were specifically founded to address the needs of a community like Austin or are already operating in the neighborhood.