Credo Members at Brookings Photo credit: Ralph Alswang for The Brookings Institution.

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Can Jobs Make Chicago Safer?

For years, communities in Chicago have grappled with poverty, systemic racism and violence, and too few viable economic opportunities, particularly for men of color. For young people in Chicago, gun violence is nothing new.

But a program called Chicago CRED (Creating Real Economic Destiny) has been working to combat the ubiquity of gun violence with an unconventional approach. Run by former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the program tries to break the cycle of violence by finding the young people most likely to be involved in gun violence—young black men—and preparing them for the workforce.

“People often say, ‘Oh, it’s great you’re giving guys a second chance.’ I think, honestly, for many of our guys it’s a first chance,” Duncan said at a recent Brookings Institution event discussing the program. “They’re making a rational choice now because they never had other, better rational choices.”

The event also featured program leaders and three young men in the program, who discussed the extraordinary circumstances they faced before enrolling and how, with the help of Chicago CRED and their peers, they have begun to turn their lives around.

Before the Program: “An Ongoing Cycle” of Violence

A year before Malik Tiger, 22, entered Chicago CRED, he says his life was out of control. “In and out of jail, selling drugs, catching cases,” he said. “I didn’t have no direction, and I wasn’t looking for no direction either.”

Tiger said he first got involved in illegal activities at the age of 12. He and other participants in the program emphasized how cycles of violence and gang rivalries can get passed down through generations.

“It’s an ongoing cycle. It ain’t gonna stop unless we break it. Unless we change, unless we make a difference in our community,” Tiger said.

 

For many of these young men, Duncan said, a gang is the best option to survive, earn money, and protect their families. That’s why Chicago CRED’s goal—providing “a pathway from the streets and into the legal economy,” as Duncan put it—is so important.

During the Program: Social, Emotional, and Job-Readiness Support

There are a few things that make Chicago CRED appealing for its cohort of about 30 young men of color, all of them from the West and South Sides of Chicago. First, it pays participants minimum wage while they’re in the program and sets them up for a long-term career after.

They also get back on track to earn their high school diplomas and receive training in areas like construction, manufacturing, community beautification, and landscaping. The program then works to match each participant to a long-term, full-time job that has career potential.

“Me, I didn’t think I could get my high school diploma. I dropped out of school my sophomore year,” said Flunder.  “We were at war. School? That was the last thing on my mind. But they helped me get my high school diploma.”

Mentor Jervon Hicks smiles at Chicago CRED participant Damien Flunder during event at The Brookings Institute
Mentor Jervon Hicks smiles at Chicago CRED participant Damien Flunder. Photo credit: Ralph Alswang for The Brookings Institution.

The young men also receive mental and social support services: cognitive behavioral therapy to help work through trauma and develop conflict resolution skills, personalized tutoring towards their education, substance abuse counseling, legal advice, and help securing stable housing.

And finally—and perhaps most importantly—Chicago CRED connects each young man to a life coach who encourages and challenges him to set goals and follow through on them. Flunder said that one of the most important parts of the program was finding a “role model” in his coach, Roger Jones.

Coaches, who experienced many of the same difficulties in their own youth, develop long-term, supportive relationships with participants. Malik Tiger explained how important his coach, Jervon Hicks, is to him.

“I can call this man at 1:00 in the morning, 4:00 in the morning,” Tiger said. “I tell him I’m in a predicament, I can’t get myself out, he’ll come and find me.”

When asked about his coaching, Hicks responded, “I’m just here to give back so they don’t go through the things I went through.”

After the Program: Leading Chicago Forward

The program typically lasts eight to 16 months, and participants leave once they’re placed in jobs. But even after they graduate, they receive a year of ongoing life coaching.

Flunder grinned as he told the audience how, that very morning, he’d received and accepted a full-time job offer from Coldstone Creamery.

Chicago CRED participants discuss earning their high school diplomas and their goals for the future.

“Now, since I’ve been in the program, they pretty much showed me my self-worth,” said Tiger. “They showed me a brighter way and a brighter future.”

“Chicago CRED is the only program that’s guaranteeing that they’re gonna hold on to us, make sure that we got jobs, make sure we get our high school diplomas, the only program that gave us life coaches,” he continued. “We need this program to keep us alive.”

Arne Duncan closed the panel by expressing his optimism about how these individuals are going to change the city.

“These guys aren’t the problem in Chicago, they’re the solution,” he said. “Come back in four or five years, I’m convinced that as a city we’re going to be dramatically better. And it’s because of their leadership.”

For more examples of programs like this one, check out Café Momentum: Helping Young People Find Skills, Housing, Healthcare, Hope and sign up for our e-newsletter to get solution-driven stories delivered directly to your inbox.