CHICAGO — Politicians, pundits and pontificators on social media offer no shortage of simple sounding solutions to Chicago’s violence problem: ‘Lock people up!’ ‘Give people jobs!’  are common refrains. But if solutions were as simple as soundbites Chicago and other big cities wouldn’t have just endured their most violent few years in decades. 

“It annoys me,” Michelle Rashad said of the people who offer soundbite solutions to problems that plague her community. “Even that mindset allows us to normalize [violence] and say ‘Okay, if that person just had a job they wouldn’t be out here.’

Rashad was born and raised in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. She excelled at Lindblom High School and travelled internationally after learning to speak Mandarin as a teenager. She was working a job in the corporate world in 2016 when she saw Black Lives Matter demonstrations downtown outside her office window. 

“I had all this anger inside myself and I was saying ‘What are you going to do?’” she said.  “So I quit my job and I came back to my childhood home in Englewood.”

Today, Rashad is the executive director of Imagine Englewood If…  The organization presides over a “peace campus” that consists of 16 properties that were once abandoned homes or vacant lots and have been transformed into spaces of opportunity. People can take advantage of everything from social services to gardening to job training on the block.

Donya Smith says showing young people there are options beyond guns and gangs is key to improving communities and decreasing violence. Smith was shot five times in a single incident in 2011.   

“When you’re that young – living that life – you really don’t see a bunch of good things happen,” Smith said.  “It’s more like ‘nothing good could happen.’”

Police data reviewed by WGN Investigates show an increasing number of kids 17-years-old and younger are dying after being shot in Chicago.  Thirty-five juveniles were shot and killed in Chicago in 2019.  That number climbed to 59 last year. 

Smith credits the violence interruption program CeaseFire with turning his life around.  The program employs former gang members to intervene with community residents at high risk of being shot or becoming a shooter.  They visited him in his hospital room and showed a him different path.

“I was shot,” Smith said. “I thought you should gang bang until I was around people cleaned it up and showed you ain’t gotta’ do that.  You can make money legally.  You don’t have to look over your shoulder. That’s not normal.”

Smith and Rashad now continue to spread that message from their “peace campus” in Englewood hoping its heard across the city.