On a warm Friday night in Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, a group of young people gather in a stylish warehouse-turned-workspace to focus on the agenda of the evening: “What can we do for the shortys?”
It’s the weekly meeting for GoodKids MadCity, a year-and-a-half old anti-gun violence group entirely led by black and brown youth from the South and West Sides. In Chicago, theirs are the communities that disproportionately bear the cost of the city’s high rates of gun violence. In the past year, neighborhoods like Englewood and North Lawndale had four times the number of homicides than the citywide average. In Austin, it was more than seven and a half. These neighborhoods also have the fewest resources for dealing with the root causes of shootings and their aftermaths.
Figuring out what can be done to keep kids safe is perhaps a question adults should answer. GKMC’s members range from young teens to mid-20s — kids themselves, in some cases. But the youth gathered in the room aren’t waiting for adults to act. They’ve lost friends and family members to gun violence. Some are gunshot survivors themselves. They hurt, and their communities hurt, and though no one asked them to lead, no one has stepped up with sufficient solutions, either.
So, they’re coming up with their own. Founded in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting in April 2018, GKMC has grown to roughly 50 members who work to provide support to young people affected by shootings while pushing for policies that address social drivers of violence.
On tonight’s meeting agenda: planning the group’s monthly open-mic night, scouting locations for the next “feed the block” event to distribute more food to hungry neighbors, and choosing between a sports tournament or a back-to-school bonfire for the younger kids. They’re not much older than the kids they’re reaching out to, so they know what’ll be popular. If it’s going to be the bonfire, there should definitely be s’mores.
In addition to their regular events to create safe, free recreation and community for young kids, GKMC also engages in more political activities. The group co-hosted an aldermanic forum during this year’s municipal election; it’s also protested the city’s plan to spend $95 million on a new police academy, money it argues should instead be invested in mental health programs.
But the group’s core purpose, as one member puts it, is to “create space for young people to be free.”
If you’re a black or brown youth in Chicago, especially if you identify with an even further marginalized group, like disabled or queer people, freedom can be elusive and its pursuit exhausting. In GKMC’s space, a baby-faced teen can break into a happy dance as if no one is watching and not feel embarrassed — even though everybody is, in fact, watching.
Clad in leggings, jeans, and T-shirts with slogans like “BLACK: No cream, no sugar,” the members gathered tonight are bespectacled, blue-haired, and braided. They’re seated in a wide circle. A huge bag of sour candy makes the rounds. On the surface, it looks like a casual group of young folks hanging out — but they run meetings better than most adults.
Officially, GKMC is leaderless, though 38-year-old activist Kofi Ademola, who previously worked with Black Lives Matter Chicago, serves as an adult mentor. Decisions are made democratically; when a member shares good news or a positive idea, the group snaps in approval, poetry slam-style. If someone confesses to falling short on an obligation, they own up, and ask to be held accountable; the group responds by owning up to ways they could have been more supportive. Though colleagues goof and tease each other, nothing ever crosses into a diss.
That the mood is carefree and even joyous is a testament to the resiliency of the youth involved. Each one of them has been affected by gun violence, and their experience informs their work.
Chyann McQueen, 20, shared what it’s like to live in the fog of PTSD. McQueen recalled walking to a neighborhood restaurant in 2015 after running into a friend, Demetrius, on the street. While still in the restaurant, she saw police cars fly by. When she walked outside, her friends were coming up the street crying, saying Demetrius had been shot.
“I had like an out-of-body experience because I literally just saw him. I just hugged him,” McQueen said. In the aftermath, she suffered from stress and depression. She was struck by the fact that her friend’s death, and deaths from shootings that followed, were all by guns. “These weren’t natural deaths.”
The private funders and outreach groups behind the “<399” plan are bringing unprecedented coordination to gun violence prevention in the city. But without more public dollars, they say, the effort may fall short.
Paris Brown, whose friends call him “Tree,” talks openly about the fear and paranoia that consumes shooting survivors. Brown was shot and paralyzed when he was 18. After the shooting, he thought about death everywhere.
“It was deep. It was a realization that I’m gonna die. You don’t think about that normally as a youth. But after you almost die but don’t? That’s the only thing on your mind. You’re like ‘fuck, I actually am gonna die one day. I know I’m gonna die because it almost happened,’” Brown said.
“Then you realize someone… if they choose to, can take my life from me against my will. That’s not a good feeling.”
After losing 14 friends to guns — seven, he says, in just a three-year span — Brown started mentoring other youth paralyzed by gun violence. It ultimately led to him joining GKMC. Now 25, he’s one of its oldest members.
At 19, Taylore Norwood isn’t far removed from school-aged kids in her neighborhood. Her mom is an elementary school principal. She understands that while some kids in America fear getting shot in their classrooms, students in her community fear getting shot before they even arrive at school, or after they leave.
“Gun violence doesn’t just look like mass shootings. It looks like kids not being able to go to and from school at regular times. It looks like them not being able to go outside and play,” Norwood said. “Kids don’t know if they’re safe. They’re afraid for their lives.”
The name Good Kids, Mad City, Norwood notes, is supposed to reinforce the fact that the group is comprised largely of young people who are hurt by violence. “We definitely ripped off Kendrick Lamar,” she said, laughing. “But we want to shift the narrative that we’re bad kids, bad people. We’re good kids, but in a mad city — a city that doesn’t support us. We’re showing people what it is to be a good kids.”
While other anti-violence groups commonly push for stricter gun laws, GKMC focuses its efforts on what they see as the systemic causes of gun violence.
“It’s a thin line for black people,” said Ademola, the group’s adult mentor. “On the one hand, we don’t want people to have access to military-style weapons. But we also know that we are heavily policed and criminalized. And when gun laws become harsher, we become more criminalized for that.”
Ademola believes a more meaningful solution to gun violence will come from undoing the inequality that’s steeped in Chicago’s black and brown communities: Poverty, generations of trauma and PTSD, and a dearth of spaces to feel safe, resolve conflicts, or heal.
But toxic masculinity also fuels cycles of violence, Ademola notes. That men must be strong, tough, and emotionless are ideas many shooters absorb from American culture.
Brown, the eldest of GKMC’s members, says he looks back and understands clearly now how patriarchy influenced his own life.
“Society teaches men that if you don’t have money, you’re not shit. So a kid feels like they’re not shit. And no one wants to feel like that,” Brown said. “And if the main thing you have in the inner city is respect, and the only way to have respect is fear, which you can get through a gun — You’re gonna respect this gun.”
Brown says even someone who’s paralyzed by a car crash rather than an act of violence would need therapy. But the added dimension to his trauma was the knowledge that someone had actually, intentionally, tried to kill him.
“I wanted to shoot people once I got shot,” Brown said. In his experience, shootings in his community come less from blind hate between rivals — or as many in law enforcement and academia believe, as retaliation for prior shootings — but from PTSD.
“You don’t even have to think of the person who tried to kill you who’s still out there; you think anyone out there can kill you, so you want to shoot anybody,” he added. In those conditions, the smallest altercation can quickly explode into violence.
“A random guy bumps into you,” Brown said. “So it’s ‘watch where the fuck you going’ — and boom. Now they’re arguing. The guy who’s been shot before thinks, ‘What if he goes to his car to get a gun?’ I’m going to shoot him first.’ The shooter is over-thinking it because he’s traumatized and paranoid.”
Brown met Ademola at an event with Ujimma Medics, an organization that trains community members in first response. Ademola observed Brown working with young people at the training and gave him his card, telling Brown he was in a good position to fight gun violence.
“Kofi motivated me to take [activism] more seriously and be proud of what I’ve done: I didn’t become a statistic, I didn’t resort to violence. I overcame it,” Brown said.
When GKMC formed in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, members got an early taste of the challenges they would face, starting with not having their experiences recognized at all.
It’s a cycle that repeats itself. On a single August weekend, Chicago’s most violent of 2019, seven people were killed and nearly 60 more were injured by gunfire. The shootings mostly went uncovered, with little attention given to the people the victims had been, concerns over what may have prompted the violence, or discussions of how to stop it. At the same time, the nation at large grieved for back-to-back shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
“I would never say completely disregard what happened in Parkland, or Orlando, or El Paso,” said Norwood, the 19-year-old GKMC member. “But if we’re going to talk about what happened in Parkland and Orlando and El Paso, we also need to talk about what’s happening in our city every day.”
GKMC is hyper-focused on the problems in their city. They research — and lobby for — more equitable legislation has already made an impression on some Illinois lawmakers. State Representative LaShawn Ford, whose district covers a large swath of the West Side and nearby southwest suburbs, met with the group when members traveled to the state Capitol in May to advocate for the expungement of non-violent marijuana offenses as part of the state’s marijuana legalization proposal. The legislation, and the expungement provision, passed a month later.
“For youth to come to Springfield? It’s something we as legislators all cherish,” Ford said. Ford believes politicians would be wise to engage groups like GKMC. “We ask ourselves, ‘Why are millennials so unlikely to vote?’ It’s because they’re shut out and feel outside the process. Every day we hear we need civics back in our schools. When you have young people out there living civics, we have to support that.”
Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton has sat in GKMC peace circles. Like Ford, she lauds the group’s approach. “They’re talking specifically about the solutions they want to see. They’re not saying ‘We want policy makers to be the sole people to come up with solutions,’” she said. “They come with solutions.”
For all the work GKMC engages in out in the community, one of its most important contributions is the way it treats fellow young people.
As the group shifts to talking about the effect GKMC has had in their lives, one member says he loves how open it is — how he feels like he can really be himself there. Brown mentioned something similar earlier, calling GKMC “therapeutic,” an environment where he’s not anxious, but where he can feel okay expressing emotions.
Later, Norwood expands on the priority GKMC places on taking care of each other, explaining it as a crucial counterbalance to the taxing nature of the group’s mission. “Once you get to a space where people understand that, have the same vision as you and are actively working for a better outcome, that’s a very restorative process,” she said.
As the meeting draws toward an end, one student quietly cries at the thought of leaving everyone when she goes away to college. Within seconds, she’s buried in a bundle of hugs. With arms wrapped around her, the kids sing and tell their friend how much she’s loved.