If you have followed local news in Chicago you may have seen the latest tragic news of 7 year old Jaslyn Adams, a victim of retaliatory gun violence on Chicago’s west side. As of April 2021, there have been 178 homicides in the city, primarily on Chicago’s south and west sides. Gun-related incidents are up 43% this year.
It’s easy to read data like this and disconnect ourselves from it. To blame it on gangs, drugs, crime, lack of good policing… and forget that precious lives are lost. For our Woodlawn community, nearly every child we serve has been touched by gun violence in some way. This devastating reality has weighed on us for years, often leaving us feeling lost and defeated. For many years our staff have prayed for ways to make a meaningful impact in our community that is so deeply wounded by gun violence.
About a year ago we began the process of developing a comprehensive initiative that would be dedicated to reducing gun violence and offering a sustainable support system to victims and families of gun violence. “We recognized that gun violence is often retaliatory in nature so intervening right after a gun-related incident has occurred was a first step,” shares Sunshine President Joel Hamernick. This led to connecting with a national organization called Health Alliance for Violence Intervention (HAVI) which has offered training and support to implement best practices in the violence intervention and prevention programs. HAVI recognizes that gun-related incidents are the leading cause of death among black boys and young men and this is a public health crisis that needs to be addressed. HAVI helps train communities on a comprehensive approach that deals with the root causes of gun violence and offers strategies that have been proven to reduce violence.
Out of this developed our new Flourishing Community Initiative (FCI) which is a three-pronged trauma informed approach to reducing gun violence through 1.) Individual Support, 2.) Community Collaboration, and 3.) Advocacy. Individual support is offered through our Violence Intervention Specialist, Donnell Williams, as he works with local hospitals in the 3rd police district to develop relationships with victims of gun violence and their families right after a gun-related incident has occurred. Community Collaboration plays out as Sunshine partners with various community partners that each offer different services to families such as peace circles, housing support through Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), counseling services through Catholic Charities, developing relationships with local police officers, Trauma Recovery Center (TRC), University of Chicago Medical Center (UCM), and spiritual support. Advocacy is work that is done on a larger scale, working with the local 3rd District Police Dept. and city-wide to advocate for effective policing policies and training. The name Flourishing Community Initiative is the end goal- to see human flourishing in our communities that are often defined by brokenness and violence.
Recently Donnell Williams transitioned from his role leading middle school youth programming at Sunshine to this new position of Violence Intervention Specialist. Arnold Sojourner, Managing Director of Community Outreach and founder of FCI, shares, “Donnell has a unique God-given ability to create transparency linked with authenticity that is especially useful when you’re supporting those who have been affected by gun violence. Trust is often a huge barrier and Donnell has a unique ability to build trust.” Donnell’s personal story has given him connection and empathy. During the last 6 months, he has been training in best practice methods through HAVI in order to hone his skill sets for this new role. Donnell says that he is most excited about being able to learn new professional skills that will allow him to be more effective in this new role.
Arnold Sojourner has been an integral part of the development of FCI along with Joel Hamernick. In developing this initiative much of his work has focused on building strong relationships within the community in order to further support families affected by gun violence. “We know that it must be a comprehensive community response. FCI alone can not change the community from an environment of disconnected people, but we must all be working together to see the effective change in the community that we desire.”
FCI has been invited along with our community partners and stakeholders to be part of the review process for a Consent Decree. The Consent Decree is an agreement between the City of Chicago and the State of IL Attorney General, to ensure that the City and CPD deliver services in a manner that fully complies with the Constitution and laws of the United States and which builds trust between officers and the communities they serve, and promotes community and officer safety. We are also working with our local police district to build relationships and trust. We are honored to be part of this advocacy process.
We look forward to continuing this important work in our community alongside our neighbors, community partners and friends. We ask for your prayers for healing and restoration in our community, that we would see human flourishing rather than continued retaliation and recidivism.