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Chicago Teens Take Lead on Gun Violence at Home, Nationally


Peace Warriors from North Lawndale College Prep High School bow their heads during a moment of silence for the victims of gun violence during a Day of Peace rally at Chicago's Legacy Charter School, April 20, 2018.

At his desk at North Lawndale College Prep High School, Gerald Smith keeps a small calendar that holds unimaginable grief.

In its pages, the dean and student advocate writes the name of each student who's lost a family member, many of them to gun violence. And then he deploys the Peace Warriors — students who have dedicated themselves to easing the violence that pervades their world.

The Warriors seek out their heartbroken classmates. They offer a hug, and a small bag of candy.

Since September, Smith has added more than 160 names to that little book, roughly half the student body at this campus on Chicago's West Side. And that doesn't include those whose friends have been killed.

"We would run out of candy," Smith said, sadly.

Gerald Smith, student advocate and dean of restorative justice at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School, speaks to students about their disagreement with a teacher, April 19, 2018. Smith also serves as the adult adviser for the school's Peace Warrior group, which aims to prevent violence and interrupt conflict at the school and in the city.
Gerald Smith, student advocate and dean of restorative justice at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School, speaks to students about their disagreement with a teacher, April 19, 2018. Smith also serves as the adult adviser for the school's Peace Warrior group, which aims to prevent violence and interrupt conflict at the school and in the city.

It is hard and often anguishing work, keeping the peace. North Lawndale's Peace Warriors do it in small and large ways. When invited to Parkland, Florida, after 17 people died in a school shooting there in February, they answered the call — to mourn together and to unite in what's become a national youth movement aimed at stopping gun violence.

At D.C. march

Weeks later, Alex King and D'Angelo McDade, seniors at North Lawndale, walked onto stage at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., with fists raised. They marveled at the masses of young people who'd joined the fight. Said King: "We knew this was going to be in the history books. And for me, it was like, 'Wow! I'm actually being heard.' "

They continue to press their solution to urban violence: more jobs and investment in low-income communities like theirs. But that's the long game.

First, the Peace Warriors must survive — and help their peers do the same.

When the group began in 2009, there were just 17 Peace Warriors on the school's two campuses. Back then, that small corps spent much of its time breaking up fights. Since then, their ranks have grown to more than 120 — and fights have dropped markedly, Smith said.

Now, the Peace Warriors focus more on running "peace circles," mediating verbal altercations between students and tense exchanges on social media.

Alexis Willis is among the newest recruits. Like the others, she had to learn the "Six Principles of Nonviolence" of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. before she could call herself a Peace Warrior.

The civil rights activist lived in the neighborhood in 1966 in an apartment that was just down the street. He chose that location to draw attention to segregation and extreme poverty — issues that persist there today.

Willis, a freshman who trained in January, likes King's first principle best: "Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people."

Alexis Willis fights back tears after talking about her cousin, Jaheim Wilson, at her Chicago home, April 26, 2018. Wilson was shot and killed less than three weeks earlier as he walked with a friend in Chicago. "Nobody that's 16 should have to die," she said.
Alexis Willis fights back tears after talking about her cousin, Jaheim Wilson, at her Chicago home, April 26, 2018. Wilson was shot and killed less than three weeks earlier as he walked with a friend in Chicago. "Nobody that's 16 should have to die," she said.

She admitted that, as a child, she sometimes solved problems with her fists. But as the level of violence has escalated in her city, and she has matured, she has been drawn to "this life," as the Peace Warriors sometimes call their pacifist practice.

Willis said her resolve to help her classmates "do better" was only solidified when, in April, her beloved 16-year-old cousin, Jaheim Wilson, was shot and killed as he walked with a friend in an alley near his Chicago home.

"Nobody that's 16 should have to die," Willis said, quietly.

Alexis Willis holds the funeral program for her cousin Jaheim Wilson at her Chicago home, April 26, 2018. Wilson was shot and killed less than three weeks earlier as he walked with a friend in Chicago.
Alexis Willis holds the funeral program for her cousin Jaheim Wilson at her Chicago home, April 26, 2018. Wilson was shot and killed less than three weeks earlier as he walked with a friend in Chicago.

Accepting the challenge

Less than two weeks after her cousin's death, she received her first Peace Warrior shirt with her name and an image of a large hand flashing a peace sign on the back.

"When you put on this shirt, you put on a target. People will test you," Smith tells his students when first handing them their shirts.

Indeed, being a Peace Warrior can be a challenge. Some students call them snitches or see them as meddling do-gooders.

In recent years, Smith has had a harder time recruiting young men to join the group, which is unfortunate, since they are most often the victims of violence.

Alex King, right, and D'Angelo McDade, left, both graduating seniors at North Lawndale College Prep High School in Chicago, raise their fists in the air as they arrive to speak during the "March for Our Lives" rally in Washington, March 24, 2018. Both are Peace Warriors at their school.
Alex King, right, and D'Angelo McDade, left, both graduating seniors at North Lawndale College Prep High School in Chicago, raise their fists in the air as they arrive to speak during the "March for Our Lives" rally in Washington, March 24, 2018. Both are Peace Warriors at their school.

Alex King confessed that he first simply joined the group because he wanted to wear the Peace Warrior shirt to school instead of the otherwise required collared white polo. But he soon came to see the group as family.

Speaking at the March for Our Lives, he shared the story of his nephew, Daishawn Moore, also 16, who was gunned down last May.

"Through my friends and colleagues, I found help to come up out of a dark place," King told the crowd. Full of rage and sorrow, he had planned to retaliate against his nephew's killer, until fellow Peace Warriors talked him out of it: "Everyone doesn't have the same resources or support system as I was lucky to have."

The alliance with Parkland unites the North Lawndale students with those from a very different world — wealthy and suburban, a place where shootings are far from the norm.

While students from Parkland and elsewhere are pushing lawmakers for stricter gun regulations, the Peace Warriors have made poverty their target. Among other things, the Peace Warriors want more funding for mental health clinics and schools in low-income neighborhoods. Both have seen cuts in recent years in Chicago.

At North Lawndale College Prep, a charter school that is privately funded, Smith said there once were four counselors, one for each grade. Now there are only two who serve grades nine through 12.

It means that Smith and other staff — and even the Peace Warriors — must pick up some of the slack.

'Reluctant' pastor

This wasn't work that Smith, 47, planned to do. The "reluctant" fourth-generation pastor ultimately answered the call to work with youth. Now he has a knack, he said, for spotting potential leaders, some of them also reluctant.

Recently, freshman Robert Cooks sat in the dean's office, awaiting a detention slip. Above Smith's desk in that office, red letters are stuck to the wall — a message where there used to be a clock. Smith never bothered to replace it after a distressed student knocked it down.

"This is KAIROS Time," the message reads, using a Greek word that refers to a decisive and opportune moment.

Smith sensed that kind of moment when he accompanied the Peace Warriors to Parkland and later to Washington for the march.

This summer — Chicago's worst time for violence — is another, as he and his students plan sessions to train more Peace Warriors in the neighborhood. Students across the country also plan voter registration drives with an eye on the midterm elections in November. But here, safety must come first.

"This summer is critical. Can't wait until next summer. Can't wait until November," Smith said.

As he worked in his office, he stopped and gazed at Cooks, the dejected freshman, as if he was seeing him with fresh eyes.

Robert Cooks, a high school freshman, puts on a tie before entering his "Emerging Leaders" class at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School, April 27, 2018.
Robert Cooks, a high school freshman, puts on a tie before entering his "Emerging Leaders" class at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School, April 27, 2018.

Had Cooks ever considered being a Peace Warrior? The teen said he got into too much trouble.

"Peace Warriors aren't perfect," Smith told him. "Don't count yourself out. We need some strong young men."

Maybe this was another "kairos." One of those critical moments.

Time will tell.

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