Michelle Obama personalizes Chicago gun violence crisis

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CHICAGO—For first lady Michelle Obama, Chicago’s violence issue is personal. As a native of the city, she returned home Wednesday and gave an emotional plea to civic leaders with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, urging them to help raise $50 million to fund anti-violence youth programs throughout the city.

“I am here today to join the call to all of you, Chicago’s most distinguished business and community leaders, to take up this challenge with fervor,” Obama told a crowd of about 800 community and business leaders at a hotel in downtown Chicago. “I hope that communities across America will follow Chicago’s lead to get our young people off the streets and back on track to successful lives.”

In February, Emanuel announced the $50 million fundraising goal to create and maintain programs for at-risk youth in the city. Before Obama spoke to the crowd, Emanuel said the purpose of his newly-created Public Safety Action Committee is not necessarily about tackling youth violence, “it’s about tackling the gap of opportunity that exists between our kids today…For our kids to live up to their potential, we have to live up to our obligations to them.”

Investing in Chicago’s schools

Led by Allstate Chief Executive Officer Thomas Wilson and Loop Capital Chief Executive Officer James Reynolds, Jr., the committee is now at $33 million with investments from Allstate, the MacArthur Foundation and other local and national organizations.

Reynolds, Jr., who is also a native Chicagoan raised on the South Side of the city, said he approached Mayor Emanuel last year about helping “Chicago achieve its true potential,” hoping to improve the life of the residents, particularly on the South and West sides of the city.

“Being from the South Side, I’ve gained an appreciation for what goes on there, and wanted to be involved in finding a solution,” he said.

A special message to students

After addressing business leaders, Obama met with students at Harper High School, a South Side public school that knows the effects of gun violence too well. In the last year, the school has seen 29 current and former students shot; eight of them died.

“In this world today, if you stay focused you can make it happen,” she told students, as she encouraged them to follow their dreams. “The best thing you can do in life is really be serious about education. I’m not going to talk. Ask me whatever you want to know.”

Recalling her days growing up in the city as she addressed civic leaders, Obama said she related to the city’s youth, specifically 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot and killed at a park a week after performing in President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

“Hadiya Pendleton was me”

“Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her. But I got to grow up,” Obama said as she fought back tears. Pendleton’s parents and parents of other children who died as a result of Chicago gun violence were in attendance.

Since Chicago topped 500 murders in 2012, followed by Pendleton’s death in February, the city’s gun violence issue has received more national attention. Obama also used Wednesday’s visit to push the president’s agenda on gun reform.

“Right now, my husband is fighting as hard as he can and engaging as many people as he can to pass common-sense reforms to protect our children from gun violence. And these reforms deserve a vote in congress,” she said.

Tio Hardiman, director of Ceasefire Illinois, a program that dispatches “violence interrupters” on the streets of Chicago after conflicts, said Obama’s visit holds a strong significance. “With Michelle Obama coming to Chicago today, that’s showing support from the highest level in the United States, and I believe that collaborating with everybody will make a big difference.”

Obama admits the road to a safer Chicago with more opportunities for youth won’t be easy. “This is going to take a serious and sustained investment over a very long period of time, people,” she said. “This is forever.”

Renita D. Young is a multimedia journalist based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung