When Arne Duncan left his job as CEO of Chicago Public Schools in 2009 to serve as Secretary of Education, he thought gun violence in the City had reached its peak. He was wrong. Now, having returned to found the violence prevention organization, Chicago CRED, he’s attempting to overcome a collective failure that has haunted him for years: keeping our kids safe.
He spoke with us about what he’s learned, how CRED has been successful in preventing violence even during a difficult year, and what we all can do to help.
Q: While crime overall is down, gun violence is up in Chicago this year, at exactly the same time that budgets that are getting hit hard due to COVID-19. It feels as though as soon as we see some stormy skies budget-wise, violence prevention seems to be the first thing that gets cut. Are we being shortsighted as a society?
A: We’re being unbelievably shortsighted. Yeah, it’s a tough budget time. I’ve managed tough budgets, so I understand all that. There’s no new resources, so you have to think about how to redeploy existing resources. These aren’t finely tuned numbers, but I’ll just give you my rough math. We have about 13,000 police officers here in Chicago. We have twice as many police officers per citizen as L.A., but we’re three-to-four times more violent. More police does not equal more safety here. Never has, never will.
Let’s just say we have 10,000 police officers instead of 13,000, and let’s say, very conservatively, each cop is making $100,000 a year… that’s $300 million dollars. Think of how many outreach workers and clinicians and life coaches and all this stuff that we do—think what that money would buy.
We’re talking about a brutal year in Chicago, with violence up 50 percent. Yet, we’re seeing that of the 15 most violent neighborhoods, the two neighborhoods where CRED has worked the hardest and longest, Roseland and Pullman, violence is down 50 percent and 33 percent respectively.
CRED is spending roughly, in Roseland and Pullman, about $10 million dollars a year to get the kinds of reductions we’ve seen. But that’s two neighborhoods out of 15 we’ve got to get to. Think if we had that $300 million dollar savings that we could redeploy that into these other communities. That’s how you reimagine policing. That’s how you reimagine public safety.
Q: That's the other piece of context. We're having this conversation when there's never been more public support for community-oriented solutions for policing.
A: Look, you want the police. But in national studies, police spend five percent of their time on violent crime Opens in a new tab . All the other stuff, other folks can work on. Let’s focus the police’s efforts and let’s have other people do other work. What bothers me is that here in Chicago, it’s like an evidence-free discussion. What we have [in Roseland and Pullman] are some data, some evidence of what is actually working dramatically better. Chicago homicides are up 50 percent, and two neighborhoods are down. Nobody’s asking why. What’s happened there? What’s different? That’s troublesome to me. We do this work based upon gut or hunch or intuition and not based upon evidence and data and facts. That’s not how I’ve ever tried to solve public policy problems.
Q: So, let me ask you, why are you seeing those reductions in Roseland and Pullman?
A: It’s never one thing, so there’s no simple answer. I’ll just say, we’ve been at it for four years so there’s a cumulative impact. We’ve worked with about 300 guys so you start to hit a critical mass. But, I think it’s the comprehensiveness of what we’re doing. You can’t just interrupt. That’s a huge starting point, but you got to have the other stuff.
To me, it’s five pillars. It’s the outreach. It’s the clinical team to deal with trauma. It’s the life coaches. It’s the education piece. Then, it’s the employment and training. It’s moving guys from the street economy to a legal economy. Those are the five pillars. You’ve got to have all five. You’ve got to do it over time. You’ve got to touch enough guys. None of this is an overnight success.
Q: We talked about these two neighborhoods where things are improving. Obviously, in the rest of Chicago, it's been a tough year as you've said. Today, in September, there are already 120 more homicides than we had last year. You explained why you think those two neighborhoods are performing well, why do you think we are having as rough a year as we're having? Is it the pandemic? Is it questions about policing or police trust?
A: It’s all of the above. To be clear, we map homicides month after month. January was a really bad month. February was a really bad month. This was bad before COVID hit. We started the year poorly. Once COVID hit, things got worse. In the first two weeks after COVID, we saw a spike in armed robberies, and because everybody’s armed, it led to a bunch more violence on both sides.
Then, the period post-George Floyd, those next six, eight weeks were the worst time that we’ve had doing this work. We had a staff member killed. We had three of our men killed. We had a 20-month-old baby killed in a car seat Opens in a new tab . That stretch after George Floyd’s killing was horrific for us.
Things have stabilized somewhat since then, but you’ve got a pandemic public health crisis. You’ve got a systemic racism public health crisis. You’ve got a gun violence public health crisis. You’ve got the trauma associated with the gun violence. You’ve got four public health crises that are all related and all obviously disproportionately impacting the communities where we work, where there’s already historic disinvestment. I think the combination of all those has just had a devastating impact.
I always go back to the clearance rate for homicides [the percentage of cases that are solved]. There’s a 17 percent clear rate for homicides in Chicago. The clear rate in most cities is 60-65 percent. We’re three times worse in terms of the clear rate. I don’t know what that is for this year. My sense is it’s abysmally low. That’s actually a huge driver of the violence, the fact that things don’t get solved. If police clear homicides, then there’s less retaliation. There’s less street justice. There’s less craziness. That’s a deterrent.
I mean I’ve said this publicly: If more of the victims looked like me and not like President Obama, it wouldn’t be tolerated. If more of the victims lived in Hyde Park, where I live, or lived downtown or lived in Lincoln Park, it wouldn’t be tolerated.
We can say Black lives matter. We can say all lives matter. We can say all those things, but the hard, brutal truth here in Chicago and across the country is that some lives matter a whole lot more than others. And that’s another way of saying some lives matter a whole lot less than others. You can’t talk about violence in Chicago or anywhere and not talk about race.
Q: When you speak to experts about violence prevention, there seems to be almost two camps. There's one camp that says: "We have to stop the shooting. We can't have economic growth, we can't have investment, we can't have a return to stable life in communities when shootings are occurring." There's another camp that says, "You have to do both. Yes, shooting needs to stop, but there needs to be wraparound services.” There needs to be, honestly, a lot of what CRED is doing with trauma prevention and job supports and education supports. I'm curious how you think about that question. What is the most urgent response to the gun violence that we need in our communities?
A: Well, I guess I’ll say my thinking now has evolved so much from where I started. I get the fear to invest when the bullets are flying. I understand that. What bothers me is the previous three years, we’ve had double digit reductions in violence [in Chicago] every year, and we still didn’t see any real uptick in investment. And now that we’re having a tough year, everyone’s saying, “Well, it’s too violent. We can’t do it.”
If I had seen a lot of investment the previous three years, if I had seen people flocking into neighborhoods to invest because violence was going down, that would be a more credible argument. But I think it’s an argument of convenience that lacks some integrity.
You call it a chicken or egg, but it’s always got to be both. I can’t just tell people to put down the guns. They are going to make a living. We just have to decide, are they going to make a living in the legal economy or in the illegal economy?
Q: You said something interesting there about the choice, a choice people don’t alway have, between the legal economy and the illegal economy. I think a lot of people assume that gun violence is rooted in gang activity or drug activity. Is that true anymore?
A: No, and that was an unbelievable education for me. When I was at the end of the administration and starting to come back, and then the first couple months, I just spent a ton of time in Cook County Jail talking to guys. I talked to guys on street corners and I just said, “We all have a price point in life. What was your price point? What would it take for you to get out of this life?” This is literally dozens and dozens and dozens of conversations. What I got back all the time was $12 or $13 an hour.
There’s this myth that everybody’s getting rich on the streets selling drugs, and it is exactly that, it’s a myth. Because of the breakdown of the gang structure Opens in a new tab , there’s no big markets anymore. You don’t control big neighborhoods, you control your block at the most. I kept saying, “Are you serious? If I gave you $12 or $13 an hour, you’re out?” They kept saying, “We’re out, we’re out, we’re out, we’re out.” I truly, I didn’t believe it for a while, but I just heard it so many times that I finally believed it. That’s where we started. That’s where we started paying guys $12, $13 to come our way. That’s literally what it took.
In our first cohort of guys, the guy who was creating the most mayhem, the most destruction, the most devastation in the community, he walked me through his economics. He was making $80-a-day on the street. What we were paying him basically doubled his income. You just think about all the havoc, all the heartbreak he was creating and perpetuating for $80-a-day. For him, it was a doubling of his income, a rational choice to come work with us and to stop doing that.
Q: Your organization is called CRED, which stands for Creating Real Economic Destiny, but it's also a reference to credible messengers—the formerly gang-involved or formerly incarcerated people who conduct street outreach. One thing that’s not often discussed is that violence prevention organizations aren’t just preventing violence, they’re also creating a role in society that allows people who’ve made past mistakes in life to be part of the solution. It’s almost a redemptive arc. Can you talk about that—whether that’s what you’ve seen in your work?
A: Well, I can’t overstate it. To be clear, this work is impossible without that skill, that talent, that intellect, that brain trust. We talk about LTO, license to operate—you have to have people who people in the community can relate to and who have been there. We always say experience is the best teacher, but it doesn’t have to be your experience. It can be somebody else’s. You have to have life coaches and outreach workers who have credibility on the street. Absent that, you have no chance.
I have people with social work backgrounds. I’ve got people who are doctorates. I’ve got business folks. They’re all also critical, but equally critical if not more critical are the guys with a lived experience that is invaluable to reducing violence.
It’s not a politically correct thing. I mean candidly, a decent number of my team are guys that have committed homicide and spent a lot of time in jail. One of my most valuable team members actually killed one of my good friends when we were young. I hated him all my life. He’s now one of my most valued, most important teammates. Redemption is absolutely possible. It’s the most powerful journey to see, to watch, to witness. To see people who have harmed society—no one’s more determined to right their wrongs and give back.
Q. Do you think you’d be doing this work now, if it weren't for your friend’s death?
A: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I had lost other friends as a teen. I lost folks that protected me and got me in and out of neighborhoods. That definitely impacted me. I wish I could say that’s the only death I experienced. But no, I experienced a number of others unfortunately during those teenage years. I think the biggest loss of life was when I ran Chicago Public Schools; we had a student killed every two weeks on average due to gun violence. Everything about that job—the academic part, budgets, labor management, operations—all the stuff that’s supposed to be hard I don’t want to say was easy, but on a relative basis, there was just nothing harder than going to funeral homes and meeting families after they had just lost their son or daughter.
For me, it didn’t get easier. It got harder and harder and harder. I missed a lot about Chicago when I went to DC [to serve as Secretary of Education], but I think the whole time I was in DC, I only went to about three or four funerals. I didn’t miss that.
I just felt that, honestly, I had failed and we collectively had failed to keep our kids safe. They say you’re motivated by successes, but you’re haunted by your failures. For me, it felt like an absolute failure.
Very naively in hindsight, when we moved to DC, I thought things were at rock bottom in Chicago. I thought things couldn’t get worse. The seven years we were in DC, things got a hell of a lot worse. For me coming home, to not do this, I couldn’t really live with myself. It was just the crisis facing this City and there’s nothing else that felt nearly as important.
Q: You said you're haunted by your failures. This is such difficult work even in years where there’s progress. How do you keep at it in years like this where everything is seemingly going in the wrong direction?
A: Well, this is definitely the most difficult work I’ve done in my life. I definitely have more sleepless nights comparing this to serving as Secretary of Education. I definitely slept better in DC than I do now. I dread the calls you get on Friday and Saturday nights. Like, going into Labor Day. I’m talking to friends and they’re telling me about what they’re going to do with their families. And I’m just dreading the weekend. We’re just in this different world.
I don’t want to sugar coat any of that, or the impact or trauma on myself and the team. Burying that 20-month-old baby—just seeing that tiny little casket and that little baby—that stuff doesn’t leave you.
Having said that, the flip side is I see this unbelievable transformation that these guys go through. Our first cohort, we didn’t know it, but we had guys who had literally shot at each other, like literally tried to kill each other who came together and were able to make peace and to create peace and have that go back into the community. I have to say, it is dark, difficult, at times traumatic work. It is also some of the most hopeful, inspiring work I’ve ever done. I know what’s possible.
Could I do that? If somebody shot me, would I be man enough? Here, we have young guys, 18, 19, 20, 21, no resources, forgotten about by society, cast off. Just these unbelievable pictures of grace and humanity and redemption and transformation. I see every day the heartbreak, but I also see every day the hope and the inspiration and what’s possible. I look at guys on our team who again, unfortunately have done some things to create destruction and trauma who are spending every waking moment of their lives trying to save this next generation.
I look at the results that we’re having this year. I know what we can do. I know what’s possible. I’m hungry. I feel like we’ve got to go. We’ve got to scale this. We know what works.
Q: The question I want to end on is what can people reading this do about gun violence? Violence prevention isn't the kind of work where you can volunteer at a food bank and help make a difference. From your perspective, what could someone who may not live in a violent neighborhood do to support this kind of work?
A: I appreciate the question. One is obviously, we’ve got all these fantastic partner non-profits in places all over the city. You can directly support the work that we and others are doing.
The other thing is honestly to really think about public policy. Your audience can be great at thinking very differently about public policy and being advocates. While the private sector and philanthropic help is desperately needed, ultimately public safety is a public good. Having people advocate for a reimagining of public safety and policing would be hugely helpful.
And the final thing is— this is Bryan Stevenson’s language—you have to be proximate Opens in a new tab . You have to make yourselves uncomfortable. I’ve had to put myself in lots of situations where you’re not comfortable or you don’t quite feel safe, but you have to be there. I think I’d ask your audience to make themselves uncomfortable and think about what’s really possible.
If someone who does something bad, does that define them or are they redeemable or not? We want to stop those bad things from happening, but we also want to work with those that have done those things and help them rebuild the community and help them be the positive leaders rather than negative influences. Just to have people understand that redemption is possible and understand our interconnectedness and our common humanity. That’s what I think is missing—understanding the common humanity that we share.
Arne Duncan was a founding member of the MBK White House Task Force and also helped found the MBK Alliance Advisory Council, where he currently serves.