How Innovators in Art, Tech and Science Are Tackling Chicago’s Gun Violence


In a few weeks, 2016 will end as one of Chicago’s most violent years in recent history.

Politicians are scrambling for a solution: In September, Mayor Rahm Emanuel laid out plans to curb the city’s gun violence with increased policing and youth mentoring; on the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump called for tougher police.

Meanwhile, mentoring programs for the city’s most at-risk youth have taken center stage, with organizations like Becoming a Man — which mentors male youths on a weekly basis — gaining attention for the success it has had cutting in half violent crime arrests among those who participated.

And yet despite these efforts, 77 people were killed in November, according to police stats collected by the Chicago Tribune. August was the deadliest month in 2016 with 90 reported homicides.

The crisis has brought entrepreneurs, organizers and investors across the city in search of innovative solutions using art, technology and science. As one nonprofit’s leader put it: each organization is given a chance up at bat, hoping to hit a single.

Bridging the Education Gap With Tech

Courtesy of Edovo

For some, the solution, in part, involves technology.

Edovo, an organization that brings education-based tablets — complete with thousands of hours of content in academics, job training and life skills — to inmates in as many as 12 different states across the U.S., recently made its way into a few juvenile and adult correctional facilities in Chicago.

“You’ve got students in youth facilities who are starting to access college level coursework who never would have had the chance to otherwise,” said Edovo’s director of content Kevin Pujanauski. “… If you’re giving people viable economic opportunity that is an alternative to different forms of ways to make money that are illegal, those types of things can approve community safety and reduce violence.”

According to a 2013 Rand study, inmates who receive an education lowered their likelihood of returning to jail or prison by 43 percent.

“Violence is a very real thing inside correctional facilities, too,” Pujanauski said.  “The gang membership that goes on in the outside continues on in the inside and results in a lot of violence. Our platform is actually very, very effective at reducing violence in the facility just by giving them something to do with their time.”

Other innovators, such as Michael Block, are also using technology to provide education, but his tech has a different audience: those who haven’t been directly affected by Chicago’s gun violence. Chicago Inno spoke with Block about his video game ‘We Are Chicago,’ a virtual reality game that puts players into the shoes of Aaron, a young black male navigating daily life in Englewood, one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

“We’re hoping people take away an understanding of what is happening in these neighborhoods … an understanding of the way all this stuff plays out for somebody who may not be a direct victim of gun violence,” Block told Chicago Inno in September.

Theater as Therapy, Employment Opportunity

Based in the Near North Side neighborhood, Storycatchers Theatre is a theater program for incarcerated youth. Currently, the program takes place in three residential centers in Chicago and Illinois, including the Cook County Detention Center. Through the program, participants respond to a writing prompt with a personal story that is later directly shared as part of a staged production.

The most important rule? They can’t play themselves in the play or musical.

“It’s also a sense of letting go, of letting someone else step into your role, respect your part, you respect theirs, and you tell the story,” said Artistic Director Meade Palidofsky.

Courtesy of Storycatchers…

Palidofsky said this allows participants to better understand things like how their actions affect others or what events in their past may have shaped who they are today.

“Violence is just the symptom of a lot of other things going on,” Palidofsky said. “If you just address the violence, you’re not going to change anything. You have to offer opportunity.”

Storycatchers Theatre also serves as an employment opportunity for youths after they’re released. Changing Voices is a post-release employment opportunity for up to 12 youths to write and perform a musical based on their reentry struggles.

One of their first Changing Voices members, Greg, eventually took on a staff position in the organization, where he learned communication and interpersonal skills until he was able to start taking classes to be certified in truck driving.

“I would hire him again in a minute if he ever got sick of being a truck driver,” she said.

A Greener Community for a Safer City

More than one initiative focuses on urban agriculture to make the city safer.

In East Garfield Park, the nonprofit Urban Transformation Network is transforming run-down, urban lots into vegetable gardens, according to the Sun-Times. The goal, it said, is to keep kids occupied, train ex-offenders in landscaping and improve the community’s’ overall health.

Meanwhile at IIT, two researchers have developed a method of indoor farming that not only reduces the amount of energy required for operation, it makes the indoor farm mobile — meaning it can easily be placed in any of Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods. Although their intention wasn’t exactly to address youth crime in Chicago’s neighborhoods, that doesn’t mean they don’t hope it has that kind of positive impact.

That’s because one of the researchers, John Katsoudas, said there is a correlation between the level of crime in an urban area and the availability of nutritional food in that area — which others have also said.

“You look at the dollars that society spends on police forces and incarceration …,” he said. “If you were able to bring the crime down but supplying a nutritional value, an asset to the local community, those are dollars better spent.”

From Rivals to Teammates

Can teaming up on the field improve relations on the street?

One Chicago-based program is hoping to improve the relations between police officers and their community members through sports.

Each summer, police officers act as coaches and mentors to teams of girls and boys between the ages of 9 and 12 years old.

Now two years old, the Englewood Police Youth Baseball Leaguehas received positive feedback from the 100 youths who participated, according to Toni Irving, executive director of Get IN Chicago, an organization that supports innovative approaches to reducing youth violence.

“After its first year in Englewood, our surveys showed that youth participants improved both their perceptions of police and their own ability to make a difference in their communities,” she said.

Investing in a Solution

Several organizations are supporting innovators across the city who are striving to make Chicago a safer place by offering financial support and helping them to extend their reach.

Among those leading the charge in support of innovators is Liz Dozier, Managing Director of ChicagoBeyond, a non-profit organization that, like Irving’s Get IN Chicago, identifies and supports innovative ways of improving the lives and safety of the city’s most under-served youth.

Courtesy of…

This past spring, it hosted its first GO Innovate Challenge, which asked nonprofits to pitch their organizations to Chicago Beyond for the chance to receive support in the form of investments and funding for research. Chicago Beyond’s goal now is to test the selected programs through a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) that will test the programs’ impact on recidivism and employment.

The three programs that were selected as winners of the GO Innovate challenge were The Storycatchers Theater, the Dovetail Project, which works with young fathers, and Genesys Works, which introduces youths to the professional world, connecting them with internships and providing career advice.

“If we can figure out what works to re-engage those young people, [get them] back into work or back into school, or both, and get them on a successful life trajectory, we know that it has a bottom line outcome of … creating a better city by having more engaged citizens,” Dozier said.

‘Those Singles Add up to Runs’

Despite the potential each of these programs and ideas have for success, one thing has become clear to the people working to bring down the city’s violence: there isn’t going to be one solution, but many.

On the investment side, INVEST Chicago, an initiative of GoodCity Chicago, invests in the ideas of women and minority entrepreneurs. Although their focus isn’t limited to addressing gun violence, Goodcity’s founder Jimmy Lee said they often get pitches that address Chicago’s crime. SmartChicago is another prominent name in the realm of civic and social innovation.

Other innovative programs in addressing youth violence in Chicago are Curt’s Cafe in Evanston, where many of the staff are just out of prison, and Project Fire, a glass blowing program for individuals who’ve been directly affected by gun violence.

And still, many other innovative approaches exist only in the idea or research stage. Last year, a coalition of organizations — Get In Chicago, the MacArthur Foundation and the University of Chicago Crime Lab — hosted a design competition for new ideas to stem Chicago’s youth violence. More than 200 proposals came in from individuals and organizations, pitching proposals that involved film contests, new crime reporting apps and ways to improve nutritional food sources in areas with food deserts.


Chicago Beyond’s Dozier said when it comes to curbing youth violence, “there’s no silver bullet, and there’s no home run.” Most of the innovators and entrepreneurs who spoke with Chicago Inno emphasized that their contribution to addressing Chicago’s violent crime was only a piece of the puzzle.

“The best we can hope to do is that we have a lot people at the table who all play their own role and we all get a chance to bat,” Dozier said. “Each organization is hitting singles, and those singles add up to runs.”