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So What Do We Need to Do About Chicago?

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September 8, 2018

Key Numbers

There are some key numbers that need to be known and understood in order for us to understand what needs to happen now in that troubled city.

Forty-one people were shot in seven hours in Chicago last week.

Eighty-five people were shot that week.

More than 3,000 people were shot last year.

More than 600 of those shooting victims died.

More than 80 percent of the shootings were gang related.

Gangs dominate many Chicago neighborhoods.

Chicago has roughly 59 significant gangs. Those gangs are made up of about 2,000 smaller and very local gangs that each have very direct impacts on their neighborhoods.

More than 100,000 people in Chicago are currently members of those gangs.

When we look at who is actually in the gangs, we know that the gangs are overwhelmingly made up of high school dropouts.

That is very important information to understand.

Between 90 and 95 percent of the gang members have dropped out of school.

Chicago dropout rates have been improving slightly, but currently more than 1 in 3 African American male students and more than 1 in 4 Hispanic male students in that city are still dropping out of school.

We can now predict, with more than 80 percent accuracy, at age four which of the male students in those Chicago neighborhoods will be dropping out of school.

The science of brain development has been going through a golden age of learning. That expanding brain development science lets us make some very important predictions about life trajectories for our children that we did not understand until very recently.

Brain science is giving us new tools that we really need to have to give all children the best start in life and those tools are very directly relevant to what is happening today in Chicago.

We now know that the process of brain development starts immediately and the first three months of life are extremely important for some aspects of brain and emotional development for every child.

Our recent medical theory about the developmental irrelevance of those first months for each child were entirely and dysfunctionally wrong.

We also now know that the first three years of life are extremely important for brain strength and capacity for every child, and that the neuron connections that happen in those first years set many of the capabilities for each child for their entire life.

We now know that the brains that are exercised in those first months and first years are much more capable of learning later. Brain exercise that we now know how to do with each child in those time frames makes strong brains and we now know that literally billions of neuron connections happen daily for each child as a result of that exercise.

Age Four

We also now know that the brains change for all children from every group at age four and the brain purges itself at that point.

That is important new information. The brain for each child changes at age four.

We used to think education began at kindergarten. That belief was wrong. We now know that kindergarten is too late for many extremely important development processes. Four is actually a very important age for each child because we now know that the brains of our children actually purge themselves of unused neuron connections when they are four and five years old.

We need to help each of our children strengthen their brains in the first three years before that neuron connection purging process happens for each child at age four.

The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child has done wonderful work on those processes and time frames that everyone needs to know who cares about actually closing the learning gaps in our schools.

We have major learning gaps in Chicago schools and those gaps look just like the gaps that we have in other schools across the nation.

We now know that even extremely well-intentioned schools will continue to fail miserably in closing those learning gaps for their students at 15 years because our basic human biology and our universal developmental time frames for every child actually requires us to close the gaps at 15 months.

A dozen other great learning institutions have been working on those early brain development processes and those academic programs have had an explosion of wonderful learning about what actually happens for each child.

Harvard, The University of Washington, Columbia, Stanford, UCLA, and UCSF are all learning and teaching that the brain development opportunities that exist for the children from every family and every group of people all have magnificent opportunities to help children make literally billions of neuron connections in those first months and years.

All of those academic programs are now celebrating and sharing the wonderful opportunities we now have in the first days, weeks, months, and years of life for each child that used to be entirely invisible to medical science and completely unknown to parents and families.

We also now know that the children from every group face the same major life challenges and difficulties if those time frames are missed and if those neuron connections are not made in those first weeks, months and years for each child.

The issues that actually create our learning gaps and the differences in learning levels between the children in our schools are not ethnic, or social, or racial or even economic. The issues that create the gaps that exist in all of our schools are purely functional and procedural and those gaps can only be prevented and eliminated by changing early processes for our children to give every child the right beginnings.

We need parents, educators, caregivers, and community leaders to understand those processes.

Processes happen for every child from every group in those time frames — and those processes create life trajectories for each child.

We should not give up ever on any child.

We need to recognize those realities — and then we need to deal with them in caring and competent ways for the children who do not get the benefit of interactions and direct contact and support in those periods of time.

For children who go past those first three years without getting significant support for their neuron connection processes, we need to figure out alternative ways of helping them have good lives.

We know what paths those children are on today.

Right now, the students who are having the most trouble reading and who are having difficulty doing basic mathematical calculations tend to drop out of school. It is not a good thing for children when they drop out of school. Many studies show us that high school dropouts tend to have worse health, higher levels of alcohol and drug use, and higher levels of depression.

The life trajectory for too many of those children who drop out of school also tends to include incarceration.

Currently — for our entire country and not just Chicago — African American males in their 30s who have dropped out of high school are disproportionately more likely to go to jail.

In fact, more than 60 percent of those African American males in their 30s who have dropped out of school are in jail today and more than 80 percent will be incarcerated in their lifetime.

That incarceration rate compares to fewer than 10 percent of the African American males in their 30s who graduated from high school who end up in jail. The facts about that set of life events is clear and painful. Dropouts are six times more likely to end up in prison than graduates.

Ten percent of African American males in jail is a very bad, wrong, inequitable, and painful number — particularly in comparison with fewer than 2 percent of white males in this country in their 30s who are in jail — but having more than 60 percent of the African American dropouts in jail is even worse.

Similar incarceration rates for dropouts can be seen in both England and Scotland. More than 60 percent of the people in British jails also can’t read well and end up in criminal paths because those people are not as employable as the people who can read in those countries.

So when we look at Chicago to see what we need to do in that city going forward, it is painfully clear that we need every mother and family and neighborhood and every faith leader and every community leader and every educator and every care giver in Chicago to know the science of early brain development and to be doing what needs to be done in various ways to help every child being born now have their personal neuron connectivity processes supported and protected.

We also need alternative paths to economic sufficiency for the people in Chicago who have dropped out of school.

Gangs provide economic opportunity today for that set of people. The only organization that consistently provides an economic infrastructure that includes the dropouts is the gangs.

People join gangs to be able to buy food.

Gangs also give people a sense of belonging to a group and they give people a group identity and a group culture that meets their instinctive needs to be in a group of some kind.

Gangs also give people a hierarchy that meets our instinctive needs to be part of a hierarchy, and gangs tend to spend a lot of energy building a clear sense of their turf that meets our needs to know and align with our group’s turf.

People are killed in Chicago when they end up on the wrong turf.

Gangs also give their leaders a chance to exhibit the neurochemical rewards that come from having Alpha status in their settings.

Alpha status is extremely seductive for many people. We instinctively create hierarchies in every setting and gangs in Chicago currently give at least 2,000 people who lead the local units as the setting Alpha those very seductive neurochemical rewards.

Those people with local alpha status tend to have strong allegiance and loyalty to their gang, because that is the only way of them personally getting those particular neurochemical rewards.

The Institute for InterGroup Understanding books and websites explain our hierarchical instincts, turf instincts, tribal instincts, and the sets of emotions and values that let people divide the world into Us and Them and then act very differently toward Us and Them in every setting.

Those books can all be read by the chapter on this website or ordered from Amazon.

Those sets of instincts are all extremely relevant to the very primal sets of interactions that are very consistently and effectively created by the Chicago gangs.

Those instincts will make creating Peace in some parts of Chicago difficult.

The strong instincts we all have to be loyal to our own group and to hate and punish anyone who is a traitor to our group will make it relatively hard for us to help people in Chicago move away from gang alignment and those instincts to hate and punish traitors will make it even harder to get the people in each setting to help the police solve the murders and prevent the violence in their neighborhoods.

Fewer than 1 in 5 murders are solved today in Chicago. That is true because the gangs will do major damage to anyone who helps the police solve those crimes and because people who perceive the police to be Them in their neighborhoods often feel the push of their instincts never to be a traitor keeping them from cooperating in some settings and situations.

That set of behaviors and responses won’t change until people trust the police and also until the police can functionally protect the people who help solve them.

That process happens one neighborhood at a time when it happens — and it is extremely difficult to do as long as those other levels of instinctive interactions are shaping emotions, thought, and behaviors for the people who live there.

Chicago needs a plan.

Chicago can have a much better future — but that outcome won’t happen on its own. 

The overall plan for the city of Chicago needs to have economic pathways for the people who have dropped out of school and who are unemployable in every setting other than gang membership.

Wishing that situation about employment needs and about the very real and relevant cash flow realities for those people was not true will not make it not true.

When we look at those pieces and when we understand those extremely useful facts and numbers, Chicago makes a lot more sense and the behavior patterns in that city can be seen as patterns and not as situational and locally unique events and occurrences.

We will be better served if we learn to understand that whole set of issues and then do intentional and strategic things to make Chicago better.

Showing good will to every parent and to every family in Chicago by supporting parental leave and providing appropriate support for every new mother, and by starting as soon as possible to do good things to help all of the children born in that city build strong neurons would be a good place to start.