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Chicago Youth Hopeful, Cautious Ahead of President's Visit

Feb 14, 2013



We are going to continue our conversation about gun violence. We're focusing on Chicago. President Obama is heading there tomorrow and our next guests say it's really about time that the violence in Chicago receives this kind of high level attention and response. They're both young people living in Chicago and they've both been directly affected by violence. They say that voices like theirs are not being heard in the national gun control debates, so we are going to bring them to you now.

Joining us are Aisha Truss-Miller and Chris Buford. They are both part of the Black Youth Project. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

AISHA TRUSS-MILLER: Thank you for having us.

CHRIS BUFORD: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Aisha, you started a petition on, asking the president to come to Chicago and talk about violence there. Why did you think that was important?

TRUSS-MILLER: Well, I've been doing community work for years and I'm about holding myself, parents, teachers, institutions, politicians, the gamut accountable for creating and sustaining safe spaces for young people and I just felt that it was time that we hold our national leader accountable to highlight the violence in Chicago and the difference between the violence that's going on in Chicago versus the other places that's been getting highlighted.

MARTIN: Is there something specific that you want to hear from him? Is there a particular message that you really feel he needs to bring or is it just really his presence that you think is important?

TRUSS-MILLER: Both. But there is something that I definitely want to hear from him and I hope that he will discuss particularly why our young people seek safety, love and community amongst gangs and cliques and how we have collectively failed our young people of color across the nation. I'm also looking for him to speak about how his administration and their agenda can holistically invest in the development of marginalized youth in communities.

MARTIN: OK. I want to hear more about that in a few minutes, but I want to hear from Chris, too. Chris, you're 26 now, but you told us that you were in and out of juvenile detention, that you saw a lot of violence in the streets and, you know, you could easily have ended up as a victim of violence.

Is there something you think that the president could say to speak to that or that you would want to hear him say to speak to that?

BUFORD: Very much like Aisha was just saying, I want to hear him talk about investment in young people and investment into the communities that are hardest hit by the violence and I don't just want to hear him say it. I want to see actual action after he leaves. That's what's most important to me. He can come - I mean, he comes here all the time and he does speeches here all the time. I mean, it's his hometown, but what I would actually like to see is, after the speech, I want to see some action. I want to see actual investment, actual results.

MARTIN: Forgive me. What would have made a difference to you? I mean, you were telling us that you, being in and out of the juvenile justice system, it was supposed to rehabilitate you, but it really didn't. What would have made a difference to you?

BUFORD: For me, I would say if I had, you know, more support as far as school was concerned. I mean, going into high school, I was scoring at college level on your standardized tests, but I had all Fs. I was put in honors classes in my freshman year, but I came into high school with all Fs. If I would have had the adequate amount of support at school as far as counseling, tutors, maybe a mentor of some sort, I could have been a successful young man and gone on to college. Who knows what I could have achieved?

And then, as far as in the community, I come from a struggling family, so if I would have had some way to be able to help support my family that was of a legal nature, then I could also turned out to be a very successful young man. I'm at the age of 26 right now, but because of the setbacks I had, I'm playing catch-up now.

MARTIN: We just spoke a few minutes ago with Hadiya Pendleton's mother. Of course she's the young lady who had just been a part of the president's inauguration. She'd been a part of the parade; you know, had performed there and not a week later was killed in the park, in the South Side, just about a mile, you know, from the president's home, and her death is getting a lot of national attention, including from the president. We've got a clip of him talking about this at the State of the Union. I'll just play that.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Just three weeks ago, she was here in Washington with her classmates performing for her country at my inauguration, and a week later she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.

MARTIN: Aisha, I'll start with you. What does this bring up for you? I mean, on the one hand, this young lady sounds like a beautiful young lady. I mean, I've seen the pictures of her and she was just a beautiful, happy person, and it's brought up a lot of - really a lot of feelings. But what does it bring up for you?

TRUSS-MILLER: It triggers a lot of trauma, and that's another thing that I would like for the president and others to recognize and speak on. My cousin actually was gunned down July 1, 2012. He was 17 years old. It was a week before his 18th birthday and he was shot in the face and knee with a AR-15 right in front of his home, and this was across from Martin Luther King College Prep, where Hadiya went to school. My niece and my sister also went to school there and it was only a few blocks away from where her life was stolen. And because it was the summertime and the violence, you know - like the day my cousin died, like three to four other people were murdered that day, including a baby, by gun violence.

So for him it was - he was just another statistic. You know, there wasn't a highlight on his story. It's devastating and, you know, I was - I've been involved in community work since I was a youth, so it wasn't like I got involved in this because this happened to my cousin. I was already involved in this kind of movement and, again, creating and sustaining safe spaces for young people. So when this happened to my cousin, I felt like the community that I invested in, that I love, that I learned from, that invested in me - that they kind of stabbed me in the back, but I'm learning to separate my feelings from reality.

MARTIN: Do you feel, Aisha, that - how can I ask this? Do you feel like anybody cares?

TRUSS-MILLER: I do feel that people care, but I feel that the violence happens so much that it's becoming normal to us, that we are desensitized and we don't know what to do and the hopelessness just sets in, so even, you know, when my cousin was murdered, community came out in support, including the Black Youth Project, individuals that invested in my education, people that invested in his development, police officers that - you know, and I never would have pictured that. But the community came together and tried to support and mourn with my family and I was more so concerned with my family, the young people in my family, but the young people he went to school with and his friends and what kind of help that they would be receiving. You know, it was a summer month. They weren't in school. What kind of counseling would they be getting and how would they internalize this pain and then how would they express it? You know, and it's usually with more violence, so...

MARTIN: You know, to that end, Chris, before you became the man you are now, could you have seen yourself in that situation?

BUFORD: I mean in that lifestyle, who doesn't see themselves in that situation? Because it's a part of the life when you're involved in the streets and involved in the street economy, it's a part of living that lifestyle, so you have to take that into account. It's like an on-the-job hazard, as they would say.

MARTIN: So, if somebody hurts you, it's like you feel you have to go and try to hurt them back?

BUFORD: Well, that's - I wouldn't say that that's how I feel now, but at that time, because we live in the world where - punish or be punished - so that's the only thing that I knew, so my - and that's what a lot of - the only thing a lot of young people know, is that if you do something to me, I have to do something back to you, either at the same level or worse.

TRUSS-MILLER: Yeah. I feel Chris. You know, when my cousin was murdered, that's how I felt. I felt like someone had to pay and, you know, being a person of color, I don't trust the justice systems. I don't even know what justice for my cousin would look like. I just know I wanted someone to feel the pain that he felt and I wanted someone to feel the pain my family felt at that particular time, and it took some weeks and some thinking and some talking to my friends and, you know, reading of different faiths and scriptures that made - you know, that helped me realize that I really didn't want that. That's not what I wanted, but that's just how I was feeling.

And a lot of these - and a lot of people, not just young people, operate off of emotion. That's the foundation of this country, you know? It's a culture of violence and, like Chris said, it's either punish or be punished, and I wanted someone to pay with their life for taking my cousin's life.

MARTIN: Aisha, we heard from you about what it is you want to hear from the president, so I'm going to give Chris the final word and ask him and not just of the president. Now that you've got our attention, is there something you particularly want people to know to take away from your experience and what you've been living with?

BUFORD: I think that the biggest thing that I would like to get out there is that the violence is only a symptom of the problem and that what we really need is real investment in these communities. We need investment into our education systems and in the communities that are experiencing this violence. We need jobs for young people. We need mentors. We need skills development. We need community building, building of unity inside of these communities.

But we need things that are going to impact us right now, today, because lives are being lost today.

MARTIN: Well, thank you both so much for joining us. I'm sorry for what's brought us together, but I'm happy that I had a chance to meet you both and to talk with you both and I really wish you all - both - the very best.

Aisha Truss-Miller and Chris Buford are members of Chicago's Black Youth Project and they were kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Thank you both so much for joining us. My very best wishes to you both.

TRUSS-MILLER: Thank you.

BUFORD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.