LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The president will leave the sequester debate behind this afternoon when he travels to Chicago. He's expected to talk about the gun violence that plagues his home town.
Fifteen-year-old Hadiya Pendleton became a symbol of the problem after she was murdered last month in a park about a mile from the president's Chicago home. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports on what activists expect from President Obama.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Shortly after Hadiya Pendleton's death, the University of Chicago's Black Youth Project started a petition drive on the White House website, urging President Obama to come home to talk about gun violence. Nearly 50,000 signed the petition. Dallas Donnell is one of the group's coordinators.
DALLAS DONNELL: We felt like there was a need for a national kind of response to this crisis, not just for Hadiya but for all black youth impacted by this crisis. And when we say that, we don't just meant the victim of violence but the kid pulling the trigger.
CORLEY: And Donnell said there's no better person than the president to draw attention to an epidemic.
DONNELL: He went to Newtown after that terrible tragedy. He went to Aurora after that horrible tragedy. And we felt like it was the right thing for him to come to Chicago, to his hometown, where young people are dying mere blocks from where he literally has a home and has lived for many years.
CORLEY: Later this afternoon, the president will talk to about 700 students, community leaders and parents at Hyde Park Academy on Chicago's South Side. He'll also meet privately with a group of young men in a mentoring program called BAM, or Becoming a Man. Those signing the petition asked the president to talk specifically about the root causes of gun violence in black and Latino communities. Black Youth Project founder Professor Cathy Cohen says that includes a lack of quality education, mental health services and employment opportunities in neighborhoods where gun violence is rampant.
CATHY COHEN: He has to come tell people that there are immediate things that we can do. We can really work to get illegal guns off the street. We can put in place mentoring programs. We can try to support counselors. But that if we really going to deal gun violence and transform the lives of young people and their communities, it means long-term investment.
CORLEY: There were 506 murders in Chicago last year - most of them gun-related. And January continued to be a bloody month - 42 murders in all, the most for a January in a decade. University of Chicago's crime lab director, Jen Ludwig, likes to quote the mayor of Kansas City, who calls the daily gun violence that occurs in cities slow-motion mass murder. Ludwig was encouraged, though, when the president announced the federal government would resume long-stalled gun violence research.
JENS LUDWIG: Making sure that there is some sort of space for gun violence research to be added to the federal government's research agenda, I think, would be hugely helpful.
CORLEY: Among other things, Ludwig says it will help politicians prioritize which gun regulations to fight for.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)
CORLEY: In Chicago's Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the city's South Side, a group of kindergartners - the girls in plaid skirts, the boys in blue pants - walk past the rectory at St. Sabina Church. In the window are signs that read: Turn in guns, no questions asked. Father Michael Pfleger is the priest here.
FATHER MICHAEL PFLEGER: Well, there had been a tremendous amount of shootings and killing going on. Last summer, at the end of the school year, I told my church we're going to go out every Friday night.
CORLEY: Pfleger says there have been no shootings since last September, after the church helped negotiate a truce among four gangs and set up a weekly basketball game. Pfleger is a social activist who lost a foster son to gun violence. He spoke at Hadiya Pendleton's funeral, and says whatever the president's plan, there needs to be a sense of urgency.
PFLEGER: Because we don't have time for children to keep dying.
CORLEY: Activists here hope the president's visit will help motivate people on this issue. But regardless, they pledge there will be a push to change the gun culture in neighborhoods where so many lives have been lost. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.