I have worked as a soldier, diplomat and development professional since 2003 in Iraq, Kosovo, Jordan and most recently Afghanistan. I lived in Chicago from 1988 until 2009, when I left for Afghanistan. Unfortunately I see many similarities between these conflict environments and Chicago’s most distressed communities.

My work abroad has focused on assisting local civilians by building the capacity of local government officials to address the needs of their community. The terminology used to describe my work has evolved since 9/11 from counter-insurgency to stabilization programming.  A cornerstone of it involves building on existing strengths of the community.

Although many distressed neighborhoods are tough places to live and raise a family, there are sources of resiliency and hope in these communities. Elders, religious leaders, community leaders, universities, hospitals, schools, funeral homes, barbershops, beauty parlors and nail salons are all sources of strength. These resiliency actors need to be key to any community engagement strategy. 

In Iraq, Kosovo, Jordan and Afghanistan I have worked closely with local informal leaders, like tribal or religious leaders, who are the key to success in remote communities in hostile countries. They mediate all types of issues in a culturally acceptable manner. In Chicago’s distressed communities there is a need for a similar mediator. I suggest that some of our older prisoners be released and given training and a modest stipend to perform this role. The recidivism rate of older prisoners is very low. They could help our young people to learn the social skills needed to navigate a hostile environment. These men would be, at least in part, the mentors that most young people need.

Psychosocial impacts of violence

Violence regardless of the cultural context has severely impacted the most vulnerable members of society. Children exposed to violence often develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which can negatively impact their educational development and mental health. This has also been recognized in conflict environments. Violence severely impacts the social conditions that shape mental health, through increased poverty, threats to dignity, domestic and community violence and changed social relationships. Fortunately children are highly resilient and respond well to timely interventions by mental health caregivers. 

Quality education is the key to improving one’s condition in the long term. Unfortunately funding cuts have eliminated many programs for Chicago’s children. Arts, music and language programs are important because they give children confidence. This confidence spills over to other aspects of their young lives and set them on the path of success.

Security

Continuing violence exacerbates the difficulty of the lives and undermines citizen confidence in the legitimacy of government. Although there are residents involved in crime in Chicago’s most dangerous areas, there are far more who want to live in safe, prosperous environments. This could mean that the residents would welcome some sort of help from the National Guard to help eliminate illegal weapons. This could be accomplished by the use of flash checkpoints, which is a tactic used in war zones. It involves periodic searches of all vehicles at intersections, which could be done randomly during high-threat time periods. Simply confiscate the weapons. All efforts are for naught if illegal weapons remain on the streets.

Community policing and counter-insurgency efforts have many concepts in common. Heat lists, stop and frisk and contact cards may be inconvenient for both the police and residents of high-crime neighborhoods, but they are necessary to address sources of instability in these distressed communities. These efforts provide data, which in turn allows for analysis to determine where to allocate scarce resources.

Security is paramount to addressing issues in conflict environments. However, the most important part is buy-in by the community. This buy-in must include recognition that these distressed communities must bear a significant responsibility for their own future and the future of their children. Without political will or community responsibility all efforts are doomed to fail. 

— Edward F. Vowell, former Crisis, Stabilization and Governance Officer for USAID, and Civil Affairs soldier in the Army Reserves