In the Name of Real Community Change: Aspen Challenge Teams Turn Competition into Collaboration

June 8, 2017, Chicago, IL — Before the Aspen Challenge team from Wendell Phillips Academy High School placed their focus solely on their trip to the Aspen Ideas Festival, they joined five other Aspen Challenge teams for a brainstorming session who, like them, chose to tackle one of the most talked about and troublesome problems that Chicagoans face: violence prevention and police-community relations. Nearly 30 employees of the City of Chicago and Chicago Police Department (CPD), from precincts across the city and the neighborhoods represented by each school in attendance, met with students to explore ways to collaborate and continue students’ work to create a culture of peace in Chicago.

“People should care about the work we are doing,” said Wendell Phillips Academy sophomore Miles Powell, “because every day we hear news about people being shot and dying. I’m tired of hearing about it.”

With City of Chicago Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp and CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson in the room, it was clear to students that the city’s leadership cares, but both acknowledged that neither city officials nor law enforcement can curb the tide of violence alone.

Superintendent Johnson reminded students that their futures depend on them helping to solve some of the current issues of violence and trust in law enforcement, adding after the session, “we need [young people’s] input on how to solve this thing… [because] far too often it is people their age that are on either end of tragedy in our streets.”

In 2016 alone, Chicago saw 324 young people age 16 and under become victims of gun violence – 36 of those cases resulted in homicides. Through the first six months of this year, the city has witnessed 128 shootings of young people age 16 and under, of which 21 have resulted in homicides.

To the superintendent’s point, CPD Community Affairs Director Robinson affirmed, “we don’t know what it feels like to be their age, in this age, in their neighborhoods… [so] who better to help us build the relationships we need with their peers to become partners in peace-keeping?”

The brainstorming session at City of Chicago Public Safety Headquarters proved an inspiring first step. Nearly 50 high school students participated to unpack misconceptions held by both sides around the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve. The exercise was one in which individuals from both sides felt grateful to be heard. For students especially, having adults at the table was empowering.

“This is in our lives [sic] every day,” said Wendell Phillips Academy High School sophomore Trevon Walker, “and it won’t get better unless people intervene.”

Deputy Mayor Zopp shared Walker’s sentiment, opening the session by imploring students to act and engage civically to spur real community change.

“Our system of government and democracy is dependent on people engaging… As citizens of this great country, you have the right to have a voice and to exercise it!”

In just a few days on the Aspen Ideas Festival stage, Wendell Phillips Academy High School’s Aspen Challenge team will continue to do just that. Captivating the Aspen Ideas Festival’s audience of global leaders, policy makers, and entrepreneurs, the team will present its solution to Director Robinson’s challenge to bring youth into authentic relationships with law enforcement officials. They will be joined by winning teams from the Aspen Challenge Philadelphia representing Northeast High School, Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School, and George Washington High School, who will present solutions aimed at designing methods of recovering food in a scalable way to build a more sustainable country and enabling people to bring habits of good nutrition, regular exercise, and balanced emotional health into their lives, respectively.

Reflecting on the entire Aspen Challenge experience, Director Robinson expressed great optimism and excitement, saying, “from city hall to police headquarters to the local police districts and community partners, we want to harvest this wisdom and make things better for our city.”

What better a next step for this goal than to add the audience of the Aspen Ideas Festival, where world leaders and influencers will draw inspiration from the work and passion of Aspen Challenge teams to make our world a more peaceful and healthy place.

Story contributed by James White, Program and Communications Assistant, Youth & Engagement Programs

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