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By Andrea L. Zopp

Published in the Chicago Defender on June 26, 2013.

There was a time when the first days of summer were filled with excitement and anticipation of family vacations, summer jobs, and endless days of fun at local parks, museums or in your own neighborhood.

Today, summer is approached with a sense of caution, and, in many cases, fear for the lives of our children and the safety of our communities.

Like many of you, every Monday I start my week doing a depressing task: reading the news accounts of individuals who were either murdered or injured because of gun violence. This month we hit our worst weekend of the year.

As temperatures rise, so does the likelihood of an increase in gun violence. And while much of this is contributed to gang activity, the root causes go much deeper. Poverty, incarceration and lack of opportunity are also factors. We must read beyond the headlines and acknowledge that we all have a role to play in reducing this public health crisis that is crippling our communities.

I urge you to step into summer not with a spirit of fear, but, instead, with a spirit of power. Power that enables you to boldly declare to would-be perpetrators of violence: “Not on our watch!”

Last weekend the Chicago Urban League took the “not on our watch” message to the streets: Last Friday, we joined more than 500 people at the Faith Community of Saint Sabina, led by Rev. Michael Pfleger, for a peace march and rally.

As a civil rights and social justice organization that has served Chicago for nearly a century, we are leveraging our advocacy and collaboration efforts to empower communities to take a stand against violence.

At the core of our effort to reduce violence is providing opportunities for young people that can put them on a path to success. Jobs are one effective way to do this.

It’s no secret that providing young people with summer jobs gives them skills, workplace experience, a work ethic and, of course, money in their pockets to support themselves and their families.

This summer we’re working in partnership with the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois to provide job opportunities for several hundred young people. We are placing youth in these jobs right now and encourage you to reach out to us if there is a young person in your life who is in need of a summer job.

And if you own a business or have the capacity to provide summer jobs to young people, please do so as soon as possible. Giving youth meaningful work exposure and a safe haven is essential to securing their futures and keeping them out of harm’s way. And it gives you the opportunity to be a positive influence on their lives.

Another effective way to safeguard our neighborhoods is through community collaborations. In addition to working with Fr. Pfleger and the great folks at Saint Sabina, we also work in partnership with the KLEO Center, headed by Rev. Torrey Barrett and other community organizations that are committed to making our neighborhoods safer.

This summer the Urban League will also launch an initiative to provide a safe haven for youth at our Bronzeville headquarters and in the nearby parks. We do this with the knowledge that young people respond well and avoid risky behavior when they see that adults genuinely care about their well-being and are willing to invest in them.

We are glad to be a part of the solution but we can’t do it alone. We need you to be a part of this effort to reclaim and restore our communities. We must put an end to the cynicism, desensitization, and hopelessness and be vigilant on behalf of our children and our neighborhoods.

We have to ask ourselves, as individuals, and neighborhoods, what part we play in ongoing violence. If you peel back the layers, you may realize that some of the challenges we see are the result of too many of us thinking we’re powerless in the struggle against violence. Nothing could be further from the truth. We can and must be more engaged in reporting crimes in our communities.

I am a firm believer that, as a united community of individuals, families, neighborhoods and organizations, we can make this summer safer for our children and for ourselves. We must be on watch and be proactive in protecting the legacy we will leave for those who come after us. We must move beyond the fear and apathy for the sake of the next generation.

A safer, better future depends on all of us. Let the watch begin.

Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. To learn more about the Urban League’s anti-violence and summer jobs programs call 773-285-5800.