For­mer CPS CEO’s non­profit has worked with fa­ther of slain 1-year-old

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - BY FRAN SPIELMAN, CITY HALL REPORTER fspiel­man@sun­ | @fspiel­man

Dur­ing Arne Dun­can’s 7½-year run as CEO of Chicago Pub­lic Schools, he said a stu­dent was killed, on av­er­age, ev­ery two weeks.

Young lives were cut trag­i­cally short while rid­ing home on a bus; walk­ing to a cor­ner store; or in a liv­ing room, get­ting ready for school.

“To show how naïve I am, when our fam­ily left to go to D.C. in 2009, I thought as a city we were at rock bot­tom,” said Dun­can, who went to Wash­ing­ton to serve as U.S. education sec­re­tary un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

But Chicago has reached a new rock bot­tom. Homi­cide lev­els not seen since 2016. Three straight week­ends in which at least two chil­dren were killed.

The youngest of those vic­tims was 20-month-old Sin­cere Gas­ton, killed when some­one opened fire on his mother’s car as she drove home from an En­gle­wood laun­dro­mat.

Sin­cere’s death was per­sonal to Dun­can. The non­profit Dun­can now runs to help at-risk youth — Cre­at­ing Real Eco­nomic Des­tiny — has worked with Thomas Gas­ton, Sin­cere’s fa­ther, for the last two years.

“He’s had a lot of chal­lenges, but has re­ally been work­ing hard to get his life to­gether. He’s ac­tu­ally do­ing a re­ally good job with us. Hav­ing his son re­ally helped to get him more on the straight and nar­row. He’s ac­tu­ally been an amaz­ing fa­ther,” Dun­can told the Sun-Times.

“And the part that’s so heart­break­ing is, he brought his son to our pro­gram all the time. Peo­ple saw him grow up. Saw him start to walk. See­ing him in a cas­ket sev­eral days ago — I’ve never seen a cas­ket that small. I hope I never see one again.”

Adding in­sult to in­jury was how Thomas Gas­ton and his wife say they were treated by Chicago po­lice. In­ves­ti­ga­tors have said they be­lieve the gun­man who killed Sin­cere was ac­tu­ally tar­get­ing the child’s fa­ther.

“The day af­ter they just lost their 20-month-old, who was sit­ting in the back seat of his mother’s car on the way to the laun­dro­mat to get clean clothes be­cause he was sup­posed to start day care last Mon­day, they were called into the po­lice sta­tion and ba­si­cally re-trau­ma­tized by the po­lice. There has to be a bet­ter way,” Dun­can said. It wasn’t the first time. “We had a young man . . . a high school stu­dent ... teach­ing peace in the com­mu­nity [who] is so bril­liant, he had the idea to start our peace­maker pro­gram, work­ing with young kids across the city to learn con­flict res­o­lu­tion skills. Trag­i­cally, he was shot on his porch sit­ting with his grand­fa­ther. And when he was taken to the hospi­tal, he was hand­cuffed to the bed be­cause he was just as­sumed — be­cause he’s a young Black man from the West Side — that some­how, he was a gang­banger. That’s the kind of thing that’s just un­con­scionable,” Dun­can said.

Chicago CRED is work­ing with roughly 500 young men, ages 17 to 24, dis­con­nected from work and school and most in dan­ger of be­ing vic­tims or per­pe­tra­tors of gun vi­o­lence.

The painstak­ing process starts with what Dun­can calls “street out­reach teams with tremen­dous cred­i­bil­ity with dif­fer­ent cliques.” They ap­proach young men who are, Dun­can said, jus­ti­fi­ably cyn­i­cal be­cause “they’ve been lied to so many times” and had so many pro­grams give up on them. They ask th­ese for­got­ten young men to “give us a chance,” Dun­can said.

Those who agree are “sur­rounded by a team of adults to­tally fo­cused on their long-term suc­cess” — with coun­sel­ing, education, job train­ing and job place­ment. Some of the “life coaches” are ex-of­fend­ers them­selves.

“Many have dealt with trauma their en­tire lives — from birth. We have to help peo­ple heal. Hurt peo­ple hurt peo­ple. That heal­ing, that jour­ney, trans­forms them, but can take some time,” he said.

Pro­gram par­tic­i­pants are now work­ing in health care, man­u­fac­tur­ing, hos­pi­tal­ity, culi­nary and con­struc­tion jobs. Some are at down­town law and ac­count­ing firms.

As bleak and bloody as the last few weeks and months have been, Dun­can sees signs of hope.

In Rose­land and Pull­man — two South Side neigh­bor­hoods where Chicago CRED has been deeply in­vested for sev­eral years — fa­tal shoot­ings are down 38% de­spite be­ing up 38% city­wide. And only one of the roughly 64 shoot­ings over the July Fourth week­end took place there.

Roughly 3,000 young men in Chicago need a sim­i­lar “first chance,” if only the city, the business com­mu­nity and phil­an­thropic com­mu­ni­ties would give it to them, Dun­can said.

“A city with all of our cor­po­rate and phil­an­thropic re­sources — if we’re un­will­ing to help a cou­ple thou­sand men have a chance at life, then shame on us,” said Dun­can, man­ag­ing part­ner of the Emer­son Col­lec­tive, a ven­ture fund founded by the widow of Ap­ple vi­sion­ary Steve Jobs.

“We’re not gonna ar­rest our way out of this. We’re not gonna in­car­cer­ate our way out of this. The po­lice ... re­ally strug­gle to solve crimes. We have to give guys a rea­son to put down the guns. To have hope. That’s what this is all about.”

Arne Dun­can

Sin­cere Gas­ton


For­mer U.S. Education Sec­re­tary Arne Dun­can says that when he was CEO of Chicago Pub­lic Schools, a stu­dent was killed on av­er­age ev­ery two weeks, and that “when our fam­ily left to go to D.C. in 2009, I thought as a city we were at rock bot­tom.”


Thomas Gas­ton and Yas­mine Miller, par­ents of 20-month-old Sin­cere Gas­ton, at a vigil last week.


Sin­cere Gas­ton

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