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“You never know what’s going to happen in Chicago,” said North Lawndale high school senior Maurice Massonburg. “You walk down the street, you’ll probably get shot.”
In a city plagued by gang warfare, over 80 percent of all murders are committed with a gun — the national average being 69 percent — and nearly all of those shootings involved handguns. Last year, 11 percent of murder victims in Chicago were under the age of 18.
“What’s the point of doing better when any moment in Chicago can be your last?” asked Massonburg, who struggled with whether to become the first in his family to experience higher education.
According to Norman Livingston Kerr, director of violence prevention services for local anti-violence group UCAN, many young people are traumatized by violent environments. UCAN, which hopes to turn victims into leaders, annually reaches out to 10,000 youths and their families, hoping to build relationships and provide guidance.
“Young people who witness other people get shot or brutally beaten — it’s traumatic, and it affects them,” he said. “You have young people who won’t go to school because they may see violence on the way to school. Sometimes it takes place in school.”
Kerr said this can lead to poor academic performance. “When a teacher asks ‘What’s going on with you?’ this is what they’re experiencing,” he said.
Black males in the United States who have not completed high school are five times as likely to die from homicide than those with a college degree.
Gangs can contribute to dwindling career prospects, Kerr said. The legacy can even run in the family, becoming generational. “You have grandparents who were gang members or are still gang members, and this is the influence we see in some of the households,” he explained.
Compounding the effects of poverty, the violence afflicting some neighborhoods “takes it to the next level,” according to Kerr, weakening the educational infrastructure.
On average, university graduates earn over 60 percent more income than those who have only a high school diploma.
“If you don’t see anything different, there’s no way of seeing anything better,” Massonburg said of his neighborhood. “So I may as well become what I’m surrounded by.”
“We all live for the moment. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
Al Jazeera America presents an intimate look at the lives of teenagers at the crossroads of now and the future on “Edge of Eighteen.” Fifteen stories. One incredible journey. Tune in Sunday at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT.