Tragedy in Back of the Yards

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Jason Gill had a knack for beating the odds. Part of that knack came from his curiosity. In a room full of 6th-graders at Fiske Elementary, Jason was the one student whose sheer desire to know drove him out of his seat to get a closer look, to get his hands on the subject matter, to ask questions fearlessly and sincerely.

That desire to know sparked his friendship with me, which led to many good things for him and for students like him. In 1998, Jason was one of four students I took to look for dinosaur remains in Big Bend, Texas, along with a college class from the University of Chicago. The wonder he and the other students experienced during that trip inspired me to create Project Exploration, a science organization that targets students who aren’t academically successful but who are curious and open-minded.

I also took Jason to Perspectives Charter School. I believed he would thrive in a small environment that focused on knowing its students well. Jason was complicated, promising, artistic, frustrating, funny, challenging and curious. He found success there, though not easily, and he changed me and his other teachers in the process.

Thanks to his mind, his teachers and his luck, Jason graduated from Perspectives in 2000, beating the odds that tell us earning a diploma is a goal fewer than half the city’s African-American young men will ever reach. With his desire to learn, college might have been Jason’s next step. But it wasn’t.

Perhaps that had to do with the other way Jason beat the odds, at least for a while. He survived a gunshot wound. Unfortunately, Jason’s luck was tested again on May 3, 2008. That time, the odds beat him; he was shot while standing on his porch, waiting for a family friend to bring back pizza. He died within hours. He was 26 years old.

There were so many things about Jason’s life that were beyond his control, but in spite of it all Jason inspired people to laugh and love and be their best selves. We wish he weren’t dead.

Jason was not a violent person. He expressed himself through his passionate pursuits of drawing and rap. If you saw him on the street, he would flash you the big, sweet smile he inherited from his mother and wish you a blessed day.

But in Woodlawn and later in Back of the Yards, Jason lived in a world where people settle their arguments not with words, but with weapons. According to his family, a relative of Jason’s had gotten into an argument with a gang member the week before. That Saturday night, the man returned in a car, with a gun, looking for trouble. He didn’t find who he was looking for; he found Jason instead.

We give thanks for Jason’s life, because he helped spark the creation of an entire organization dedicated to making room for kids like him, kids who get left out or overlooked because they don’t really excel at school. Young people like Jason don’t find success easily, but when they do, they embrace it and shine. Thanks to Jason and his impact on me, more kids like him will have the chance to shine.

Also, thanks to Jason’s testimony before he died, the prime suspect in the case was arrested and is now being held without bail. In a neighborhood where people don’t always trust the police, such quick, effective action is encouraging. However, we want to make sure that young men like Jason can live their lives in peace and safety.

Although Chicago has some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation, guns like the one that killed Jason are still all too common. In Chicago, we can’t wait for Springfield to tighten gun control laws; we need action now. We hope that Chicago Police Department Superintendent Jody Weis will investigate all leads on illegal arms dealers and take steps to stem the tide of illegal guns.

Equally important, our neighborhoods need help to reduce violence. Groups like CeaseFire and Catholic Charities Street Intervention, which defuse petty arguments like the one that led to Jason’s death, need more funding and support. This month, a U.S. Department of Justice-funded study found that CeaseFire has contributed to a reduction in violent incidents in “hotspot” areas where shootings had been frequent.

Putting people on the street who know the neighborhood and are trained to interrupt violence works.  How many more times will we leave young men like Jason Gill to play the odds before we have the strength to do what we know is right?

Gabrielle Lyon
Executive director and co-founder, Project Exploration

Maureen Kelleher
Freelance writer