Lifting Urban America UP: The Urban Progress Initiative



With shootings and killings on pace to reach historic levels in 2016, Chicago has become the unfortunate epicenter of our nation’s gun violence epidemic.  But what is often obscured by the headlines is the root cause of the problem.  The gun violence in Chicago and cities like it are but a symptom of a much larger, systemic ailment afflicting urban America: hopelessness.

The lack of economic opportunity in urban America creates a malaise that depresses communities and clouds the outlook of those who live there.  Earlier this year, a report by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute found that half of the young Black men in the city of Chicago were jobless.  We’re talking about scores of young Black men being sucked into an unemployment void only to be trapped by the quicksand of low self-esteem, powerlessness and negative and harmful behaviors.  It’s a vacuum that is robbing us of a generation and puts further generations at risk for a similar fate.

Urban America has been down for far too long.  The National Urban League has dedicated itself to the mission of economic empowerment to elevate the standard of living in underserved urban communities, and it’s about time that lawmakers also work to provide a way up for these communities.  It is in this spirit that I created the Urban Progress Initiative, or “UP,” for the families I represent.

The UP Initiative brings together a broad, diverse coalition of members of Congress with civic leaders from every level of government to advance a comprehensive strategy of urban reinvestment that increases economic opportunity and reduces violence.  The initiative has three tenets through which the coalition will work to advance sustainable and positive change:

  • Sustainable Community Economic Development – Recognizing that economic opportunity for all is essential to reducing violence in the long-term, the UP Initiative will advance legislation and policies that expand summer and after-school jobs, job training programs and commercial and residential redevelopment efforts, while calling on and partnering with the private sector to expand investment, fair lending and development projects in such communities.
  • Community Policing – Pervasive violence in urban communities coupled with incidents of police misconduct foster a distrust and resentment that perpetuates further violence.  As such, restoring and improving community-police relations is a core tenet of any community revitalization plan.  The UP Initiative will promote community policing and more representative police forces, while working with police departments to create activities and programs that connects them to their communities and opens lines of positive communication between law enforcement and community residents.
  • Common Sense Gun Violence Prevention – In order to fulfill its promise of opportunity for all, America must finally come to grips with our gun violence epidemic.  The UP Initiative will push common sense gun reforms to save lives, including comprehensive background checks, reinstating the assault weapon ban, closing gun sales loopholes and lifting the ban on federal research on gun violence.

In short, the UP Initiative is a comprehensive approach to community redevelopment that focuses equally on people and infrastructure.  A rising tide may lift all boats, but if families can’t swim, a community drowns.  So, the UP Initiative aims to give urban America a leg up by first uplifting its residents and then empowering them with the tools and supports they need to build up their communities.

I launched the UP Initiative in April by bringing members of Congress from across the country to Chicago to see the work I’ve been doing on the ground with partners with whom I have worked closely during my tenure in Congress, from academics to community advocates to parents of gun violence victims.  I took them to several of the community-based organizations in some of the most crime-ridden areas of my district that are implementing innovative strategies to successfully reduce violence, a success that the UP Initiative hopes to replicate in other major cities.  They were able to see the curb-level view of life in some of the most desperate communities in America, where joblessness and hopelessness intersect with deadly consequences.  They were also able to see good, decent people struggling every day through the chaos to make a way for themselves and their families.  These are the people I came to Congress to fight for, and these are the people for whom the UP Initiative was created.

The UP Initiative will build a strong coalition of state and federal policymakers, community-based organizations and law enforcement to increase access to sustainable employment and quality education and training with the goal of creating safe, stable and self-sustaining communities.  It will help to create an America where opportunity lives on every corner – and that means preparing our current and future workforce for new economy jobs.

More and more of the well-paying jobs that will lift families and communities out of economic decline require a degree or certificate, as well as computer skills and experience in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.  But we have much work to do to expose students in urban America to STEM.  As such, we need a comprehensive approach to training job seekers in today’s in-demand skills while investing in STEM education for future generations.

That’s why I helped start the bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Diversifying Tech Caucus to strengthen the diversity pipeline in STEM.  I’m also advocating for common sense ideas like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), an incentive to help our youth and disadvantaged Americans find work that was recently reauthorized.

Additionally, I created a STEM Council and a STEM Academy in my district to engage young students and get them excited about STEM subjects.

Effective action happens on the ground.  The UP Initiative will help rebuild urban communities from the ground up.

As a member of Congress representing some of our nation’s most underserved, violence-plagued communities, I’ve seen first-hand the transformative power of economic opportunity.  By giving our young people greater access to a quality education and gainful employment, we absolutely can break the cycle of violence gripping our communities.

Nothing stops a bullet like a job.