Can storytelling reduce gun violence in Chicago?

The final heart-thumping, made-for-Hollywood-ending to the World Series that handed the fabled Chicago Cubs their first series win in 108 years boosted the spirits of a city thirsting for good news. Just a few days before the “loveable losers” became the nation’s best-loved winners, the city experienced yet another sad marker: 17 people were lost to gun violence in a single weekend.

If you love this city as I do, it would be easy to sink into despair over a statistic like that. But I don’t. That’s because every day, ordinary people are engaged in efforts that add to the soul of the Chicago.

One of them is the sound engineer and videographer Grant Buhr. Mr. Buhr, 37, is the creator of Story Squad, a project of the Youth Safety and Violence Prevention Office of the Y.M.C.A of Metro Chicago. Story Squad helps young people between the ages of 8 and 19 write, edit and record the stories of how violence changed their lives and how they struggle to heal. Mr. Buhr calls it narrative therapy. He says young people learn and grow through storytelling and that their stories help the rest of us “gain insights all too often missed by adults.”

Make no mistake, these narratives are tough to hear. “I was about 7 the first time I got caught in a crossfire,” says one boy. “I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood there.”

The students express themselves in a variety of forms. In a hip-hop poem, a teen named Hakeem raps: “Did you shower last night? Was the water cold as usual?”

A young boy named DeAngelo tells of the night his mother opened their apartment door expecting a visit from friends, only to have robbers force their way in, aim a gun at her head and threaten her children. After the robbery, DeAngelo says, “I was scared to ever go back to sleep.”

In a story called “Girl A, Girl B,” 14-year-old Kayama tells of two very smart girls who both go to a school where “the teachers really don’t want to be there.” One girl is labeled “a good kid,” but the other has a bad temper and she is labeled “a poverty child.”

“Which one do you think I am?” Kayama asks. “I am both.”

She ends her essay with the warning, “Society wants you to think Girl B is a bad person who won’t have a good future. That’s not true.”

A future that is not like their present lives is something Mr. Buhr says he encourages students to envision. The storytelling project includes counseling as well.

Youths explore their emotions, learn to recognize their stress level and practice “self-anchoring skills” that he says will help them avoid committing the kind of violent acts they have witnessed. He points to studies that show 90 percent of the youths in Chicago’s Juvenile Detention Center had experienced some kind of violent trauma.

Mr. Buhr, who grew up in Minneapolis, had a promising career ahead of him as a sound engineer in Los Angeles but took a detour to help make videos of arts programs in Uganda. When he returned to the States, he studied social work at the University of Chicago. An internship led him to the Violence Prevention Office and what has become his ministry and life’s work.

Mr. Buhr says he hopes the stories the youths tell can serve as a springboard to creating the policy changes and programs sorely needed in Chicago’s most troubled neighborhoods. The people with whom students share these stories at public events, he says, are often profoundly affected.

It is perhaps because there is usually a thread of hope in each story. Despite their personal struggles, the teens remind us that Chicago is indeed a beautiful city, both structurally and in spirit. “If you demean Chicago, if you put your city in a negative light, it puts you in a negative light,” one student says in her narrative.

Story Squad is not going to end the violence, but its stories are like the luminaria at Christmastime that line the front walks of many homes in Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods. Each adds its small beam of light to the sum of light in parts of the city too often overshadowed by sorrow. “These are small individual efforts, but when taken together,” Mr. Buhr says, “they make a larger ripple in healing the pain of our city.”

You can listen to Story Squad’s young people tell their own stories at https://soundcloud.com/ysvp.

Lisa Weber
6 months ago
Stories are healing and help with understanding. Thanks for this article.
L J
5 months 3 weeks ago
"Story Squad is not going to end the violence, but its stories are like the luminaria at Christmastime that line the front walks of many homes in Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods" I remember as a child ignoring a neighbor telling me to behave. We were a group of Latino boys, playing on the street kickball, stickball, riding our bicycles on the gravel roads, and apparently I was misbehaving. Señora Delgado called me to her fence and told me to behave or else she would tell my parents. I told her she was not my mother and ran away. Later that night, Mami called me to walk with her. We went to Ms. Delgado's front door, and Mami told me in front of Sra. Delgado, "cualquier cosa que ella te diga, tu lo vas hacer. Tu me entiendes?" (Whatever she tells you to do, you will do it. Do you understand me). I later apologized to Sra Delgado. Years later when she died, I attended her funeral and cried. When we arrived to this country the Latino mothers and fathers, our relatives, neighbors, Latino store owners watched over us. The White Americans hated us, Blacks saw us taking "their welfare ", and the government didn't recognize our language. As I drive today through broken neighborhoods, particularly Black American neighborhoods, I look for the parents, grandparents, extended family, the relatives, the neighbors and church elders. They are no where to be found, opting instead to bekieve what they have been told by one political party: "we will fight for you" Until the family unit becomes predominant, chaos will continue like in Chicago. Where are the fathers, relatives, church elders, neighbors, store owners watching over the neighborhoods?

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Greg Hicks as "Richard III" (photo: Alex Brenner)
It would be fascinating were the producers able to arrange a quick transfer to a venue somewhere near the White House.
David StewartMay 26, 2017
In the hyper-curated, beautiful world that Dev lives in, a scene that conveys the touching, ugly stubbornness of marriage seems totally impossible.
Eloise BlondiauMay 26, 2017
This image released by the Minya governorate media office shows bodies of victims killed when gunmen stormed a bus in Minya, Egypt, Friday, May 26, 2017 (Minya Governorate Media office via AP).
The attack in central Egypt today killed at least 26 people, including children aged 2 to 4, and wounded 25 others.
Gerard O'ConnellMay 26, 2017
The data and facts are clear: If you care about working families and sound economic policy, SNAP is the program for you.
Meghan J. ClarkMay 26, 2017