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In Chicago, talking sense to angry young men with guns

Antiviolence program employs ex-gang members to help curb street violence, with some success.

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A new study out of Northwestern University, however, concludes that CeaseFire has reduced gun violence in many Chicago neighborhoods. The study, released earlier this month, says outreach workers have been especially effective in befriending young gang members.

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"After their parents, the outreach workers were named as the most important people in their lives," says Wesley Skogan, the lead researcher.

It's not an easy approach. Many of the young men involved with gangs have acquired little aptitude for work or school. In Los Angeles and elsewhere, outreach workers themselves have sometimes lapsed back into illegal activities.

And public support has been unreliable. Last year, CeaseFire had to close most of its neighborhood offices in Chicago and elsewhere in Illinois after the state legislature cut many social service programs out of the state budget, forcing the campaign to rely largely on private donations.

But CeaseFire remains popular on the streets. Marshall Hatch, pastor of Chicago's New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church and an old ally of the campaign, says local people feel "a sense of pride … when ex-offenders are working on the right side."

And the campaign is expanding beyond Illinois. CeaseFire is in the second year of a four-year effort, financed by the US Justice Department, to replicate its work in other cities, including Newark, N.J.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Baltimore. "If we can use respected people from these communities to change behaviors related to guns, we can save lives as much as a new police strategy," says Joshua Sharfstein, commissioner of Baltimore's health department.

Marnell Brown is still at work. On a recent afternoon, 19-year-old Tyrone Lockett came looking for him at the CeaseFire office on West Chicago Avenue. Mr. Lockett said he had been trying to find work for a year and a half and that Brown was helping him "get his papers in order." Under Brown's guidance he had already found a place in a residential drug treatment program. "I basically just stick to myself, focus on my own business," he said.

For Brown and many others, keeping young men focused on their business and not on guns is one of the keys to making neighborhoods safe. But it takes skill, instinct, and perseverance.

"It's more than talking to you to try to stop you," Brown said before driving off in search of a high school transcript. "I need to keep you stopped. It's easy to stop someone from committing violence. It's hard to keep them from starting again."