How Violence is Affecting Adolescents in the City of Chicago, An Interview with Damien Sewell

This week’s blog was written by SCY’s Outreach Coordinator Linda Gordon.

This past July turned out to be one of the most violent months in 28 years according to data kept by the Chicago Tribune. The youngest being 7-year-old Natalia Wallace, who was shot as her family celebrated the Fourth of July in the South Austin neighborhood and 9-year-old Janari Andre Ricks who was shot while playing with friends behind the Cabrini Green. And 17-year-old activist Caleb Reed, who died Sunday, two days after he was shot in the West Rogers Park neighborhood. According to the University of Chicago, data shows us that “Among people ages 10-24, homicide is the leading cause of death for African Americans.”

I thought this was a perfect time to chat with 18-year-old Damien Sewell. A recent CPS graduate now headed to college, with his own lived experience around violence, can offer his thoughts about ways to combat violence in the city of Chicago.

Linda: Good morning Damien, it is good to hear from you. I want to first congratulate you in a big way. You graduated from Amundsen High School this year and now you will be starting your first semester at Loyola University Chicago this Fall. And, this is all happening while a pandemic is going on. I remember the day you asked me to write your letters of recommendations for college, I was so honored. So how have you been?

Damien: Well, with the recent events that have been happening across our nation, I’ve experienced moments of disappointment, sadness, and triumph. Over these last few months, I have been disappointed, yet again, with the continuous racial injustices happening across our country. It began with Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, whose families still haven’t received justice. I’ve been upset because it’s ridiculous that even in the 21st century, ‘Black America’ is still fighting two wars. The war against racial and social injustice and the war with itself. Furthermore, I have felt moments of triumph because I have closed the previous chapter of my life, and I am on the precipice of beginning a new chapter at Loyola.

L: I am glad that you mentioned this. This is very sad and disappointing to me as well. In my opinion, we as African American’s have been going through this for many years now. People are now being exposed through social media around the unlawful things that are being done to them. Unfortunately, there were many African American’s before Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that were killed and justice still isn’t served. With all of this going on, how is the transitioning into college going so far? What are some things you are looking forward to, what are some things that are going well and challenges that you are facing right now around college?

D: Those are some great inquiries. To answer your first question, as my first semester of college quickly approaches, I am looking forward to reinforcing my knowledge and understanding of the complexities of the American Criminal Justice system. Also, I aim to attain a more in-depth understanding of abnormal behavior [criminality]. Although all my courses are online, due to COVID-19, I have confidence that I’ll be able to achieve my educational goals. Now, to answer your second question, some challenges I am facing are feelings of disappointment and anxiety. I am disappointed because I won’t be able to have a fulfilling college experience for my freshman year. Initially, before all the societal restrictions, due to COVID-19, I had planned to build a network with professionals in my field of study; establish new friendships; reinvent my mindset so that I could set myself on the path of becoming the person of my dreams.

L: Just from knowing you as a part of the youth advisory consultants we have grown closer and I understand you better and you will be a perfect person for this field. I wish you nothing but the best and you will do well even through this pandemic.

With that being said, Now that you mentioned criminality, it is a good segue into the topics of youth and violence in the City of Chicago. Since COVID-19, there has been an uptick in violence amongst youth in the city of Chicago. What do you think the root causes of violence are? What can we do to support communities around the root causes? I was looking at some data and According to the University of Chicago, “Among people ages 10-24, homicide is the leading cause of death for African Americans.”

D: If I had to make an educated guess, I would say: the root of violence stems from what individuals have been exposed to. For instance, when a child witnesses criminality or has experienced physical violence, they often repeat what they’ve seen to comprehend the situation. Furthermore, when it comes to establishing alternatives to prevent this type of behavior from recurring, we have to focus on mental health.

According to Columbia University School of Psychiatry, “Mental health is one on the nation’s leading causes of death in communities, specifically in the African-American communities across the United States.” If young black men and women had access to counseling or other mental health resources, they could begin to heal from what they have witnessed and experienced, which could inspire them to embrace a more fulfilling future. I think these are some ways of preventing this type of behavior from recurring.

L: You know, we here at SCY are mourning the tragic loss of Caleb Reed, a young freedom fighter with our partner Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE). Caleb Reed died Sunday, two days after he was shot in the West Rogers Park neighborhood. Less than two months ago, he publicly spoke out about removing officers from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and spending the money on mental health and other services for students. Can you tell us how violence has personally affected you and how do you keep the momentum going to continue the work around violence prevention?

D: To commiserate, my condolences go out to Caleb’s family and loved ones. It is horrible to see, yet again, another young and brilliant mind silenced by the barrel of a gun. The death of a child is one of the tremendous pains any loving parent could bear. To lose something so sentimental, which brings so much love and beauty to a parent’s life, would be their worst nightmare. It is an event that would leave them desolate and on the verge of self-destruction. The tragedy of sending one’s child to an early burial leaves a void of emptiness within a parent’s heart. It’s unfortunate to admit that we, as humans, are living in a time in our history where the belief of gang legacy seems to be more important than the value of human life. It’s unacceptable! It’s the tragic cases like Caleb’s that demand a call for action, which inspires me to keep doing work surrounding violence prevention in communities, specifically the African-American communities, across Chicago. Now, to answer the second part of your question, I have had a personal experience with violence.

In the early morning of October 30, 2017, I had received the heartbreaking news regarding the murder of one of my closest friends. Her name was E’shaunte Mayfield. E’shaunte had been involved in a fatal shooting while over a mutual friend’s house. After receiving that news, it instilled a feeling of despair in my heart. It was a horrible feeling, almost as if I died too.

L: I am sorry for your loss. Losing a friend or a loved one is never easy. I also agree that Caleb was indeed a force to reckon with!

Moving forward, I have a follow up question. What do you think about David Brown, Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, response to the uptick in violence within Chicago?

D: In my opinion, Police Superintendent David Brown seems to believe that the violence permeating through our African-American neighborhoods is a problem that can be solved overnight. But that is not the case. When it comes to solving a generational issue, such as gun violence, it takes years to establish a solution that ensures the violence won’t reoccur. It isn’t just about locking people up and throwing away the key; it’s about putting in place an alternative option for individuals who are vulnerable to adopting and adapting to criminal behavior. Once a reliable alternative has been established, the violence associated with criminal behavior probably won’t happen so often. 

L: As we would say in the field of public health gun violence is a public health issue, meaning there are social determinants of health that can predict our outcomes as it relates to gun violence.

D: Interesting…..

So, considering you have experience in the field of behavioral science, do you think the criminal behavior linked to the violence that is permeating throughout our community will ever cease? Do you think they’ll ever be a moment in time when ‘Black America’ will stop destroying itself? 

L: To answer your first question, I am hopeful that one day we shall overcome. It’s been over 400 years and black people are still being wrongfully beaten up by the police and institutional racism is happening as we speak. My daddy always said that the system of American society and jurisprudence was never intended for black people. No matter how much education we have, or economical stability, we are still black. But I am hopeful. I don’t necessarily think Black American is destroying itself. In my option, we as a country have to take accountability and do better as a whole.

D: I completely agree. It may seem that no matter how much economic stability or education people like us have, we will never be seen as our counterpart’s equal. As we grow up, we are taught just to excel and overcome. And, that’s what leads to achieving a more fulfilling future. But, we, as the people, have to  learn how to put our pride and our predilections to the side and embrace a more loving world. I am hopeful as well that one day we live in this world free from bias, violence, and hatred.

L: Well Damien it was a pleasure having you, thank you for your insight about the violence in Chicago’s youth. I look forward to collaborating with you in the near future. Is there anything else you wanted to say?

D:  I am glad you asked! I would like the individuals who are conducting this reckless criminal behavior and who are gunning down the brilliant minds yet to come, enough is enough! You are destroying this generation! If this behavior continues, we, as a generation, will continue to descend  into nothing! I would like to stress that handling petty disputes with guns is not the answer. Your actions are killing our babies, our brothers, and our sisters. The violence permeating through our neighborhoods and households needs to cease! I urge all of you to put those guns down!

Linda Gordon (Interviewer): Linda Gordon is a mother of a 20 year old daughter whose passion is developing young people of color in their passion. Due to her lived experiences as a teen mom, Linda has developed this love and desire to tough young people in a positive way. She has a background in and has studied public health.

Damien Sewell (Interviewee): Damien Sewell is a graduate of Amundsen High School’s Class of 2020, as well as a current freshman at Loyola University Chicago double majoring in Criminal Justice and Criminology & Paralegal Studies. Upon graduation he plans to apply to law school.




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