Chicago students counter culture of gun violence with Project Orange Tree

April 04, 2013|By Rachel Cromidas, @rachelcromidas | RedEye

The Chicago youth behind Project Orange Tree, an anti-gun violence effort taking root this spring, know about sacrifice.

They’ve seen classmates and friends victimized by neighborhood violence around the city, among them Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was fatally shot earlier this year after being caught in gang-related fire in North Kenwood.

And since April 1, they’ve been fasting from sunup to sundown to honor her death and inspire community members. They’re also wearing the color orange, a symbol of protection, and asking other students from around the city and from as far away as Ghana to do the same for the past four days.

Most of the thirty-some students leading the project hail from South Side schools, including King College Prep High School, which Pendleton attended, and Englewood’s Lindblom Math and Science Academy. Tonight, in memory of the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, they are breaking their final fast with dinner at the Inner-city Muslim Action Network in Chicago Lawn.

Foregoing breakfast and lunch for the week hasn’t been easy, said Chelsea James, 17, a Lindblom senior from Bronzeville, but she thinks it sends an important message.

“The idea was to sacrifice food, for those who have sacrificed their lives,” James said somberly. “Those people who are dead can’t eat, so we’re not eating either. So, you could say we’re dining spiritually.”

She estimated that close to fifty of her classmates were taking part in the fast, and many more were wearing orange at school.

She and a group of students first began brainstorming the week of actions a month ago, when they joined together for an anti-violence summit hosted by the Lupe Fiasco Foundation. The Chicago-based foundation, named after the rapper Lupe Fiasco and run by his sister Ayesha Jaco, has helped the students organize around the issue of youth violence.

James said Lupe Fiasco, a Chicago native whose given name is Wasalu Muhammed Jaco, first suggested the idea of fasting when he met with the students at the meeting.

“He was like, but what else can you do that shows more than just wearing a color?” she said. James said she has had trouble convincing some of her peers of the significance of Project Orange Tree.

One friend even told James that, “If you’re not going to take a gun out of somebody’s hand, then nothing’s ever going to work ... But we are aiming at the root of violence, and trying to educate people. You don’t have to talk to every person who has a gun.”

Jaco, 32, of Washington Park, who has helped coordinate the project, said she has been inspired to see how many Chicagoans are wearing orange in solidarity this week. Among those who have sent her photos include Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and her staffers.

She said the students are working on planning more actions for the summer months, when violence in Chicago typically spikes.

“They want a platform to express not only their grief, but also the urgency,” she said.

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