On the evening of July 7, 2021, my 18-year-old stepson Miles Thompson was shot and killed behind his father’s house shortly after entering the driveway. He stayed there overnight and was not discovered until the next morning when his younger brother – my 10 year old son – looked out of his bedroom window and spotted Miles’ body.
Much of what happened in the hours and weeks that followed was largely unclear, but I thought a lot about the attackers and what led them to that fatal moment. What was their state of mind when they decided to open fire on an innocent young man? What put them on the path to violence? Who had loved them all their life? Who had hurt them? What complex web of thoughts and events led to the night that would rob Miles of his future and change our family forever?
What, if anything, could have been done differently?
Although the circumstances of July 7 are unlike anything I have ever experienced, the questions I have pondered since are not new to me, and answering them has been my life’s work.
I am the president of Thrive Chicago, where my work focuses on providing young people in underserved communities – and especially boys and young men of color – with the educational, social and employment opportunities they need to make a living. a life filled with goals. As a teacher turned nonprofit leader, I spend my days listening to black and brown youth and trying to understand their needs, wants and challenges.
This job is not for the faint of heart, nor for those looking for quick fixes to the crises facing black and brown youth. Despite the attractiveness of gun buy-back programs, prosecutions targeting gang members, and tougher sentences, the need for ‘upstream’ investments – education, skills training and mental health services – is greater. urgent than ever. Between the pandemic, its economic fallout, and anxiety over individual and systemic racism, communities of color need access to the relationships and resources that create a sense of belonging and reduce the likelihood of destructive decisions.
These investments take time, they take money, and they have a long-term commitment that goes against the desire for immediate results. But if we believe in the potential of young people – regardless of their background or zip code – then we must be prepared to question beliefs about who among us deserves support (and who does not); who deserves security (and who does not); and who deserves a chance in a life full of opportunities (and who doesn’t).
In the days following Miles’ death, I saw the media narrative of his murder change. The first reports characterized him as an 18-year-old “man”, killed in an alley on the (dangerous) West Side of Chicago. Within days, he was described as a suburban “teenager” and then the all-American suburban “kid” next door, full of promise before ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This change – subtle but glaring – has highlighted to me just how much the stories we tell each other shape what we believe to be true of each other. It also underscored the implicit narrative that some of us were born to fly, while others were born to falter. In Miles’ case, I didn’t need the media to remind me of how special he was and how much he deserved a long and happy life.
I first met Miles a few months before his fifth birthday and I was proud to be part of the blended family of caring adults who loved and supported him until his death, just two days before his death. 19th anniversary. Over those 14 years, I have watched Miles grow and approach adulthood as the person all parents want their children to be: a loyal friend, a loving big brother, and a protector of the underdogs. He was a budding entrepreneur, full of ambition and daring dreams for the future.
Every day since his murder, I have wondered about the young men who killed Miles and who brought the worst violence and the worst heartbreak to my family’s doorstep. I do this even as I professionally push for programs and policies that give young people a chance to thrive.
I often wonder if such efforts could have made a difference in the lives of those who took Miles from us? Could a collective of voices and efforts have turned the tide? And then I remember that I am that voice. We are that tide.
This experience – horrific and excruciating as it was – only redoubled my commitment to the youth of Chicago, to the resources and support they need, and to the long game. owe Miles. This is what we owe all black and brown boys like him and the promise they keep.
Sonya Anderson is the President of Thrive in Chicago.