Why you should care

Chicago’s model is being picked up by multiple cities. 

There are several questions you’re cautioned not to ask current or former participants in Working on Womanhood (WOW), a year-long group counseling and clinical mentoring program for teenage women from tough backgrounds active in 31 Chicago public schools. Past experiences of abuse or violence are difficult to revisit for the nearly 1,900 youth in the program.

But Monique, a 20-year-old graduate of WOW, exudes confidence and calm over the phone while sharing chilling recollections of her teenage years growing up on Chicago’s notoriously dangerous South Side. One winter, Monique and her grandmother lived without heat or running water.

The city of Chicago is on the cutting edge of this kind of policy research.

Julia Quinn, University of Chicago’s Crime and Education Labs

It was her WOW counselors, says Monique, who helped her push through. One referred her to shelters when she was between places and routinely took her on weekend visits to local food pantries when she didn’t have enough to eat. “If I had a really bad day and I needed to talk, they were always there,” recalls Monique, today a community college student.

The program is one of dozens of anti-violence initiatives across the city that the University of Chicago’s Urban Labs are studying, with an eye toward expanding those that hard data analyses prove work. Monique is part of a grand, cutting-edge experiment bringing together the city, its schools, its police department, policymakers on the ground across Chicago and the university’s Urban Labs.

Chicago’s homicides jumped by nearly 60 percent from 2015 to 2016, up to 768. Crime is exacerbating an exodus of African-Americans from the city. By comparison, Los Angeles had 294 homicides in 2016 and Toronto, despite a rise in gun deaths, had fewer than 100.

But amid that darkness, the partnership Chicago has strung together offers hope. The Urban Labs worked with the Chicago Police Department starting in early 2017 to help prove new policing tactics incorporated with the help of the LA Police Department reduced crime in Chicago’s violent Englewood neighborhood. The policing, which aims to more effectively target resources and respond to community needs, has been expanded to more than 12 other police districts this year. And the success of the partnership Chicago has woven between different stakeholders has now sparked initiatives modeled on the Urban Labs, from Michigan and Washington, D.C., to Colorado and California.

“The city of Chicago is on the cutting edge of this kind of policy research,” says Julia Quinn, associate director of the University of Chicago’s Crime and Education Labs. “They have really been an incredible partner and have been a model to other cities around the country.”

Launched in 2008 with one lab and three people, the University of Chicago initiative today has five such labs: Crime, Education, Poverty, Health, and Energy and Environment. They all operate under the umbrella of the Urban Labs today, and combined, these labs now employ roughly 100 people.

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Becoming a Man and Working on Womanhood are school-based group counseling programs that teach kids social cognitive skills and impulse control.

Source Mark Peterson/Redux

Youth Guidance, the nonprofit that runs WOW, manages a sister program for men called Becoming a Man (BAM) that has been scrutinized by the Urban Labs for even longer. Both programs are run in Chicago’s public schools. WOW participants are from grades 7 through 12. Many show clinical signs of posttraumatic stress disorder when they enter the program, but just as many report fewer symptoms after participating. Ninety-four percent report making better decisions thanks to the program, including avoiding potentially violent confrontations. BAM, which was founded in 2001, now serves more than 6,000 Chicago public school youth and is credited with reducing participant arrests by 50 percent and increasing their chances of graduating from high school by almost 20 percent.

Other initiatives being evaluated by the Urban Labs include Quiet Time, a meditation program in Chicago high schools aimed at reducing violence and improving student outcomes, and the Dovetail Project, an intensive support program for young fathers. Then there’s Storycatchers Theatre’s Changing Voices, which employs recently incarcerated young adults full-time so they can have a steady income and share their personal stories theatrically.

For Chicago’s 371,000-student public school district, which has faced major corruption scandals in recent years, the signs of success emerging from the partnership with the Urban Labs represent much-needed booster shots of optimism. It’s a model that other universities across the country are learning from.

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Youth Guidance began the program Working on Womanhood in 2010.

Source Mark Peterson/Redux

In late 2016, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor created the Youth Policy Lab, bringing together the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and the Institute for Social Research — the world’s largest social research and survey organization. The founders of Michigan’s lab wanted to mirror Urban Labs’ best practices. “We were definitely inspired by that model — they’re doing great work in Chicago, and they’re doing a great job influencing policy,” says Robin Jacob, a co-director of Michigan’s Youth Policy Lab.

Janey Rountree spent four years leading public safety efforts in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office, making her a key partner with the Urban Labs before she moved to California. She brought those lessons — and learnings from a similar lab at Brown University, the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab — to the California Policy Lab at the University of California at Los Angeles, when she became a founding executive director there in 2017. The lab, barely a year old, is working with the county of Los Angeles to identify those likeliest to become homeless and thus in need of frequent, higher-cost services in the future.

Similar initiatives are sprouting up across America, including the Lab @ DC run by Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office in the nation’s capital, the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab and the University of Chicago’s newer Crime Lab New York. “We are all slightly different from each other, but we all share a common DNA,” says Rountree.

That DNA has helped create a model that turns the traditional relationship between academics and people on the ground on its head, which keeps the academic research from being too archaic.

Monique doesn’t know she’s part of the Urban Labs research. For her, the benefits are more fundamental, like learning how her “behavior and emotions go hand in hand.” She grew up in a violent, crumbling neighborhood. Now, she is eyeing an undergraduate degree in journalism. Next, she wants a master’s degree in business. But she’s already a living emblem of a larger change. Chicago, long pilloried for high crime rates, may just be showing the country how to also tackle them.

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