TCR Talks: Cracking the foundations of structural violence

Nza-Ari Khepra

Nza-Ari Khepra, president of Project Orange Tree, talks about the effect of violence on communities at the organization's annual meeting, "Streets on Fire, Peace for Hire," at Northern Illinois University on April 3. Project Orange Tree was founded by friends of slain teen Hadiya Pendleton, who was killed last year, just one week after performing at President Obama's inauguration. [Photo by Chandler West]

In January 2013, 15-year-old honors student Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down a mile from President Barack Obama’s Kenwood home, a week after performing at an inauguration event with the King College Prep band.

Her death garnered national attention and renewed the call for gun control. A media frenzy descended upon several South Side communities. The First Lady and Mayor Rahm Emanuel attended her funeral. President Obama mentioned her in speeches while calling for stricter gun laws, first in his State of the Union Address and again during a visit to Hyde Park Academy High School.

After the camera crews, and the nation’s attention, moved on, Pendleton’s friends at King College Prep began working to change their community. They founded Project Orange Tree to expose the root causes of violence, and to show other young people they have other options.

“One of the members suggested orange because it’s the color hunters wear when they’re out hunting to say to other hunters that you aren’t the target,” explains Nza-Ari Khepra, a friend of Pendleton’s and the president of the organization. “The tree represents life, cultivation, and family, that don’t want to be the next victims of Chicago’s violence.”

Khepra and the other teenagers that run Project Orange Tree are taking stock of their first year of work. They have organized food drives to benefit those living in food deserts, fasted on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death to honor those who have died from violence, and hold annual community talks called “Streets on Fire, Peace for Hire,” to discuss ways of ending violence. Their work caught the eye of hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco’s foundation, which now sponsors their work.

The Chicago Reporter met with Khepra to see what Project Orange Tree organizers have learned during their first year and what they plan for the future.

After Hadiya’s death, why did you decide to form Project Orange Tree?

Of course it started off with tragedy, but that was the first thing to incite us to do something about our community. From my perspective, myself and the other founding members were living in a bubble. Even though there was violence around me, and people told me about it, it never hit so close to home as it did with Hadiya.

I would want to play outside and my dad would tell me it wasn’t safe. I thought he was being extreme. When our friend was actually hurt and killed because of reckless gun violence, it was an eye-opener. Before that, I thought, “Who would shoot me?”

But everyone is hurt by this, and so everyone should be making a move to stop it.

What is the organization’s mission?

This year has all been about learning more about violence, and we spent a lot of time educating ourselves. Lupe Fiasco was a huge inspiration to us because he has also lost people he loved to violence here. He was one of the people that first talked to us about structural violence. Then we studied it by ourselves and brought ideas together by meeting every day after school. At first we wanted to stop violence, but it’s not that simple. You have to understand where it comes from.

We know we want to raise awareness of, and eradicate, structural violence. This is the umbrella term for things including institutionalized racism, our failing school system, food deserts and other things. These things create a cycle of inequality, lack of opportunity and frustration building up to unnecessary violent acts.

Why is structural violence your main focus?

Although people understand what violence is, they don’t understand where it comes from. What happened to Hadiya made me think about who the victim is with this violence, and it’s not just the person who is killed or the family. It’s the entire community.

Even the people who hurt Hadiya are victims. If they weren’t put in this position because of structural violence, they wouldn’t have made those choices. They do have to take responsibility for their actions, but still we can’t ignore why this happened. Once you attack structural violence you will see a drastic drop in physical violence.

How do you raise awareness of structural violence?

We have a strong social media presence, and we have built up a network of people who support us thanks to the alumni at King [College Prep] who take our message with them when they graduate.

There are also specific events. I was invited to a panel discussing Chicago’s violence at the Chicago Humanities Festival and I wasn’t talking to my normal crowd, they all lived downtown, none of them were really black at all. They had a lot of questions, ranging from “if we are the people who put them in this situation, why aren’t they attacking us?” to “how can we help?” They didn’t what its like to live in a neighborhood like mine [Washington Park], but they were so interested in learning more.

So why isn’t the violence carried out against those people — why is it usually inside the person’s own community?

There is a level of self-hate developed in structural violence. You don’t like being who you are. That is why there is so much black-on-black violence. You have no hope for yourself. I know people who have a mindset that they are going to probably die from a gunshot before they’re 30. So they think, for right now, I only have money, or selling drugs, or my manhood. Going to college is not an option. Either they will die or go to jail. They aren’t thinking about the real future because they don’t think they have one. So the relationships with people around them become dictated by this mentality, and that means the people around them are their first victims.

Why are so many people affected by structural violence?

When you have that kind of mentality, do you expect them to push against the norm? There aren’t a lot of people who can do that, so they continue in this same cycle. Everyone keeps on dying and going to jail because they don’t know that they can do something else. When you have so many unmotivated people of course there will be person-on-person violence. That’s how structural violence turns everyone into a victim.

How do you get a victim out of that mindset?

They need to be aware of their options. A lot of people tell them they have no options, so the positive voice needs to be louder. The people who look like them on the news are all committing crimes, getting put in jail. There are no leaders telling them you don’t have to go that way, showing them how to deal with institutionalized racism or showing them how to self-love.

Kids are at a disadvantage from the beginning. For example, there shouldn’t be food deserts. There are kids who eat Flamin’ Hots and drink soda for breakfast, then at school their attention span is so bad because they haven’t gotten the right nutrition. They’re not ready to take in knowledge. Then they’re going to a school in a failing school system with less qualified teachers than in other places. It’s not taken for granted that you will go to college like it is for other people, and most don’t know how they would ever pay for college or know anything about financial aid. Again, they need role models and helpers to show them what their options are.

What can people do to help?

I think reconsidering your own mindset about the victims of violence, and the communities affected by violence is a good start. Because people involved in crime won’t start believing they have an option if their society doesn’t agree. They need to feel like they are humans again. Right now the media and social impression of them is that they are animals who will naturally act this way. But all of us are humans, and we need to figure out what makes people go wrong. We need to see a person’s whole story, not just the mistakes they make.

What do you hope for Project Orange Tree to accomplish?

We want to build connections with organizations, like the one we have with the Lupe Fiasco Foundation, and help create a united front against systemic violence. Like I said, we need to have a louder voice to drown out the negativity, and so we are continuing to raise awareness of what we are facing here as a community. If we can get enough people to come out of their own bubbles, like we did when Hadiya died, and get them to understand how we fix the problems of systemic violence then we could actually change something.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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