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Neighborhood Moms More Powerful Than Guns

Tamar Manasseh is a mom, just like you and me. The 37-year-old is raising two teenagers in Chicago and is struggling about how to do that in a culture of guns, gangs, drugs and violence.

Parenting today, she says, is different than when she was a child. "I call it 'motherhood interrupted.' We learn to parent from our parents, but I can't parent my kids that way anymore. You don't know how to raise your children anymore."

It is a different world today, Tamar thinks, where the rules and resources of our own youth no longer exist. From her point of view, being a mom is both a moral compass and a powerful platform for change.

She lives on Chicago's South Side, where guns and gangs are the day-to-day norm. They're not something she reads about in newspaper articles or watches on TV—they're something she lives and breathes. Knowing that her own teen children were navigating these challenges on their own now, Tamar was moved to act after the June 23rd shooting death of a young woman in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood. Last year there were 18 homicides in Englewood, where Tamar grew up.

Tamar had had enough. She galvanized a group of volunteers through her organization Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK), printed some hot-pink T-shirts, grabbed a lawn chair and set to work.

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Each day, this group of moms who want something different for their community gather at the intersection of 75th and Stewart to keep an eye on things. Most of the volunteers, who number up to 50 some evenings, are women, but the recruits are growing; now they also include local teens and a tandem volunteer group of men called Men Against Senseless Killings, who gather at the corner and do a nightly walking patrol, too.

Overall, the nightly gatherings feel like a block party. When I arrived hoping to land an interview with Tamar, I was greeted warmly and within minutes was offered a lawn chair of my own. There is double dutch jump rope, informal circles of chairs, coolers, kids on tricycles, and hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. People are laughing, talking, catching up, hugging, all smack dab in the middle of what has historically been one of Chicago's bloodiest communities.

Tamar believes that the kids gangs rely on won't engage in violence under the watchful eye of a mother, even if it's not their own.

"None of these kids have had protecting in a very long time," she says.

This is reality for so many mothers who live in unsafe and impoverished neighborhoods, some of which might be just miles from our own more insulated homes and communities.

We don't often think of gang members and drug runners needing a mother's protection. Tamar does. She talks about "good kids" and "bad kids," and how the difference between them is what kind of mothering they had, or didn't have, or simply where they are growing up.

Tracy and Mary, two of the volunteers I interviewed, talked about an evening a few weeks ago where a potato chip bag burst during their watch, creating a loud and sudden popping noise. All the kids and adults nearby instinctively ducked in response to the noise. When a toddler knows to duck in response to what sounds like gunfire ... well, that has to affect him in a negative way.

The efforts have grown, attracting media attention and donations from as places as diverse as France or Chicago's tony North Shore suburbs. Other local moms have established a "meal train," ensuring dinner is provided for each night for volunteers and local neighbors.

Tamar is humble and focused. "I don't feel like I'm doing anything. This is what family does, community does. This is the 'village' everybody talks about." Amen to that.

Tamar is relying on the instinctive protection a mother feels toward children and applying that to kids most people fear. While she no longer lives in the neighborhood, she's raising two teenage children in a close by Chicago neighborhood and knows that there is no such thing as a vacuum. Her kids will be exposed to things that she works hard to keep them from, no matter what her efforts are.

"We need to teach the kids that guns are bad. We tell them, 'Put the guns down,' but that's not right. We need to teach them to not pick them up in the first place. Guns are here to stay. They are everywhere. If we can protect our kids from stoves and electrical outlets, we can protect them from guns."

Simply being present, watching, teaching, modeling, laughing and guiding is what she is asking us to do.

It's an interesting theory. Tamar believes we should acknowledge guns as part of a child's landscape, like other things they come in contact with every day that can harm them. Just as we keep our kids safe from a hot stove by enforcing the idea of HOT, DANGEROUS, Tamar believes we should put that same emphasis on guns and drugs. Her theory acknowledges that guns and drugs are not going away in the Englewood community and provides guidelines for the kids being raised there.

This is reality for so many mothers who live in unsafe and impoverished neighborhoods, some of which might be just miles from an insulated homes and communities. The idea of young children—10, 11 and 12 years old—needing to wrestle with a culture of drugs, gangs and guns might feel abstract to some of us. But it is not. It is real and is happening close to home.

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Tamar Manasseh is appealing to the mother in all of us to stand up, pay attention, help these kids that need our help. Her primary tool? Motherhood. Simply being present, watching, teaching, modeling, laughing and guiding is what she is asking us to do. She wants us to mother these young gang members. She wants us to acknowledge that these children are worthy of mothering and are capable of change. Tamar believes that a mother is a powerful force.

Something we all know is true.

If you want to help the efforts of MASK in any way, you can contact them here.

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Image by Sheila Quirke

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