The following is a conversation between Arne Duncan, Managing Director of Chicago CRED, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City. 

Arne Duncan

Denver: If I were to ask you to think of a major US city that has an epidemic of gun violence, what city would come to mind? For many, it would be Chicago. But what are the reasons for that?  And what can be done to see that is reduced significantly and quickly? For the answer to those questions, it’s a pleasure to have with us tonight, Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education under President Obama, and currently the Managing Director of Chicago CRED, which stands for Creating Real Economic Destiny.

Good evening, Arne, and welcome to The Business of Giving! 

Arne: Good evening, Denver. Thanks so much for having me.

Denver: Let me begin with a question I posed in the opening: Chicago has more killings and shootings than New York City and Los Angeles combined. Why is that the case?

Arne: That is the heartbreaking reality.  That’s the brutal truth, and it’s basically the issue I’m obsessed with, trying to help get the city to a better place. 

There is a multitude of reasons that we could take the whole show talking about. There’s been massive disinvestment in these communities. There’s been a lack of awareness of how much people can do good work and be productive citizens. There’s been a lack of commitment to helping people redeem themselves and give them a second chance. But rather than point fingers, or lay blame, or talk about the history, I’m much more interested in talking about how we take Chicago to a very, very different place. 

We started our work, or we got into it in 2016, which was, unfortunately, a really low point, and to your point, an epidemic, a crisis of gun violence. We saw a 15% reduction in 2017. We saw a 15% reduction in 2018. We’re tracking at about 10% reduction so far halfway through this year. So, we’re making progress, but we have a long, long way to go until the children in our communities on the South and West Sides can grow up safe and free of fear and free of trauma.

What it leads to is a sense of lawlessness, and we have many young men who are carrying guns, not to shoot other people – we call it playing defense. They’re carrying to protect themselves because they don’t feel safe.

Denver: If I can, though, I’d just like to ground the listeners a little bit in terms of the problem, and the scope and size of the problem. I’ve heard you, Arne, talk about clear rate. What is that?

Arne: It’s a hugely important number. So, clear rate is basically the percent of crimes that get solved. I don’t have the 2018 numbers, unfortunately, but for 2017, the clear rate for homicide was only 17%. So, literally, if you killed someone, you have an 83% chance of getting away with murder. If you shot someone and didn’t kill them, that had maybe 4% or 5% clear rate, so you have a 94, 95% chance of getting away with shooting someone. 

I want to be clear: we work with amazing, amazing individual police officers, but at the macro level, trust between the community and the police is basically broken. And our clear rate – most cities are like 50-, 60-, 70% for homicide, so we are so much lower. What it leads to is a sense of lawlessness, and we have many young men who are carrying guns, not to shoot other people – we call it playing defense. They’re carrying to protect themselves because they don’t feel safe. 

And so, over the long haul, the police have to rebuild the trust of the community; we’re trying to help there. For the interim, we’re just trying to get the young men a sense of hope and a reason to put down the gun. 

These are amazing young men who have been through a lot and want something better for themselves. They want something better for their children.

Denver: Well, these young men you were talking about, many of them are between 17 and 24 years of age. Do you have any idea what it would take to move those young men from the illegal economy, where many of them are residing right now, to the legal economy?

Arne: That’s sort of exactly what we do and what we’ve been doing for almost three years now. 

So, we do a number of different things. We help guys with hard and soft skills. We help them with trauma care. We help them with therapy. We help with substance abuse. We’ve had many, many guys get their high school diplomas; We have another graduation ceremony coming up next month. Many guys write their autobiographies; They’re really, really powerful and moving and emotional. Maybe the most important thing we do is we match guys up with life coaches. We have amazing guys, many of whom have been through a lot and done some things, but have come out the other side and really want to give back and help the community to be restored, and to help the community heal and thrive.

The men work with us for, generally, about a year, and then we spin them off into the legal economy. We have many employers who are hiring at the backend. We have one guy who just celebrated recently his year anniversary working at Deloitte, which is a conservative accounting firm, which is amazing. We have guys working at law firms. We have guys working at culinary and hospitality and manufacturing and construction. These are amazing young men who have been through a lot and want something better for themselves. They want something better for their children. Many have always been leaders; They’re just leading in a positive direction now. And I say all the time that I really, truly, truly believe this: The men we work with, they are the solution; they’re not the problem, and they are leading Chicago to a safer place. 

The police, just last week, came out with a report that violence is at a four-year low in Chicago. So, the progress is real, but again, we have so far to go. I always talk about New York and LA and just trying to get much, much closer to their levels of violence, and not be so wildly disproportionately high compared to those other major cities.

Denver: Yes, you don’t want to be abnormal. You said an interesting thing a moment ago, and that is a lot of these guys are carrying guns, but they’re doing so to play defense. How many active shooters, if I can call them that, are in Chicago?

Arne: You’re asking all the right questions. And to your point – and again, this may be a little hard for some of your listeners to understand or comprehend – but there are far too many people carrying weapons. But there are actually not many active shooters. The police estimate around 1,500. I might have thought it was just a little higher, but call it 2,000; call it even 3,000. It is not a massive number, Denver. 

Denver: It’s something the city of Chicago can do.

Arne: If we can’t wrap our arms around this…We started with 30 young men in September of 2016. With our community partners across the city, we’re now working closer to 500 young men. We are not to a critical mass yet, but if we can get from 500 to 1,000 and then 1,000 to 2,000 and maybe a little bit more, I am convinced that we would see a precipitous decline in violence. We would see a real tipping point. 

And so, this work is hard. It’s heartbreaking some days. It’s also unbelievably inspiring. But, ultimately, I’m really, really hopeful, and we just have to continue to scale. And people say, “Oh, it’s so great! You’re giving these guys a second chance.” I really actually reject that in a vast majority of cases. I think for almost all our guys, we’re giving them a first chance. 

Denver: I think you’re right. 

Arne: And basically, every structure in their life previously – their families, their schools, their churches and nonprofits – we all failed them. We weren’t present. They have some very, very difficult situations, and they made a rational choice at age 12 or 13 or 14 to go work with the gangs because they were that desperate, and there was no other option. All we’re doing is providing a second option for guys now. No one’s mandated. No one has to work with us, and we basically have a waiting list of guys everywhere we go in every neighborhood. They’re just making another rational choice that they would have loved to have had at an earlier stage in their lives.

What we’re really trying to demonstrate is: This is an amazing investment in our men, in our communities, in our city; and the other way, by any measure, simply isn’t working.

Denver: Are a lot of these guys getting tired as this incidence of violence has spiked to the degree that it has? That’s a tough way to make a living, if I can call it that way. And it’s probably not that great a living either.

Arne: Again, there’s so many myths; there’s so many stereotypes. So, we often start the guys at around $12, $13 an hour once they come through our… We have amazing street outreach teams that bring guys in. For many guys, that’s actually a pay increase you get there.  On the street, they’re getting shot at, they’re losing friends, the police are chasing them… and they’re making peanuts. 

And that for me is, from a societal, from a policy standpoint, it breaks my heart, that we’re so happy to— lock people up, at $60,000 a year at Cook County Jail. Every homicide costs the city $1.4 million, but somehow, we’re reluctant to pay a guy a minimum wage and provide some wraparound services, some trauma care, a life coach. Just from a financial standpoint, it’s so much cheaper, so much more effective.  And then just think about from a humanity standpoint and the lost potential if we don’t do this.

What we’re really trying to demonstrate is: this is an amazing investment in our men, in our communities, in our city; and the other way, by any measure, simply isn’t working.

Denver: And I hate to be smart about this, but in doing that, you probably develop some pretty good job skills in terms of selling and distributing.

Arne: Again, we have many natural-born leaders. I mean, yes, those things in the street economy – customer service, supplies, all kinds of stuff. But for you to be successful there, those skills are transferable. But the biggest thing for me is for people to understand how smart these guys are, how committed they are, how resilient. They’ve been through things that, for you and I and for most of us, are just unimaginable. And they are tired of it, and they want something better. They want something better for their own kids. Many of them didn’t have fathers in their lives, and one of the things that gives me the most joy is watching how attentive they are as dads, and how hard they’re working to break those cycles of absent fatherhood. 

They want better. They’ve been through so much. And I say to our employers, “I don’t want your charity. Don’t hire for charity; hire for great employees. Hire for people who have a real heart and a real commitment to doing something better. And yes, it may be a different pool of candidates than you’re used to, but it’s a pool of extraordinary candidates.” 

Our guy working at Deloitte, he has made Deloitte better. He has made Deloitte better. They maybe took a little risk with us, but they interviewed and interviewed a set of guys, and that was the best fit. Deloitte, their CEO came back to me a couple of weeks ago and said, “I want another guy. We’re ready.”  And that just is like music to my ears. And again, if a conservative accounting firm is willing to do that, then every other employer needs to just step up and think about what they can do to help out and be part of the solution. 

Denver: Speak a little bit more about that. What has been the response of the business community, both the good, and maybe the not so good? 

Arne: The business community has been extremely responsive, and I’m very grateful. But the challenge, Denver, as we go forward, as our numbers grow, we need more and more employers to step up. And again, in a place as vibrant economically as Chicago, that needs to be able to happen. 

I was wondering, like when there’s a shooting, when there’s something, they put the police chief on TV and sort of say, “What are you doing about it?” Yes, the police have a role to play and yes, the police are absolutely struggling, and we are clear about that. But I wish they would also ask every CEO, “What are you doing about it?” We have to all be in this together. This is a complicated problem. It took years to get to this terrible place; It will take us some years to dig out. But everybody has to have a piece of this. So, getting more employers to step up is hugely important.

We’re actually starting a social enterprise, a contract manufacturing firm. Hopefully, literally in the next two months, they’ll provide another set of jobs. We have to continue to create economic opportunity, not just downtown, but in these neighborhoods that have had this devastating level of disinvestment. Where there aren’t job opportunities in the legal and the traditional economy, people are going to find other ways, and we have to, again,  provide some concrete options. The overwhelming majority of guys, the vast majority of guys would much, much prefer to be doing something positive.

They always say that “experience is the best teacher,” but it doesn’t have to be your own experience… Learn from their experiences. The amount of years that they gave up, the amount of freedom they gave up…you don’t have to do that. There’s a better way, and just take it from us. Learn from us; take from our experiences; take from our lessons the good and the bad. Take our wisdom, and let’s bypass that chapter.

Denver: I bet. You really do address this in a very holistic way, and I want to touch again on those wraparound services. These guys have been through a lot of trauma, and a job is never going to be enough. And I know you do some things around substance abuse and getting the GED…but the thing you mentioned before I wanted to pick up on were these life coaches. Speak a little bit about who these guys are.

Arne: These coaches are just extraordinary. Again, first, we have a street outreach team who just do unbelievable work – meeting guys where they are, on the blocks, in the neighborhoods, on the corners and talking to them about this, and ask them if they want to change, and then bring them in. But the life coaches, we have some folks with more so like traditional social work backgrounds or whatever. But honestly, many of our guys are guys who had been through a lot themselves, and at least some of whom have homicides in their backgrounds, and who went away for 15-, 20-, 25 years, made some mistakes when they were young and have paid a huge price for it. They’re back, not so much to redeem themselves… although it’s sort of part of it, but to break to break these cycles. They are literally saving our young guys’ lives.

They always say that “experience is the best teacher,” but it doesn’t have to be your own experience… Learn from their experiences. The amount of years that they gave up, the amount of freedom they gave up…you don’t have to do that. There’s a better way, and just take from us. Learn from us; take from our experiences; take from our lessons the good and the bad. Take our wisdom, and let’s bypass that chapter. Let’s bypass that heartbreak; let’s bypass that repeated trauma. The impact they’re having, not just during the day, but at 2:00 in the morning when they get a call, it’s amazing! And of all the stuff we do, I would argue that might be the most important piece.

Denver: Because coming from some other person, that would be preaching, but coming from those guys, it really is wisdom. 

Arne: They have total credibility. They’ve lived it. Many of our young men don’t have fathers; these are father figures, not fathers, but father figures. And to see the bond, to see those connections, to see our young guys talk about how much these positive role models mean to them… and for them, how much they genuinely care…it’s really emotional, to be honest. It’s very emotional. It’s very moving. 


Denver: Talk a little bit about the cost-benefit analysis of a program like this. Certainly, on the front end, you have to identify these guys, put them through the program, do the wraparound as you mentioned, get them a job. But boy, I would imagine on the back end, there’s some pretty big savings to society. 

Arne: It’s all upside. So again, just to paint …the literal cost of every homicide is about $1.4 million to the city, the amount of business our city loses because of the reputation you talked about. We used to be the city of Michael Jordan, but now, we’re the city of homicides. For those of us that grew up here, and the city gave us… everything, it just it breaks your heart.

The cost of incarceration is 55, 60, 65K, if not more. And what we’re doing is half of that. And again, that’s for a year.  And after that, you spin off and you’re working at a real job and you’re paying taxes, and you’re a productive citizen. So, we’re doing this all basically philanthropically. We need the city to invest, and we need the state to invest. We’re working hard. We have a new mayor and new governor, and hoping they will step in to get the kind of scale we talked about– a couple of thousand guys. We can’t do that all philanthropically. We have been blessed at Chicago CRED to have an amazing partner in Emerson Collective

All I want to do is: Let’s give kids their childhoods back. Give them a chance to dream, to play, to think long term, and not just try to survive every single day.

Denver: Tell us a little bit about Emerson Collective.

Arne: Laurene Powell and the team has just been amazing, amazing partners who are helping to fund our work. They’re helping to match other funds that are raised citywide, and just sort of stepping into a gap and saying, “This is a huge need.” And so, going forward, if we can have a partnership of state resources coming in, city resources, as well as the continued support of philanthropy, and  then the jobs from the civic community, the business community, that’s the kind of partnership…It’s easier said than done, and everyone’s taken some risk and moving outside of their comfort zone, but if we’re expecting the police to solve this, they can’t solve this by themselves. If we see the status quo is unacceptable, which I absolutely do, then we have to work hard. 

The thing I always say, Denver, is:  I just want to give our kids their childhoods back. I grew up playing basketball all over Chicago, South and West side; kids can’t play outside anymore. I’m in schools all the time. I always ask, “How many know someone who has been shot?” Literally every hand goes up, every single time. And then I often ask, “How many of you know  5 or 10 or 15 people who have been shot?” And often, a half, or a third of the hands are still in the air. 

Denver: That’s devastating.

Arne: I’ve never visited a literal war zone, I’ve never been to Iraq or Afghanistan, but our kids on the South and West Sides of Chicago are growing up in actual war zones. We’ve raised a generation of children on gun violence and robbed them of their childhoods. All I want to do is: let’s give kids their childhoods back. Give them a chance to dream, to play, to think long term, and not just try to survive every single day.

Denver: I heard a really sad story along those lines; maybe it was from you in preparing for this or someplace else. But a girl said that she would sit at home and watch kids playing on YouTube because she couldn’t go and play outside. 

Arne: That was a seventh grader in Austin. I spent time with her group right before the school year ended, and it was devastating. That, again, is important for your listeners to understand: that’s her reality. She can’t play outside, so she watches YouTube videos of other kids playing outside. It broke my heart. 


Denver: Well, you’re into continuous learning, having been a former Secretary of Education. How have you tweaked the model, Arne, since you started?

Arne: We’re learning every single day and making big mistakes every day, and still making big mistakes, so it’s nothing if not humbling. But what I always say is: we’re working with men, not boys. We are co-creating, co-designing every single day. If we’re helping them, great! And if we’re not helping them, then we’re wasting their time and I have no interest in doing that. So, we are literally on a daily, weekly basis making tweaks, changing things. 

Big picture — What have we added?  We built these outreach teams which we didn’t have at first,  just to try and get to more guys, and for me it’s not—I love the individual transformation. I love what we’re doing to change lives. We’re actually trying to really reduce violence at the neighborhood level. There’s got to be community violence oppression or reduction. 

So, the outreach teams have been fantastic… thinking about sort of a continuum of jobs over time, and for many of our guys who have literally sort of never held a traditional job; so how do you learn those skills? How do you handle conflict? How do we have sort of a ladder of opportunity before guys are placed at full-time for the long haul. 

And then, obviously, the social enterprise, it’s honestly our impatience, that we just need more jobs faster. And so, we’re just going to start to create our own jobs and do it in the neighborhoods and hopefully demonstrate what’s possible. We’ll start with 10 or 15 guys ,  but if it goes well, and that’s a big if, but we could get up to 150-, 200 guys working, and that would be amazing. And I would hope if that works, that other people would follow our lead. So that the learning is constant; the learning is continual, and our best teachers are the young men we’re working with. 

Denver: Working in low-income communities and providing opportunities for young people is something you’ve been doing pretty much, well, since you were born. Tell us about your mother and the influence that she had on you.

Arne: We didn’t sort of realize it, it was all we knew, but we had this very unique upbringing where we grew up in middle-class integrated Hyde Park. My dad was a professor at the University of Chicago for 40 years. My mother in 1961 – I was born in 1964, and my brother after me – started an inner-city tutoring program. It’s just interesting that the segregation in Chicago…Denver, it was literally less than two miles from our house. We would actually walk some days there. But it crossed sort of the invisible barrier, 47th Street, which was between middle-class integrated Hyde Park and all black, all poor North Kenwood/Oakland.

So, she raised all of us there; so we were going to her after-school program long before we went to a real school. It was just this formative experience. We all have tried to follow in her footsteps in various ways. She did the work for about 52 years until her health gave out. Unfortunately, she has Alzheimer’s now. But her courage, the difference she made in young people’s lives was extraordinary. I took a year off from college to work with her full time and just try and figure out “Was this just a piece of who I was? Or is this actually who I was?” I’ve decided during that year, I didn’t quite know how… and obviously I had no idea of the twists and turns my life would take, but I wanted to continue her work. 

What we basically saw all our lives were young kids who happen to all be poor, who happen to often have very tough family situations, who lived in a pretty violent neighborhood community, but many went on to do extraordinary things because my mother and others were in their life… and a huge amount of love and high expectations and support. And so, I know what’s possible when we give kids a chance. It’s not some theory for me; it’s not some academic study. It’s a lived experience, as you said, from birth. 

So that’s both my hope, but also my impatience and my frustration is that there’s so many kids and now, young men that we’re not reaching, and that’s not their fault; that’s our fault. We got to get to them more, and we got to get to them faster, and we got to be more effective in our support for them.

Denver: This is really in your DNA. Well, let me close with this, Arne. I know that the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago is more than some big challenge for you to see that it’s met. It’s about individual lives, and each and every one of them has a very personal and distinct story associated with that life. Share one of those stories with us, if you would.

Arne: Well, I’ll tell you. I have so many crazy stories. But we talked about life coaches, and I’ve said that our life coaches may be the most important piece of what we do. 

One of our best life coaches, if not the best life coach, is a guy named Billy Moore. Billy Moore, 34 years ago, unfortunately, tragically killed one of my friends, a basketball player named Ben Wilson who was not the best basketball player in Chicago, but was the number one player in the country. I hated Billy Moore—I didn’t know him—I hated Billy Moore all my life, and met him literally on a Peace march a couple years ago. We talked. He spent 20 years locked away. He talked about the incident, talked about what actually happened. I saw his heart. I saw his commitment, and he is doing an unbelievable job as a life coach. 

So, a guy who I hated for 30-plus years is an invaluable member of our team. Very tragically, his son was shot, was killed, 16 times last summer. What Billy says is if the young man who killed his son came into his program, he would mentor him and take him under his wing. And that he can’t ask for redemption, he can’t ask for forgiveness, if he can’t also give that. And so, these stories…I get chills even thinking about it. And if I lost my son or daughter, I can’t say I would  be able to show that kind of forgiveness. But that’s the world we live in, and the Billy Moores of the world are going to lead us where we need to go. 

Denver: That’s an incredible story to end on. Well, Arne Duncan, the former Secretary of Education and Managing Director of Chicago CRED, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. For those who want to learn more about the organization and your program, tell us about your website and the info you have there.

Arne: We’re just Chicago CRED. It stands for Creating Real Economic Destiny and would welcome people to check out our website. We’re actually redoing it and upgrading it, but you can see what we have now, and it’’ll be better soon. And I just appreciate the opportunity to let your audience know, again, just the heart and the humanity of the young men that we’re working with. 

Denver: Well, thanks, Arne. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.

Arne: Have a good evening. Take care now. 

Denver: Thanks very much, Arne. 

Arne: Great job. I really appreciate it.

The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at

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