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Amid Chicago gun violence, the drumbeat of peace

Even amid a brutally violent weekend in Chicago and the nation, some quiet healing was taking place in Englewood.

Or maybe quiet isn’t the right word.

Chicago jazz musician Ernest Dawkins has been leading drum circles in parks for four years, an effort supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to amplify the arts and create a healing ritual in the South Side neighborhood. Some sessions take place on planned dates. Others come about more spontaneously after an episode of violence. Police and outreach teams mingle with residents. Dawkins and others play, inviting anyone to pick up a drum to join in. A passerby can take a seat and become part of a moment of community.

“You have to show (children) there’s other ways of dealing with their situation ... other ways of just managing discord or even chaos,” he told the Tribune’s Annie Sweeney.

Dawkins, 65, recalled attending jam sessions when he was growing up on the South Side. He went on to travel the world as a musician and found the Englewood Jazz Fest, which will soon mark its 20th anniversary.

Even people unskilled in music can appreciate the therapy of a drum circle. It’s designed to get everyone playing together.

“The master drummers are the backbone. … (The kids) find their way through the chaos. So that’s kinda the metaphor for life,” Dawkins said. “A lot of children are in limbo in terms of how they view where they are in life and what’s going on.”

Drum circles seem like a small thing when there are systemic and generational issues at play. But there’s a growing awareness that addressing trauma and its ongoing impact needs to be a bigger part of the response to the cycles of violence and how to end them. Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke about the topic after a weekend in which 55 people were shot, seven fatally, in Chicago. The wounded included eight shot in a 51-second barrage of gunfire captured on police audio, plus seven others hit near Douglas Park.

Though areas of the West Side are “rich in texture and culture,” Lightfoot said, there are also spots that are “just desperate,” with public spaces taken over by drug dealing. The level of trauma and violence the city confronts in these areas will require a new type of response. “It is time for us to approach this from a very different perspective with different kind of resources. … I feel the magnitude of this moment.”

What’s required? Many efforts, large and small. Nothing less than the drumbeat of change.

This editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.