As I looked at their dream neighborhood represented by Lego structures, my eye was drawn to a sign on top of a large structure towering over their fictitious community that read in bold letters, “NO TRESPASSING.”

When I pointed to the structure and asked, “What is that?”

One of our Hillside Court Dream Catchers said, “It is the metal detector that everyone has to go through before they come into our neighborhood.”

His teammates explained, “We want to keep the guns and the bad people out.”

I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

We used the dream Lego community exercise in all 7 of the neighborhoods where we have launched a Dream Catcher project this summer as a way of helping the youth think about and dream about what could be. We told the youth they had a magic wand and they could create anything they wanted.

My favorite examples of the creativity of our various youth included a skate park where you could do a double flip then land in the swimming pool.  Another group of youth put a petting zoo inside the local school to encourage kids to get an education.

These kinds of whimsical, fun, and creative dream neighborhoods were the typical expression of what we heard from the youth.  This is an exercise we used to break the ice, get them thinking, and working together.

I never dreamed such a simple exercise would reveal just how different life is for the children of our city.

Why was the metal detector the largest structure in this particular dream neighborhood?

Because gunfire is a constant reality for the kids in Hillside Court.  All they want is to play outside without someone rolling by and randomly shooting.  The day we did the Lego exercise there was gunfire as we were preparing to leave.  Just a typical day in this neighborhood.

I can’t imagine how this constant threat impacts the young people.

I can’t imagine how the parents must feel to be in constant fear for the safety of their children.

I can’t imagine how this level of collective stress and anxiety impacts the health and well-being of an entire community.

I want to wave my magic wand and make this particular dream come true for the kids but my magic wand only works in Lego land.

How will this particular neighborhood move forward?

In Hillside in 2011, there were three murders in the first 3 weeks of the year and then two teenagers were struck by stray bullets.  That record level of violence gave birth to what is now The Hillside Court Partnership, a group of concerned citizens who have made huge strides in making Hillside Court a better place to live.

In 2011, after three people were murdered, there was a concerted effort by the police to reduce gun violence in Hillside and their efforts worked….at least for a while.

How many people will have to die this time before there is adequate policing?

What is the long term solution to gun violence in our urban neighborhoods?

Why do our children have to dream of metal detectors to protect them from their neighbors?

I don’t have any answers to these questions.  They are just the questions that have been plaguing my mind since the day these youth shared their dream.

At the ABCD conference, Jody Kretzmann the co-founder of the ABCD movement said, “ABCD is necessary but it is not sufficient.”

I like grass-roots organizing and that is why I love an ABCD approach.  I believe people working together can achieve great things.  As wonderful as the residents of Hillside are, the escalating gun violence in their community is not something they can battle alone.  So I agree, ABCD is necessary but in this case insufficient.

This kind of systemic problem requires institutional intervention as well as systemic change.

I have honestly never given much thought to gun control laws.  I have never written about it, lobbied for it, or done much research on it.  But that was before I met these kids and their dream of a giant metal detector.

Perhaps politicians and gun lobbyist need to spend some time with the kids in Hillside Court and then explain to them how allowing easy access to guns is to their benefit.   Just a thought.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

How can these young people play a part in making their dream of a safer community a reality?

How can their voices be amplified in a way that leads to systemic change?