Stop and think

Sunlight flowed through the windows of a fall-decorated classroom as Dion McGill entered. Excitement could be seen on each of the faces of the 32 6th graders.

Of course, having a guest speaker, they probably thought they were going to take a break from learning. This notion would have been far from the truth.

McGill asked the students, “How does the violence in Chicago make you feel?”

One student said, “It makes me feel sad and mad because people die.”

Another said, “It makes me feel scared.”

As program manager of The Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, Dion McGill frequently visits high schools and elementary schools in Chicago for student workshops.

His goal is to start conversations with kids about bullying, violence in the media, violence in their communities, and most importantly, what they can do about violence.

Handgun violence is nothing new to the students at Sawyer Elementary, located in the southwest Chicago neighborhood of Gage Park. The Friday before McGill’s visit in October, shots were fired during the school’s soccer game. Three weeks before, two students were shot at a block party just blocks away from the school.

McGill went on to ask the students a series of questions pertaining to statistics about the violence in Chicago. They all eagerly raised their hands to try and guess the answers.

On average, 14 people are shot and three are killed every day in Chicago. In more than two years, there has not been a single day without a shooting.

“So we know that there’s a problem, but what do we do about it? I’ve got a proposal for you. Don’t worry, it’s not that kind of proposal. I ain’t got money for no ring, sister,” McGill joked, evoking laugher from the students.

“First things first,” McGill began. “What’s a great conversation you can have when you go home today?”

One student said, “I’m going to tell my mom what I learned at school.”

McGill asked, “Are you going to astound her with your newfound knowledge? You’re going to ask, ‘Mom, do you know how many people were killed in Chicago this year?'”

“She gonna be like, ‘noooo.'”

“And you’re gonna tell her, ‘630 people!’” McGill gasped like a terrified mother, causing a sea of laughter.

“We gotta speak up, talk, and educate,” McGill said to the students.”Start with your parents, move on to your uncle, then your friends…We need to create a positive ripple effect.”

He explained that a lot of people know there’s a problem, but they don’t know how bad the problem is. Therefore, one solution is to raise awareness.

McGill went on to explain the 2013 case of the 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton. She and her friends were walking home from school on a rainy day and took shelter under a bus stop when a car drove by, firing shots. Hadiya was killed. Her friends and family thought of the idea to wear orange to honor her.

The concept went viral, and thousands of people, including celebrities like Jason Bateman, Julianne Moore and even President Barack Obama wore orange clothing on June 2 (Hadiya’s birthday) and tweeted about it.

McGill asked, “Why do you think they chose the color, orange?”

One student raised her hand, “Because it’s their favorite color?”

McGill laughed politely and then explained that hunters wear orange to tell other hunters not to shoot them because they’re human. He said that by raising awareness you get people to stop and think. “Sometimes stop and think is the best thing you can get people to do.”

McGill is a licensed Illinois state educator with experience teaching at both the middle and high school levels, as well as a U.S. Army veteran. He also has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Sciences from Saint Xavier University.

“I’m passionate about teaching because I get to help make the future of this world better,” McGill said.

Erik Arroyo, the College and Career Coach at Sawyer, was part of the staff that decided to bring McGill in to begin having workshops with classes.

“Another counselor and I at the school got Dion’s card through a friend and we had a meeting with him,” Arroyo said. “He’s had such a positive effect on the students. Sometimes when I go into a class, I can see that the students are disappointed if I haven’t brought McGill.”