In the midst of the surge in gun violence that has gripped the city of Chicago for the past two years, a group of activists has come together to help stem the damage to our communities by turning entrepreneurs into job creators and filling in the void they say is left by decades of systematic disinvestment.

The Unleash/Launch 2017 conference is the brainchild of Rev. Michael McBride and Solomon Group Managing Partner Robert Johnson, a member of Trinity United Church of Christ. The two met through Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, Johnson’s pastor.

“If we were to take people who are utilizing the underground economy to support their families, to support their own personal lifestyles, we see that those are the people who are targeted by police. What if you take the same individuals and give them the opportunity to utilize their creativity to take those skills and put them into a business? We then start talking about growing our community economically, but also growing it for ourselves and not depending on someone else to invest,” said Moss.

A collaboration of PICO National Network, the LeadWell Institute, and the Solomon Group, the Chicago event is the first stop on a 10-city tour including Atlanta, Birmingham, Orlando and St. Louis. The two-day conference features speakers, industry panels, networking opportunities and “a Black Shark Tank” that will award up to $15,000 in grants to help local entrepreneurs start their businesses.

“There’s not a whole lot of job resources in our communities,” said Johnson. “But there’s a whole lot of ideas, ambition, drive and creativity. So how do you tap into that to provide the opportunity for these individuals to become entrepreneurs and business owners? What we wanted to do is provide the resources those other communities have, locate them in our communities, and be able to expose these individuals to economic opportunity and the American dream.”

Johnson acknowledges that the entrepreneurship initiative alone will not alleviate gun violence in the city. The Unleash/Launch 2017 initiative is only one aspect of a holistic strategy that will include the launch of Live Free Chicago, the local chapter of Live Free USA’s church organizing effort and Trinity UCC’s Chicago International Youth Peace Movement, which focuses on domestic violence and violence against women.

“I kind of stay in my lane,” said Johnson. “I’m a businessman, so that’s my contribution to the struggle.”

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