By Bob Karr

Can a job stop a bullet? For a city struggling with gun violence, it’s an important question.

There is no doubt much of our crime has its roots in economic distress. People without opportunity in the legal economy will resort to the illegal economy if only to eat, pay rent and feed their families.

For several years, Blommer Chocolate has been hiring from communities on the South and West sides of Chicago where gun violence is an everyday occurrence. Some of our employees have come to us through the violence prevention program Chicago CRED.

We first learned about Chicago CRED at an event in the Englewood neighborhood where Arne Duncan, CRED’s founder and a former U.S. secretary of education, was speaking. Duncan talked about growing up on the South Side and losing friends to gun violence in his teenage years. He talked about the pain of returning to Chicago after serving in Washington only to experience heartbreak at the level of gun violence. And he vowed to do something about it.

CRED works with young people at the highest risk of being gun violence victims or offenders. They get a lot of help from CRED, but the one thing CRED can’t provide is a job.

That’s where we come in.

Over the years, we’ve hired more than a dozen Chicago CRED graduates. We are one of more than 40 companies in 17 industries that have hired CRED grads, and we will keep hiring them because they are hardworking, talented and hungry to succeed. They are desperate to do something with their lives.

It’s not without challenges. Most of the men we have hired have essentially grown up in war zones, suffering direct and indirect trauma from gun violence. We have had to deal with employees or their family members being shot. Some are derailed by challenges like a car breaking down or unstable housing. Sometimes, they need a little extra help. But we need them just as much as they need us.

Blommer’s original and oldest operating factory is in downtown Chicago. Since it is not as fully automated or modernized as our other factories around the world, we can recruit and develop many of the young men coming out of Chicago CRED. On average, they earn $20 to $24 per hour, not including overtime.

One of them is Brendan Taylor, who is among the first graduates of Chicago CRED. Brendan began working in the mailroom at Deloitte in 2018. He was a model employee and was training to become a paralegal when he was shot and wounded in a drive-by incident near his South Side home.

Brendan’s co-workers supported him through his recovery, visited him in the hospital and extended the kind of love and support any one of us would need in a similar crisis. We got to know Brendan and offered him a job. Today, he’s an environmental health specialist earning a respectable salary, plus health and retirement benefits.

Some employers may justifiably ask why they would take on the challenge of hiring young people with limited work experience and troubled backgrounds. My answer is this:

This is our community. This is our city. Pretending that young men like Brendan don’t exist will not make them go away. Just because most of the gun violence happens away from our homes or businesses does not mean we don’t have a responsibility to help address it. We can all be part of the solution.

Our company was founded in 1939 by three Blommer brothers. Most people know us by the rich chocolate smell emanating from our factory on Kinzie Street and our iconic sign visible to commuters. Until just a few years ago, Blommer was a family-owned business, and we still honor the values passed down to us through the generations, including responsibility to our community.

Business leaders cannot sit back and hope that others will solve crime. Our hardworking police enforce the laws to the best of their ability. Organizations like Chicago CRED give young people at risk the guidance to choose a pathway out of danger. But we can give them a paycheck and a career.

It’s not just about altruism. It’s also in our economic interest. We can either pay them to work or we will all pay in higher social costs.

I was heartened to read recently that the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club will be asking business leaders across the region to start hiring from the South and West sides, including graduates of violence prevention organizations. That’s great news. It reflects Chicago at its best, in which everyone pitches in to meet a collective challenge.

But I understand that some companies may have some concerns. So, if anyone wants to know what it looks and feels like to be part of the solution, we invite them to visit our factory. Just follow your nose.

Bob Karr is the senior vice president of administration and chief legal officer at Blommer Chocolate Co.

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