Damian Richardson '20

Damian Richardson smiling and holding completed thesisThesis Title: “It Makes Me Do More”: Community Violence and Civic Engagement in Chicago’s High-Crime Neighborhoods

In the summer of 2016, I completed an internship at Heartland Alliance, an antipoverty nonprofit in Chicago. This was the deadliest summer that Chicago had seen since the early ‘90s. I had always been aware of Chicago’s community violence problem, but I had been fairly sheltered from it despite having family in and around Englewood, a hot spot on the South Side. This internship opened my eyes. Upon returning to campus, I knew that I wanted my focus field to be violence-related, but I was not yet sure what question I wanted to ask.

In a class I took the following year, I came across an article—"Crime Victimization and Political Participation” by Regina Bateson—that presented strong evidence of a positive causal link between all types of crime victimization and all types of political participation using data from five continents. Reading that article for the first time, it was as if a lightbulb went off inside my head. I knew I wanted to study this hopeful and counterintuitive relationship in the context of an American city.

In my thesis, I conducted a mixed-methods investigation, first studying the relationship between the change in the homicide rate and the change in nonprofit density—a strong predictor of a community’s capacity for civic engagement—over time. I found evidence suggesting that the homicide rate may have been positively associated with nonprofit density. I then conducted interviews with 20 nonprofit leaders, activists, and volunteers, corroborating a violence-engagement link on the individual level. Finally, I conducted 31 additional interviews with everyday residents, finding that exposure to violence may function more often as a motivator than a hindrance to direct civic engagement, particularly for those who have strong connections to community nonprofits and vibrant social networks, as well as those who exhibit a high degree of religiosity. 

One of the biggest challenges of the project was dealing with data that had been collected by different geographic parameters. For example, demographic data is reported by census tract, but I was most interested in Chicago’s larger community areas. I had to learn to reapportion data, taking data from across smaller geographic areas and apportioning it to larger areas.

The most rewarding parts of the project were the deeply intimate conversations I had with people in the most ordinary of places, such as McDonalds. I had the honor of listening to people from across the city who had stories full of heartbreaking loss and triumphant resilience, but had never been asked to share them before. It was incredible meaningful.

My advice for future Social Studies seniors: take the Social Studies 99 seminar. If you are procrastinator like me, this seminar will motivate you to begin writing substantially in the fall. Also, as daunting as the thesis might seem, be sure to make ample time for your friends—even if your thesis suffers slightly. You never know when a pandemic will cut your year short.