It was the last meeting of our two-year journey as the Chicago Community, Media & Research Partnership — a task force of researchers, community groups and journalists discoursing best practices for disseminating research that can reduce health inequities.
Candace Henley, founder and executive director of the Blue Hat Foundation, a group promoting colorectal cancer awareness, stunned us at the start of the meeting.
Her 27-year-old nephew, Joseph Barbee, fell victim to Chicago’s 2021 gun violence bloodbath 2 1/2 hours earlier, killed in the middle of the street, at mid-afternoon, in the Auburn Gresham community, one of the deadliest in the city.
He was riding a Divvy bicycle in the 7700 block of South Seeley Avenue at 2:40 p.m. on July 15 when a gunman approached on foot and shot him in the head, Chicago police said.
It was Henley who got the phone call with the gut-wrenching wails of a mother who had just lost her son.
Henley was angry. At her family’s loss. At unfathomable gun violence that has claimed at least 388 lives in 2,273 shootings this year, according to statistics compiled by the Chicago Sun-Times.
More than anything, though, she was angry that no one, not one soul out there when the shooting happened, would tell police what they saw.
“Joseph’s sister was inside the house and heard gunshots, looked out the window and saw him on the ground. When she called my sister, she said paramedics were working on him, but he wasn’t moving. We high-tailed it to Christ Hospital,” said Henley.
The father of two sons, ages 1 and 5, was pronounced dead by the time the sisters got there.
“My nephew was a loving soul. He was not perfect, and his mom will tell you that. She’s not one of those parents. But society has dehumanized our children in this violence,” she said.
“Joseph was loved. He was somebody’s child, somebody’s brother, somebody’s nephew.
“We still don’t know why this happened. The police haven’t told us much, but a neighborhood gossips. We’ve heard all kinds of stories, yet no one has told police that they saw anything. Let me say to any mother, ‘If you think this can’t happen to you, think again.’ “
It brought back memories of the murder of her own father, Joseph Barbee, for whom her nephew was named. Henley was 19 when her father was beaten to death in a street robbery on the West Side where she grew up.
A 19-year survivor of colon cancer, Henley has made it her life’s work to battle racial and socioeconomic health inequities characteristic of that disease and so many others.
Long recognized as a public health crisis, gun violence poses greater risk of mortality for low-income communities of color — fueled by the same structural racism that helped COVID-19 wreak disparate death and infection rates upon South and West Side communities held hostage to gangs and guns.
African Americans make up 82% of Chicago’s gun deaths; Hispanics, 12%; nine of every 10 killed are male.
“Joseph was very talented. My father was a wonderful artist, and my nephew was talented the same way. He could really draw. He was highly intelligent, especially in math. He could calculate numbers off the top of his head. A brilliant life that didn’t have a chance, because he didn’t have resources,” said Henley.
“The economic downfall perpetrated on our communities, the removal of community centers, arts and sports programs that were available when we were kids — when they removed those things, they got exactly what they knew they were going to get: chaos.
“You now have all these kids with all this talent and energy and nowhere to take it but the streets. And the streets will welcome them any day. This is not rocket science,” she lamented.
We spent a huge portion of that task force meeting reflecting on similar impacts of gun violence and COVID-19 on disadvantaged communities, and the need to ensure research with potential to reduce inequities gets to those communities via trusted communicators.
On Monday, when I checked in on her, Henley and her family were just returning from the morgue and the mournful task of identifying her nephew’s body. It was a difficult day.
“They showed her the original photos. So we saw the trauma he endured,” said Henley.
“We now begin funeral arrangements, and the wait for police to complete their investigation, hoping someone will come forward to share who did this,” Henley said.
“I’m angry, not just because gun violence has hit home, but because it’s another shooting in our community where no one saw or says anything. I’m sick of watching the news and seeing members of the community mad at the police, the mayor and everybody else.
“What are you doing? You can’t have it both ways,” she said. “If you want the violence to stop, we have to do our part. If you don’t step up and say what’s happening in the community, how can they help change it? We live here. They don’t. Tell what you know.”