Chicago's violence took my dad, friends

Tenisha Bell's mother and father Velma and Ezekiel Taylor. Bell's father was shot and killed in Chicago when she was 5.

Story highlights

  • President Obama's visit to Chicago brings attention to city's extreme gun violence
  • Tenisha Bell grew up on South Side; her dad and two friends were shot and killed there
  • Bell worked hard at school, fled Chicago and will never live in her hometown again
  • Bell credits her mom for her success; says kids need education, mentors, jobs

President Obama is visiting my hometown of Chicago -- the city I hate to love.

The president's visit focuses attention on gun violence, and comes soon after the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old who was shot down in Chicago after participating in the president's inauguration festivities.

I know way too much about urban gun violence; three people I love were shot and killed, like Hadiya, on Chicago's streets.

I grew up on the South Side in the late '70s and early '80s. I was very young, but I recall the evening of my dad's death vividly. We had a green phone mounted on our kitchen wall. One night as my mom and I were sleeping in her bed, the phone rang. My mom awoke and went to the kitchen to answer.

Tenisha Taylor Bell

She leaned against the wall, that green phone in her hand, with a look of despair and horror as her sister-in-law told her the news.

The Chicago police then banged on the door, saying, "We just found your husband dead." At that moment our lives changed. Chicago's ruthless streets had stolen my father. Ezekiel Taylor was shot and killed in a robbery, on his way home from church. He died four minutes away from the house where Michelle Obama grew up.

And so my mother, Velma, was left to raise me in a single parent household. Without her husband's income, she struggled to keep me in private school and extra curricular activities -- from ballet, to tap, to flute lessons, to drum lessons. Her sacrifice can never be repaid. She taught me how to be a survivor, and imparted strong values, standards and morals.

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She also taught me the lesson of forgiveness. I forgive the two men and woman who killed my father because you can't go forward if you don't.

In high school, my great friend and honorary "big brother" died in the same street violence. Ron Hollister was intelligent, upstanding, funny and a good student . He was gunned down in a robbery on a summer day when he was home from his freshman year at college. He had gone to get his car washed.

As a senior in high school, I vowed to get out of Chicago, to escape the pain and tragedy. I worked hard and landed a full four year scholarship to Clark Atlanta University. I never looked back.

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But in March of 2010, Chicago reached me in Atlanta with another horrifying phone call. My grade school buddy Steven Lee -- kind, funny and generous -- was leaving his birthday party and was caught in the crossfire of two gangs. Steven was killed by a stray bullet and his killer was never captured. To add to the tragedy for his family, his older brother was a Chicago police officer who was killed in the line of duty in August 2001.

My hometown is a war zone. Too many innocent children and young adults have died. Chicago police reported that 506 people were murdered in the city in 2012, about 16% more than 2011. Compare that with the fact that 310 American troops were killed in Afghanistan in 2012.

Chicagoans can be proud and hopeful that our president is going to the city to bring attention to this epidemic of violence. Too many mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of murder victims have been suffering for too long.

Leaders like Chicago Police Commissioner Garry McCarthy and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel need to figure out why murder rates in cities like New York and Los Angeles are plummeting while Chicago's continues to soar.

My view: How we talk about guns in my Chicago classroom

And parents, religious leaders, teachers and community organizers also need to help take back the streets.

The city needs an action plan to save innocent people from becoming victims like Ronnie, Steven and Hadiya. It needs more community centers to offer a safe haven and alternative to gang banging for kids. Young people need direction and mentors -- people like my mother, who instilled in me the values you need to rise above the challenges of poverty and despair.

I love Chicago because it made me who I am. It has the best pizza, a great skyline, gorgeous Lake Michigan, museums and a diversity of cultures on every corner. Obama called it home. It gave us Oprah, Michael Jordan, Nobel Prize winning author Saul Bellow -- and the great University of Chicago. It gave us Michelle Obama, who was also raised on the South Side.

But it's the city I hate to love, and I won't go back -- especially now that I'm raising a son. I don't want to lose him to the streets of Chicago.

I hope President Obama's visit will inspire the city to save itself, so young people in the future will feel they can live and raise a family in the city they love.

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