CHICAGO – When Ernest Willingham moved to Capitol Hill, he was engulfed in memories of bullets.
How could he not, after all the family members – a father, a brother, a cousin – were shot, spent childhood meticulously. In memory of Jahnai, her best friend was killed by a gunman when she was 17 years old.
Willingham, 19, shared the tragedies he faced growing up in Chicago when he testified last Wednesday during a hearing on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Gun Violence and Children. He sought to walk the senators through “what it’s like to make life decisions when gun violence or the fear of being shot takes a toll on your mind.”
To Willingham, the specter of gun violence seems like a relentless cycle.
“Over and over and over. One night, a dream we can’t wake up from,” he told the Chicago Tribune.
Bullets affected his life even before he was born, when his father was shot in both knees. When he was a young child living in Cabrini-Green homes, his brother was shot: one bullet in the groin at the time of the robbery, and then another in the leg at a party nearly a year later. Willingham’s cousin was also shot at the same party.
“I didn’t spend full time outside or doing public work,” he said.
His mother, Kimberly Willingham, recalled finding a bullet hole in her blind and a bullet in the living room of her 10th-floor Cabrini-Green apartment. There were nights when his family slept on the floor for fear of stray bullets. She taught children how to “hold up the wall”, walking with their backs across a building when gunfire was pouring in, to reduce the chance of being shot.
Willingham’s grandmother took him to live with him to save him from the violence. Willingham remembers that he woke her up in the middle of the night to the sound of gunshots. To make sure he is okay, the two head down to their North Lawndale road to check on an uncle.
But Willingham didn’t fully understand the pain caused by gun violence until a stray bullet struck and killed his best friend, a 17-year-old. Jahn Pattersonin August 2018.
Both were close. At one time, she lived with her family for about a year. She said that she can make anyone laugh, loves to dance and is quick to help friends with her hair.
Kimberly Willingham recalled that Jahn was on her way back home from school before her children. She said she was helpful around the house and remembered that he had helped take care of her after a car accident.
“She slept right next to my bed,” said Kimberly Willingham. “Sometimes she would make a pallet right next to me to make sure I was okay.”
Jhannai’s parents were worried about the gun violence. Her mother, Tanika Humphries-Patterson, said they often chose to take her to school after two of her friends were shot and killed.
When he was killed, Jahn was at a party three blocks from Willingham’s home for a few minutes when two men, never identified by police, opened fire at the crowd.
Willingham sang “Hold On” by The Walls Group at his funeral.
“We attended more funerals than weddings,” Willingham told the Senate committee.
He tried a few counseling sessions after Jahnai’s death, but it was not effective, he said. The advisors didn’t share much with him. He could not relate to them, he said.
Willingham fought gun violence by organizing meetings between feudal students and classmates for an anti-violence march to build peace.
Willingham said the void left by him is difficult to fill.
His mother said that Jahn’s death made Willingham more wary and eager to leave Chicago. Willingham is a third-year student at Northeastern University in Boston. He plans to become a physician and study health policy. His mother, who once moved her family to Mississippi to escape the violence, said she initially did not want him to go that far.
“I intentionally didn’t apply to any schools near my home because I was afraid of gun violence,” Willingham told the Senate committee.
He lost another friend, 18-year-old Tamiron Jordan, in the weeks before going to college in August 2020. The two were close since kindergarten. Willingham had to miss Jordan’s funeral when he left. He said that he does not talk much about his death.
Willingham’s mother said she had moved to Humboldt Park a year earlier to escape gun violence. He heard sirens after shooting in the park last month. This frightened him as his nieces and granddaughters sometimes played there. She sees her childhood in stark contrast to her growing up in Cleveland, Mississippi, where she’d discover four-leaf clovers and catch lightning insects to put them on her ear.
“They don’t know about it,” she said.
Kimberly Willingham cried when she saw her son testify on his phone at a Senate hearing. “It was like he was born to do this,” she said.
Willingham said he was thrilled but ready when US Sen. Dick Durbin invited him to speak to the Judiciary Committee.
“It’s not something I woke up to and read a book on. It’s something I’ve dealt with personally,” he said
The chairman of the committee, Durbin began the meeting by highlighting a bill he is sponsoring. Calling the Rise From Trauma Act the bill would give schools and communities more resources to deal with trauma, he said.
“The disadvantages of gun violence go beyond bullet wounds,” Durbin said. “It is important to help children deal with traumatic experiences in order to break the cycle of violence.”
Willingham and his mother want to see legislation further limiting access to guns for projects like the Chicago Youth Programs, in which Willingham participated. The program provides everything from vaccinations to coats and field trips to at-risk children. Both credit the program for inspiring and empowering and protecting Willingham’s passion for health care.
Without tighter gun controls and better access to affected children, the situation will not get better, Willingham said.
“It is not an overnight issue. People who don’t know, who have never experienced it, think so,” he said. Attitude is not taken into account.
Willingam was the first witness to appear for the hearing on Wednesday. Durbin and other Judiciary Committee members referred to his five-minute testimony as the hearing progressed. At the end of the hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, asked Willingham what message he wanted to leave.
“Mental health professionals who exist in communities that suffer from gun violence all look like you,” Willingham said, pointing to the predominantly white committee members. “They don’t look like me. They don’t look like other people of color who have gone through mental health trauma.”
Coming back from O’Hare after returning to Chicago, he said he was proud to share what he learned and to show the resilience of his family and his West Side.
“This won’t be our story forever,” he said.