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Arne Duncan says he will focus on improving opportunities for Chicago youth

Arne Duncan visited an Illinois high school in 2013. (AP Photo/Daily Herald, Rick West)

Arne Duncan, who stepped down as U.S. Education Secretary three months ago, announced Thursday that he is turning his attention to tackling the entangled problems of violence, unemployment and hopelessness among young adults in Chicago.

He is opening a Chicago office for the Emerson Collective, a California-based philanthropy headed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs. He plans to support entrepreneurs who can provide jobs in neglected neighborhoods, and to create and expand training programs that equip young people with the skills they need to get those jobs.

Duncan hopes that creating new pathways to jobs will help stem the violence that has wracked Chicago, especially its impoverished neighborhoods on the West and South sides.

“I’m of the firm belief that we can’t police our way out of this, and we can’t arrest our way out of this. We have to provide opportunities,” Duncan said in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday. “The thesis is, if we can help young men and women get real skills that will lead to real jobs and pay them to gain those skills, then you give them a reason to not sell drugs and not get caught in the violence.”

Chicago is home for Duncan. He grew up in the Windy City and was CEO of its public schools before joining the Obama administration in 2009. He has been openly haunted by the violence there, which has taken the lives of friends and former students.

There have been 126 homicides in the city so far this year, according to the Chicago Tribune. Last year, there were 488. Nearly half of Chicago’s young black men are neither in school nor employed, according to one recent study.

“Those two things are untenable and they’re obviously linked,” he said.

The new effort will focus on youth ages 17 to 24 who don’t have jobs and are not in school.

Duncan telegraphed his desire to make a difference for these young people in late December, on one of his final days as Education Secretary. In the basement of a South Side church, he gave a farewell speech in which he said that the biggest frustration of his seven years in Washington was the Obama administration’s failure to pass gun control legislation. He also called for a “new deal” for kids that would include not only an excellent public education, but meaningful job opportunities once they graduate.

“Our children need hope, and hope not in the unseen, not in the distance, but in what they can see every day on their block and in their schools and in their communities,” Duncan said at the time.

Arne Duncan calls for addressing gun violence in final speech as education secretary

On Thursday, Duncan said he’d recently spoken with a group of incarcerated men, one of whom explained that he had turned to crime in order to help his desperate mother pay overdue bills. “In many of these neighborhoods, gangs are the only ones hiring,” Duncan said. “These are young people who are making rational choices and the rest of the world doesn’t understand how stark their choices are.”

Besides his work in Chicago, Duncan also will contribute to another Emerson Collective project — the XQ Institute, which is running a $50 million national grant competition for communities who want to redesign the high school experience. It is helmed by another Education Department alum, former assistant secretary for civil rights Russlynn Ali.

Laurene Powell Jobs donates $50 million to redesign high school

The Emerson Collective is organized as an LLC — not as a nonprofit — which means it can make for-profit investments and political donations. Besides education, its priorities are immigration and criminal justice reform.