City officials and community leaders kicked off the summer with a Safe Summer Summit and a commitment to keep children safe. This is the last in a series of articles about institutions and organizations in Evanston that support youth.
No ‘Quick Fix’
As a response to Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl’s initiative to stem youth violence, Karen Singer, Evanston North Shore YWCA executive director, offered an open swimming pool for the summer, but said it will take more effort from the entire community and from young people themselves to reduce violence.
Ms. Singer spoke about the community’s usual response to the violence. She said, “There will be one violent act, then there will be a flurry of activity, then it will go away, then another violent act and more activity. Many things are reactive, not proactive. …We need to make efforts to be proactive as a community in addressing youth violence.”
In relation to youth violence, Ms. Singer said teen dating violence has also increased throughout the country, which, she said, “will affect our future, so it is important to get an early start with youth.”
The YWCA focuses primarily on relationship violence. During the school year, the YWCA works in the schools and partners with Y.O.U. for a violence prevention program at Evanston Township High School to discuss healthy relationships, power and control and conflict resolution.
When asked what the community can do, Ms. Singer responded, “Get educated about the situation. I feel the need to educate myself about what the problem is, and understand the complexity.” She said there needs to be more than “just meetings where kids talk, but [they need to] build relationships and invest in the solution.”
There should also be a joint effort, she said, between youth and the community to stem youth violence. “Community players do different things, but the kids need to be involved and create the solution. … The community needs sustained engagement for those who exhibit high-risk behavior. … There is no such thing as a quick fix. We need a sustained and concerted effort.”
Programs Making a Difference
In 2003 Evanston resident David Edelstein founded All Our Sons, an organization that funds programs for boys and young men through annual grants from the Evanston Community Foundation (ECF). Mr. Edelstein said since boys usually have more disciplinary problems than girls (suspensions at the high school are an example), they need role models and positive activities.
Mr. Edelstein said he noticed ECF funded mostly programs for young women, so with All Our Sons he hopes to provide role models and mentors for young men to “create good, responsible members of the community.” So far, this organization has brought together Y.O.U., Family Focus, ETHS, the Moran Center, Open Studio Project and the Evanston Public Library. It has also funded a community-based program for Big Brothers Big Sisters for Evanston youth.
Art Mollenhauer, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters, would like to have a site-based program at Haven Middle School this coming fall. (Discussion for the program is in preliminary stages with School District 65 .) Mr. Mollenhauer said the mentorships he has seen for Chicago and other metropolitan youth have positively impacted many lives long-term by lowering the likelihood of participation in gang activity, drug use and becoming a teen parent. Mr. Mollenhauer said the increase in violence has also increased the demand for mentorships.
Both Mr. Edelstein and Mr. Mollenhauer suggest community members become knowledgeable about what nonprofits are doing and perhaps support organizations financially or through volunteering. Mr. Edelstein said, “Understand that the boys are not lost causes. They need support and nurturing.”
Evanston residents Wendy Weaver and Cathy Key founded Moms Saving Our Sons (MOMs.o.s.), an organization aimed to provide support to African American males and mothers who have lost relatives to homicide and incarceration. Ms. Key’s son and Ms. Weaver’s nephew, David Branch, lost his life as a result of violence. On April 9, the organization sponsored an anti-violence march and rally in memory of six youths killed last year and to educate youth about the consequences of dropping out of school, carrying weapons and other risky behaviors.
The Other Side: Youths Speak Up
This reporter interviewed a dozen young men – Evanston residents and visitors – aged 17-23 on July 15 at the Ebony Barber Shop, 1702 Dodge Ave., and New Leaf Garden, 1823 Church St.
From experience and/or observation, the youths gave several problems that they believe contribute to continued violent behavior: negligent parents, poverty, negative role models, the struggle to uphold a good image among peers, and the disconnection between adult community members and at-risk youths and those already involved in violence.
Many young men said they believe experiencing dysfunctional childhoods caused either by disengaged parents and/or poverty can jumpstart youth violence. Former Evanston Township High School student Travon Dean, 18, said he has witnessed peers growing up in households with unstable parents, some of whom have substance addictions. Lakeview High School (Chicago) student Eric Scott, 17, who volunteers at New Leaf Garden, said, “If parents are involved it really helps minimize violence.”
Many said those who lack positive parental role models find other people to look up to. Mr. Dean said, “When parents are not there, all they [at-risk youth] have is the streets – that’s where they feel loved.” When asked who major role models for such young men are, Mr. Dean replied, “Drug dealers. It’s the fancy cars and clothes.” He said those growing up in poverty without respectable role models admire drug dealers and see their material gain as an escape from poverty.
The people interviewed said peer pressure is a factor. Mr. Scott said peer influence affects youth even more than parental influence. He said “It sticks more, because we relate to each other.” ETHS graduate Devante Penick said “you want to look good in your friends’ eyes.” Mr. Dean said maintaining a good image involves proving strength and dominance to the next person. Gordon Kennedy, a senior at ETHS, said peer influence is one reason young men join gangs. He said, “Kids think that’s the only way to fit in. It is their way of saying ‘I’m great.’ It’s good to them because their friends back them up.”
Suggestions From Observation and Experience
Former ETHS student Billy Burks said the Summer Summit program “might help innocent people not get hit by a stray bullet [but] the people doing the violence won’t attend stuff like that.” Mr. Dean agreed, saying, “The community really needs to get in the streets – not just programs, but actually talk to kids.”
Resident Rudy Turner, 35, said spending time in jail has made him realize the value of life, and has motivated him to “mentor young men with a focus on conflict resolution, so they don’t make the same mistakes” he made.
Mr. Turner said that many youths fail to realize the lack of substance in some role models they admire, especially in entertainers who may endorse an image that often can mislead them. He said young men often let their egos control them, and the slightest misunderstanding can cause conflict, just to uphold an image of strength.
In response to the summer summit Mr. Turner said, “They [summer summit participants] have good intentions, but they’re disconnected from youth. … [Young people] need permanent structure. Things happen throughout the year and a resolution will arise not just by summer programs, but by consistent, positive guidance and supervision.”
Mr. Dean said, “I can lead by example. If I do better, younger kids who see me might think, ‘if he did it, maybe I can do it.’” However, he admitted he felt that “at the end of the day people will do what they want to do.” Mr. Turner also said, for the youth who resist his advice, “I can’t give up. Even for those who don’t listen, I’ll keep hope and continue to uplift, and tell them anyway. Maybe they’ll listen that one day when they have to make that life/death decision.” Devante Penick said, “We need more adult role models. Don’t just talk about it – do it. Make a change. We look up to you all.”