Evanston Police Officer Loyce Spells holds a photo of a youth teaching a young boy how to throw a gang sign. Officer Spells did not disclose the source of the photo.RoundTable photo

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Teens and young adults without a safe place in the community – a stable family, a consistent place to sleep, enough to eat – can fall into antisocial or dangerous activities that too often and too quickly lead to violence. While this is a national problem and a thorny one not easily solved, City and private initiatives such as outreach to disengaged youth and local employment and training programs are making a difference in their lives and strengthening the fabric of the Evanston community.

That was the message from Evanston Police Officer Loyce Spells, City Youth and Young Adult Program Manager Kevin Brown and Curt’s Café owner and restorative justice pioneer Susan Trieschmann.

Officer Spells also serves as president of the board of the Evanston Alliance to End Violence, a coalition of several social service agencies that is working toward making Evanston a peaceable City.

Mr. Brown’s division works to connect youth who are on the street with resources that will help them further their education and prepare them for a job. In his three years at the City, the Youth and Young Adult Division has made connections with about 400 youth, helping them make the transition back to a less chaotic and anti-social lifestyle.

Ms. Trieschmann is the founder and executive director of Curt’s Café on Central Street and Curt’s Café South on Dempster Street. Curt’s on Central Street provides job training and mentoring for juvenile offenders between the ages of 15 and 24. Curt’s Café South offers similar training to teen mothers.

Officer Spells, Mr. Brown and Ms. Trieschmann made it clear that they believe there is much to be done, as they described to their audience – a small group of fewer than 20 convened by the League of Women Voters of Evanston on April 23 – the scope of the problem of youth violence and what is being done to address it.

Violence: ‘Transferable’ not ‘Hereditary’
The problem of youth violence is not unique to Evanston, said Mr. Brown. “This is a national problem. It is seen by our government as a national security issue.” He said a recent White House paper reported that “there are nearly 7 million kids disengaged in the country. Although we can look at several problems by race and other lenses, these are problems that affect every race, every class.”

Officer Spells said violence often begins in the family. “It’s not necessarily hereditary; it’s transferable,” he said. A father in jail or a brother in a gang makes it more likely a youth in that family will turn to violence, he said.

Bringing the issue directly back to Evanston, Officer Spells held up a photo of a party of local youth, which appeared to be taken from a social media site. “There are at least four guns in this picture,” he said.

Officer Spells and Mr. Brown said much of the violence comes from youth who belong to cliques or crews. “Gangs,” Mr. Brown said, is not the term for these groups. He gave some of the names of the local cliques: D Block and ABM – All About Money. Yet these cliques have “no sense of enterprise, no sense of organization, no structure,” he said. The large-scale gangs of the 1980s were based around enterprise he said. Selling drugs and guns was a source of income. 

And even though there is no structure and no sense of enterprise, he said, “They have guns. … Violence now is not enterprise-driven. Now it’s personal and invariably is fueled by social media.”

Ms. Trieschmann said 70% of the kids who work at Curt’s Café are homeless. “Kids are feeling very hopeless. They watch the cycle of violence in their homes. Their hopelessness is unbelievable.”

Kathy Lyons directs the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, which offers legal representation and social work services to local youth and their families entangled in the juvenile justice system and the Center helps “break down barriers and overcome societal obstacles in order to overcome the root causes of a youth’s involvement in the juvenile justice system,” according to its website.  Ms. Lyons said the youth who come to them often “feel the community doesn’t see them as they are. They are seen as whatever their worst act is.”

Relevant’ Outreach: Partnerships and Conversations
Police Chief Richard Eddington said Mr. Brown’s street outreach team is similar to those seen in the movie “The Interrupters.” He continued, “In some ways, Kevin Brown’s program is more sophisticated than the Interrupters, because they are bringing people into jobs.”

Chief Eddington credited Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl for the City’s recent emphasis on getting job training and employment for disengaged youth, such as more jobs for kids in the summer youth employment program, a year-long paid apprenticeship in construction jobs at Northwestern University and a counselor at Evanston Township High School for non-college-bound kids.

Partnerships and conversations are also parts of knitting back the social fabric.

The Youth and Young Adult Division draws partnerships with the Moran Center, Connections, the Youth Job Center, the Evanston Public Library, Evanston Township High School, the Howard Area Employment Center and Oakton Community College to help youth with legal problems such as sealing and expunging juvenile records,  GED and GED-preparedness classes, job training and job-readiness skills. 

Relevance, said Mr. Brown, is critical. “Our schools are attempting to begin early to create success plans for kids – for kids to see why their education is relevant.”

The Evanston Alliance to End Violence has recently published a directory of the social service resources available for Evanston residents. It is available in print through the organization and line at peaceablecities.org.

At each Curt’s Café, said Ms. Trieschmann, 35 volunteers help the workers/trainees. “They help the kids get Social Security numbers, get them clothes for interviews, drive them to PEER Services for drug tests, help them get driver’s licenses and library cards. We coach them before any job interviews. With the teen moms, we work on self-esteem and female empowerment. We do what their parents didn’t do.” Ms. Trieschmann said.

Over a cup of coffee, a conversation about recent mistakes can offer advice unclouded by anger and with the respect and dignity most of the youth did not get at home, Ms. Trieschmann said. 

“We’re partnering with a lot of agencies,” she added. “We’ll call Kevin if there are problems. We work with PEER Services,” a local substance-abuse counseling agency.

Ms. Lyons said, “Some police officer feel that youth seem them negatively, so we created a program with a small group of young men and a small group of police officers.

“They would get together and talk – and the conversations did not stop. … We feel that the conversation is where it begins. It’s the one that most directly addresses trying to see each other as people.”

Mr. Brown and Ms. Trieschmann emphasized the need for community.

 “I see in Evanston a tremendous number of people engaged in making the community a better place,” said Mr. Brown.

Ms. Trieschmann said, “We need the community to support our efforts. These kids are our kids.”

City/NU Partnership Offers a Year of Training

If all goes as planned, next April, six young Evanston men will have spent a year learning skilled trades at Northwestern and will either graduate into full-time jobs at the University or have a year’s worth of experience on their resumes.

Under the Northwestern/Evanston Skilled Trades Training Program, the University has committed to hiring six Evanston residents each year to participate in a one-year paid training program in the University’s Facilities Management Division. At the end of the year, the young people would either get hired into full-time jobs at the University or have one year’s worth of experience to help them find jobs elsewhere.

The positions are designed to give the six employees direct work experience in the skilled trades, and they will start out working in the carpenter shop and the paint shop at the University. The jobs also come with mentoring and life skills coaching from the University and the City, University Executive Vice President Nim Chinniah said.

“We remain deeply committed to being in partnership with Evanston,” said Mr. Chinniah, who, along with City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, was on hand to greet the six new trainees. “Through this program, we are providing on-the-job training for young adults from Evanston. As much as these young people will learn from the experience, we at the University will benefit greatly, as well, from their talents and energy.”

John D’Angelo, Northwestern vice president for Facilities Management, who also met the trainees on their first day, said both the City of Evanston and the University “thrive because of our diverse and engaged community.

“There has been a national trend over the last few decades to move away from the skilled trades as a career. That has resulted in both a shortage of these critical professionals and a loss of economic diversity in many communities,” Mr. D’Angelo added.

In late 2015, the University will seek to identify the next group of six trainees.