“About one in every 35 African American men, one in every 88 Latino men is serving time right now. Among white men, that number is one in 214,” said President Barack Obama in a speech before the NAACP in July of 2015.

President Obama’s speech starts off the critically acclaimed documentary “13th”, a hard-hitting film about the mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States. In March of tahis year, as part of its community outreach, the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy sponsored a screening of the film, along with a panel discussion. 

Here in Evanston, African American youth are similarly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. The foremost criminal defense agency for juvenile and young adults in Evanston, the Moran Center states on its website that 73.3% of its clients are African American, while 19.2% are white, and “7.5% racially identify themselves as ‘other.’”  As of the 2010 U.S. Census, 18.1% of Evanston’s population was African American.

Thanks to a grant from the Evanston Community Foundation, over the past year the staff of the Moran Center were able to attend diversity training workshops, in addition to the trauma-informed care trainings. (See July 14 issue of the RoundTable). 

“Both trainings are integral to better development of the Moran Center,” said Patrick Keenan-Devlin, Executive Director and Juvenile Justice Attorney for the agency.  “We sought out the grant for diversity training because we are a predominantly white privileged staff trying to support a predominantly black client population…and there are many issues we have to reconcile to better serve clients and families,” he said.

Over this past winter, Moran Center staff attended four four-hour diversity training sessions conducted by Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan, a Diversity and Inclusion Professor at DePaul University and a diversity training facilitator and consultant.

We need to “consistently have equity on our minds as professionals who work with a marginalized population in our community and institutions,” said Mr. Keenan-Devlin. “We really want our agency to better reflect and better serve in a culturally sensitive way our client population.”

Melissa Blount, Ph.D., Evanston Psychologist and Advisory Board Member of the Moran Center, said, “You have to know the people you’re working with in order to do work that’s impactful and sustainable …That’s why diversity training is critical and vital to the work [the Moran Center does].”

“Serving a marginalized population” carries with it a responsibility to maintain a high level of awareness of differences in race, socioeconomic status, culture, and education. When white professionals, such as social workers and attorneys, are providing services to African American youth from low-income families, “there is an inherent power dynamic in the work they do,” said Ms. Lindsay-Ryan.  “You have to be aware of your own identity when you do this work.”

“The diversity consultant was tremendous and really helped us unpack the racism we all carry,” said Mr. Keenan-Devlin. “She helped us look at how we as an agency, in our mission and our work, need to be extremely thoughtful about the privilege we have and how we can be better supporters of our clients.”

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said the Moran Center staff came into the workshops “very aware of how point of view and structural racism affects their clients.” Coming in with “a great baseline and foundation” enabled them to do “deeper level work.”

“We looked at our materials externally and internally from a strength-based perspective,” said Mr. Keenan-Devlin.  Making sure there was “no language that denigrates,” and that it is very clear we are “not saviors helping these ‘poor’ kids … After the training, I realized that I would like to ensure that the board and staff more so reflect the community we serve,” said Mr. Keenan-Devlin. “This needs to be a value of the agency and should be prioritized.”

Kristen Kennard, Deputy Director and Director of Social Work Services for the Moran Center, said, “as a caucasian middle class female,” she “doesn’t have to think about some of the things [her] clients have had to deal with.”  For example, “If I’m pulled over by a police officer, I go to my glove box for my registration, no problem.”  But for an African American male client, that experience is completely different.

“We have to allow them to explain to us how something happened and what it was like for them, from their perspective,” said Ms. Kennard.  “My job is to listen to them and acknowledge that I do not know what’s it like – that I don’t have to worry about the same things, but that I’m here to help them.”

Mr. Keenan-Devlin said the “diversity training made me feel even more committed to clients being a part of the decision-making process of our agency” and making sure it is a process “that empowers our clients and values their time and energy.”

“When you have people participating in their own healing process it’s much more impactful and sustainable – they begin to feel capable and have a sense of awareness and a sense of accountability rather than blaming, shaming, or humiliating themselves,” said Dr. Blount. “There’s a balance of the power dynamic.  It’s a restorative framework and perspective and lends itself to hope.”

“One of the first things we do with a new client is to be sure we’re approaching them from a nonjudgmental perspective” and “letting them know they’re cared about,” said Ms. Kennard. “[Our clients] already come in as people who’ve failed a lot…In order to get to the underlying issues, they need to know we’re there and they can rely us.  Trust is a very big issue.”

The Moran Center attorneys advocate for clients in school meetings and hearings and court proceedings. The social workers on staff provide case management as well as individual counseling.  Each client is evaluated in terms of individual circumstances and needs, including income level, family structure, adverse childhood experiences or trauma, and current resources. 

Moran Center staff work with clients to address all of their basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter, as well as meeting the prerequisites for succeeding in school or obtaining a job.

This holistic approach has led to yet another initiative on the part of the Moran Center, and once again, a grant from the Evanston Community Foundation:  the Access to Mental Health grant.  The grant was awarded in May and the work is starting this month.

“This grant will allow us to train and hire two community advocates,” said Ms. Kennard. “It will include three different pieces.” 

First, community training through a partnership with other nonprofit agencies will teach members of our community how to help people in trauma. Next, the hiring, training, and supervision of two community advocates, to help clients with the support they need to meet their basic needs.  And finally, providing easier access to urgent psychiatric care through partnerships with local mental health providers.

Ms. Kennard said it costs Illinois  $20,000 a year to educate a child and $200,000 a year for each incarcerated individual. 

“Whenever we have anyone in Cook County [jail]… the majority of them do not have any money to bail anybody out,” she said. “Most of our clients have experienced abandonment issues, and sit in there with their thoughts. This is not rehabilitative. That’s why we are working at keeping them out of there.”