A key focus of the Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2C) initiative is equity, said Sheila Merry, Executive Director of EC2C, in giving an update to the District 202 School Board on Feb. 12. Partnering organizations are also focusing on a wide range of issues to address youths’ needs in a holistic manner to help ensure they succeed, she said.

The vision of EC2C is “By the age of 23, all Evanston young adults will be on the path to leading happy, healthy, productive, and satisfying lives.”

More than 40 organizations are currently partnering in EC2C, including School Districts 65 and 202, the City of Evanston, Northwestern University, and many non-profit organizations and faith communities.

EC2C is built on the premise of “collective impact” – that schools, institutions, community organizations, business groups, and others can have a greater impact by working together to address complex social and educational issues than working alone.

Equity Work

“One of the most important pieces of the work that we’re doing is really focused around advancing equity,” said Ms. Merry. “We have taken very seriously the notion of being a leader – helping to be a leader – in driving equity work across the community.”

The equity work is being pursued on two levels, she said. “One is personal work – we all need to look at ourselves and our own biases and how we have created and contributed to the inequity that exists in our community.”

EC2C has embraced bringing Beyond Diversity training more broadly to the community, Ms. Merry said, and is partnering with the City to offer at least four training sessions this year. In the first session, held in January, 90 people signed up, and there were 30 on the waiting list. “The demand has been amazing to take advantage of that training.”

“We are also offering SEED [Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity] training, and providing training in conferences, book groups, support groups,” she said. “We’re trying to offer a wide range of opportunities in different approaches for people to be involved in individual work.”

Second, Ms. Merry said, “We are asking organizations to look at their organizational structures and policies and practices and how they are contributing to inequity in our community.

“All of the partners have agreed to do an equity self-assessment and then to develop action plans based on that work,” she said. “We’re hoping that we can begin to really change what’s happening within our organizations.

“We believe this work combined helps to lead to systemic change, which is what is really going to need to happen for this collective impact to realize its potential.”

Ms. Merry gave what she said was a “small example.” During meetings, representatives of partner organizations often mentioned that asking families to demonstrate they were income-eligible for scholarships or a fee-waiver was demeaning. To address that issue, the City agreed that children who qualify for free- or reduced-fee lunch at the schools will qualify for scholarships at its summer camps or other programs.

EC2C is encouraging other partnering organizations to use the same standard to qualify for scholarships or a fee waiver. District 65 will provide a letter to parents if they qualify for free- or reduced-fee lunch, which the parents can provide to the City or other partnering organizations.

Examples of Some Initiatives

Ms. Merry said United Way recently gave a $200,000 grant to EC2C, and EC2C allocated the funds in a way to encourage partnering organizations to work together to make systemic changes in the way they operate. 

Ms. Merry highlighted one initiative funded by the United Way grant in which early childhood providers are working together to address trauma. The Childhood Network of Evanston, the Infant Welfare Society, Reba Early Learning Center, Learning Bridge, and JEH Early Childhood Center, all providers of early childhood services, are establishing a coordinated intake system to link families experiencing trauma with a mental health consultant specializing in trauma-informed care at no cost to the family.

Trauma-affected children are often labeled as disruptive, defiant, and poor learners and are at high risk of disconnecting from school. By streamlining access to free services, this initiative seeks to ensure all families have the support they need and all children are on track for a strong start in kindergarten.

Ms. Merry summarized a few other initiatives. One group of partnering organizations worked together to submit a proposal to obtain up to a $2.3 million grant to create a comprehensive system addressing children’s mental health. Erie Family Health Center took the lead and the key players produced a “strong proposal,” which was submitted to the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Initiative.

Some partners have been working with Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty and a small group of business leaders in the community to engage them in EC2C’s work. “We decided that workforce development was the place where all of our interests meshed,” Ms. Merry said. Mayor Hagerty asked Neil Gambow, a retired business executive, to chair an EC2C Employers Advisory Council.

They will partner with the City’s Youth Outreach and Workforce Development, nonprofit workforce development providers, Oakton Community College, ETHS, and others, said Ms. Merry.

The goal will be to develop “clearer pathways for Evanston youth to secure employment in Evanston at a livable wage that does not necessarily require a four-year college degree.” 

Some other initiatives mentioned by Ms. Merry include streamlining referrals for home family visiting; expanding the Talk, Read, Sing initiative; identifying and expanding successful pre-K programs; expanding community schools; partnering to advance equity in City government; identifying systemic barriers for young fathers; and expanding access to literacy-based summer learning.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...