The Moran Center team

The idea behind the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy started in the early 1970s after a young man died in police custody. An Evanston alderman and attorney, the late James B. Moran, called for a study, the results of which uncovered inadequate legal representation of low-income residents, especially of young adults and teens. Alderman Moran founded the Evanston Defender Project in 1976 as a way to provide quality legal representation to low-income young people in Evanston who came in contact with the criminal justice system.

By 1981, it was clear that these young clients faced extraordinarily complex issues at home, at school, and in the community. These issues were leading to bad choices and subsequent arrests, and that without help from social services, the cycle would continue and spiral. To break this pattern, then Judge Moran incorporated the Evanston Defender Project as the Evanston Community Defender Office (ECDD), which paired legal services with mental health services.    Going forward, attorneys and social workers would advocate alongside each other – holistically – for their clients. Judge Moran passed away in 2009 and in 2010 the ECDD was renamed the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy as a way to honor his legacy.

The need for these integrated services is dire. The attorneys and social workers at the Moran Center explain that for youths, one poor decision, a “bad act,” can start a downward cycle with lasting implications. Of the youths served by the Moran Center, 96% have been exposed to violence, substance abuse, food insecurity, and/or homelessness. According to the Moran Center, those who experience trauma carry these experiences with them everywhere – even into the classroom. These young people commonly struggle in school – acting out physically and emotionally – which often results in exclusion from the classroom. Once a student is excluded from school, data shows they are three times more likely to drop out, and young people who do not graduate are three times more likely to be incarcerated later.

The Moran Center remains committed to its founder’s vision of shared communal responsibility, and is dedicated to breaking the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ by representing youths in the criminal justice, advocating for young people and families in preventative ways, and helping individuals rebuild their lives after release from prison.  Once a low-income youth from Evanston has been arrested and referred to Court, the Moran Center seeks appointment to represent the young person. From the outset, the Moran Center reframes the narrative of the criminal justice system from ‘This is what is wrong with x’ to ‘This is what happened to x.’  This reframing is the heart of restorative justice, the guiding philosophy of the Moran Center.

Pamela Cytrynbaum, Restorative Justice Coordinator at the Moran Center, describes a key principle of restorative justice as “separating the deed from the doer.” Restorative justice shifts the micro issue to a macro, community-based opportunity that relies on broader participation and encourages greater success. It looks beyond the blame/punishment paradigm of our criminal justice system.

Ms. Cytrynbaum helps to embed restorative principles into all of the Moran Center’s practice areas, facilitates restorative collaborations with the Evanston Police Department (EPD), conducts restorative trainings with Evanston-based, youth-serving nonprofits, responds to opportunities for public education, and facilitates community circles.

Ms. Cytrynbaum’s work with nonprofit community partners also includes helping to build a restorative Collective. The Collective is a group of local nonprofit organizations dedicated to serving disconnected youth and their families in Evanston. Under the aegis of the Collective, the organizations are working together to ensure that youth services in Evanston are accessible, responsive to youth’s lived experiences, equitable, inclusive and culturally and linguistically attuned.  Collaboratively building the Collective reflects the Moran Center’s objective of building a restorative community.

Ms. Cytrynbaum explains that restorative justice is “based on principles that create spaces for speaking and listening authentically, for rebuilding, repairing and creating relationships, and for providing direction for responses to conflict and harm.” It hinges on the belief that human beings can change and transform, and that each of us is better than the worst thing we may have done.  At its core, restorative justice builds relationships and envelops the entire community, acknowledging that each of us impacts one another – consciously or inadvertently – in ways that are both positive and negative. The process encourages the community to take responsibility for all the individual parts that make up the whole.

Restorative practices already exist in and around Evanston. Examples include two Restorative Justice Coaches hired last year by Evanston/Skokie School District 65 to work with its middle-school students; peace circles and peer jury at ETHS; and victim-offender conferences, incident-response circles and community circles run by the City of Evanston’s Youth Advocate, Arica Barton. With Ms. Cytrynbaum as a guide, the Moran Center seeks to build upon Evanston’s existing restorative practices.

Restorative practices build and strengthen individual and community relationships. Ms. Cytrynbaum said, “I’d love to see Evanston’s elders circling up with preschoolers and ETHS students as restorative trainers in elementary schools.”  It’s crucial to have community relationships in place before any attempt is made to employ restorative justice practices when addressing harm and conflict, Ms. Cytrynbaum said. Restorative justice makes clear, to both the offender and the multi-faceted parts of the community, the problem being discussed is a shared one and that by working together it can be addressed. It is based on the beliefs that an individual’s needs are the community’s needs; that every person deserves to have their basic needs met; and that excellence is attainable for each of us.  Weaving together “accepting responsibility” and “community support” encourages healing for all parties.

Ms. Cytrynbaum’s enthusiasm for restorative justice is heartfelt and she is an eloquent proselytizer for its potential.  “Imagine all the experienced elders – the retired educators, social workers, business and tradespeople – as volunteers. Imagine these community volunteers wrapping their expertise and wisdom around our youth in restorative justice circles. The circles offer a communal way to hold our youth accountable, identify their needs and suffering, and rally our community around those needs to create real repair and healing. If any place can do this, it’s Evanston,” said Ms. Cytrynbaum.

Many youthful offenders’ initial contact with the legal system is through the City’s Division of Administrative Hearings. Here the Moran Center coordinates the counseling and community services for those who qualify for such alternatives in lieu of fines.  The Moran Center is presently advocating to infuse restorative principles through every interaction, and to reimagine the administrative hearing process in Evanston for youth, in particular, as a forum that offers services to meet the needs made visible by the harms. The Moran Center also aims to move a range of selected offenses from criminalization within the Circuit Court of Cook County to the City’s Administrative Hearings, thus expanding the City’s jurisdiction to adjudicate more crimes locally.

The Moran Center has a long history of innovating programs to support disconnected youth. One promising program is Project Bridge. Ms. Cytrynbaum says the goal of Project Bridge is “to help African American and Latinx youth in Evanston who have had negative – and often traumatic – encounters with law enforcement build and heal relationships with officers who are eager to participate in authentic conversations.”  The program has been in existence in a variety of iterations for the past five years. This year’s group involves police officers and youth meeting every other week for two hours, alternating between deep, honest facilitated “restorative justice circles” one week and a fun group activity the next. Ms. Cytrynbaum describes the restorative circles as “places where we create space to speak honestly, to repair harm and to build trust and relationships.” 

Ms. Cytrynbaum is collaborating closely with the EPD to establish additional trainings for restorative justice. Commander Brian Henry of the Communities Strategies Unit at EPD is an enthusiastic fan, having seen first-hand how successful it is. Commander Henry has participated in both the first and second groups of Project Bridge. He recruits the officers while the Moran Center recruits the teens. Everyone is treated equally. They use first names and wear street clothes at meetings, and conversations are confidential.  Per the Commander, “What amazes me is how brave the teens are and how quickly the barriers get broken down. Project Bridge allows the teens to see the officers as people just like them. Relationships form quickly. The officers are committed to the program and really look forward to it. And the best part is the teens want to bring their friends into the program, which we welcome.”

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...