(L-R) Andrew Aydin, ETHS Assistant Superintendent/Principal Marcus Campbell, Congressman John Lewis, ETHS District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon in 2016.Photo by Eric Dynowski

In Evanston and other North Shore communities, Family Action Network (FAN) is a prominent and popular non-profit organization known for its educational and compelling speakers.

Its mission, says FAN Board member Sharon Graboys is “elevating minds and expanding hearts.” By the time the 2018-2019 academic year wraps up, FAN will have hosted nearly 40 free programs that attracted thousands of audience members.

The FAN office at 1718 Sherman Ave. is open, cheerful, and education-oriented. The conference room – the heart of the office – is furnished with a large rectangular table surrounded by swivel and metal chairs. The walls, table, swivel chairs, and origami-like light fixtures are a bright, fresh, energizing white, almost blindingly so. Nothing is hidden – everything is out in the open for all to see. Books written by upcoming and prospective speakers fill the center of the table. The walls are dotted with artwork that reinforces creativity, energy, and communication. It is a room designed for teamwork.

Led by its Executive Director Lonnie Stonitsch, FAN is successful because of hard work, open communication and the dedication of its numerous volunteers.

The organization is set up so that each sponsoring school, foundation, corporation, faith-based group and nonprofit organization nominates a liaison to represent their community’s interests and participate in the Liaison Council, which meets monthly. Someone from FAN, usually Ms. Stonitsch, meets with school principals (public, private and parochial) and superintendents, executive directors, liaisons and donors during the planning stages for the upcoming year to hear firsthand about ideas and areas of concern for possible programs. Audience members are also encouraged to supply suggestions. The entire process is collaborative, efficient and direct.

FAN programs cover a wide range of topics and include speakers from various professional fields. Newsworthy and timely topic recommendations might come from past speakers or the world of publishing.

Ms. Stonitsch receives publishing “grids” that list the soon-to-be-published books four to six months in advance. When a book catches her eye that she knows will be a good fit for FAN’s audience, she will make a request for FAN to be included in an author’s book tour.

Based on FAN’s reputation for selecting high-quality speakers and its track record of drawing crowds and selling books, FAN is now a “stop of choice for many authors,” said Ms. Stonitsch. The exception is an author who is also running for elected office; FAN is apolitical and will not host candidates.

FAN originated as an outgrowth of a New Trier Parents’ Association program called “Alcohol Awareness Night”; the original name in 1982 was Parent Alliance for Drug and Alcohol Awareness (PADAA).

Over the years, FAN has broadened its audience and focus as its program schedule has tripled in size. Long a New Trier Township organization, FAN welcomed Evanston Township High School District 202 and Evanston/Skokie District 65 as new member school districts at the start of the 2013-2014 school year.

It has been a successful addition by any measure. In the past few years, FAN will have hosted 40 events at ETHS, featuring speakers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bryan Stevenson, Brené Brown, Carol Dweck, Ibram Kendi, Jesmyn Ward, Richard Rothstein and Congressman John Lewis. Ms. Stonitsch spoke warmly about FAN’s “extraordinary” working relationship with everyone at ETHS, from Drs. Witherspoon and Campbell to the security team and volunteers. Ms. Graboys described FAN’s collaboration with ETHS as a “beautiful synergy” where everything just seems to work.

A few FAN volunteers spoke about their years of supporting FAN. Wendi Williams, FAN’s Social Media Director, enthused about the “rich and multi-generational appeal of many of FAN’s programs, which attract our country’s foremost thinkers. FAN is part of a bigger conversation going on in the country about leading-edge ideas. I’m proud to be part of community that values learning and takes these ideas seriously.”

Vivien Hanson, one of the Liaison Council’s Co-Directors, is proud of how FAN “makes a conversation about mental health routine and non-stigmatized, a responsive awareness. These lectures help us develop a common language about serious issues without being reactionary or fear-based.”

Ms. Graboys agreed and said, “Audiences aren’t immobilized by reality when they come to FAN programs. What they may feel is awakened, touched or activated, which we welcome.”

FAN’s other Liaison Council Co-Director, Maureen Kebo, added, “Our programs are solution-oriented. We address the common thread for an issue, and are also able to get into the specifics.”

Many of FAN’s programs are suitable for tweens and teens. Ms. Hanson said hearing Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, had a powerful impact on her family when she and her husband attended with their two children three years ago. “People want to be with other people when their brains and hearts hear a powerful message. FAN attracts a community of lifelong learners who show up to learn together.”

Anyone wishing to learn more about FAN, get on the mailing list, and see a schedule of upcoming events may visit the  FAN website at http://familyactionnetwork.net.

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...