Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told an enthusiastic crowd at the Moran Center gala, “We are the cavalry.”Photo by Rich Foreman

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The Moran Center for Youth Advocacy hosted its sold-out Justice Demands Gala at the Mayne Stage in Rogers Park on April 18, where it honored former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for “his lifelong commitment to putting justice in action.” The celebration raised $160,00 and took place nearly 10 years to the day after the death of Judge James B. Moran, for whom the center is named.

The venue was filled with Judge Moran’s extended family, former colleagues in the legal community and members of the National Legal Defender Association (of which the Moran Center is a member), supporters and local current and former elected officials. Some notable names included former Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, former State Senator Daniel Biss, State Senator Robert Peters, Representative Robyn Gabel, Judge Ruben Castillo of the Northern District of Illinois, Judge Carrie Hamilton and Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne. Mayor Stephen Hagerty sent his regrets.

The evening was packed with inspiring speakers and performances, each of whom reinforced the value and importance of the Moran Center’s work helping troubled youth. Gilo Kwesi Logan, consultant and motivational speaker, started the evening’s program with some soothing sounds using conch shells and African drums. Patrick Keenan-Devlin, Executive Director of the Center and Juvenile Justice Attorney, and Betsy Lehman, Chair of the Board of Directors, welcomed the crowd and thanked them for their support and attendance.

Grammy-award winning recording artist, performance poet and author J. Ivy enthralled the crowd with a commanding and uplifting performance of his spoken poetry.  He presented two pieces, “Dream Big” and “Never Let Me Down.” Mr. Keenan-Devlin introduced a short video that featured the important work of the Center and how it has changed the trajectory of their client’s lives. Joi-Anissa Russell, Moran Center’s Director of Strategic Partnerships, and Porschia Davis, a former employee of City of Evanston’s Youth and Young Adult Outreach Division, led a “paddle raise” fundraising effort to help sweeten the evening’s coffers. Then John Moran and Jennifer Moran spoke about their late father and his lifetime’s work of improving the lives of the most vulnerable, while family photos of him flashed on the screen above the stage.

Ms. Moran introduced Mr. Holder and presented him with the Justice from the Lighthouse Legacy Award as the crowd rose in support. It was either an odd coincidence or prescient planning that less than 12 hours earlier, current Attorney General William Barr had held a press conference before releasing the redacted Mueller Report, a topic overheard often during the cocktail hour preceding the evening’s program. Smiling broadly as he approached the microphone, Mr. Holder said, “It’s a good day to be out of Washington, D.C.” Someone in the audience called out, “It’s a good day to see a real Attorney General!,” and the room exploded with a cacophony of laughter, whistles and applause.

Mr. Holder looked around the room, totally at ease, knowing he was speaking to a friendly crowd that shared the values he has espoused in his professional life. Without missing a beat he said, “I know. Sometimes I miss myself,” to more laughter. It set the stage for his remarks and the dialogue with three Evanston Township High School students that followed. 

Mr. Holder spoke about his fight against racism, and the impact a broken criminal justice system has on defendants, their families and young people. He believes “people need to be held accountable for their actions,”  but recalled how, when he was a judge on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, he saw firsthand how essential it was for young people to receive appropriate interventions to combat abuse and neglect before they get into the system, and the need for rehabilitation and education once drawn into it. He urged the audience to fight for reform and to ask themselves what they are going to do to bring about change. He praised those in attendance for supporting the important work of the Moran Center, but implored them to think about what else they can do to bring about change. He spoke of the value of restorative justice and the need for new ideas and evidence-based analysis when crafting reforms.

Krenice Roseman, Vice Chair of the Moran Center Board and an Assistant Attorney General in the Special Litigation Bureau of the Office of Illinois Attorney General, and ETHS seniors Trinity Collins, Emma Barreto and Clare Peterson next took the stage. The students are active in Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR) at ETHS and volunteered for the planning committee this year for Northwestern University’s Martin Luther King Weekend. As Ms. Roseman moderated the panel, the students asked questions of Mr. Holder.

Trinity asked, “What does it look like for a white person to authentically push for the dismantling of the institution of racism?” Mr. Holder suggested that while racism “has long bedeviled our society,” he believes a fairer electoral system could help make society less race conscious. “It’s okay to acknowledge racial identity, but it’s what we do with that knowledge that’s important,” he said.

Emma asked about the potential for change in the criminal justice system given the overall racism in American society. Mr. Holder suggested that while racism “has long bedeviled our society,” he believes a fairer electoral system could help make society less race conscious. He said, “It’s okay to acknowledge racial identity, but it’s what we do with that knowledge that’s important.”

Mr. Holder also said, “Things are better than they were 50 years ago” and that he is fundamentally optimistic. Citing 1619 as the year when the first enslaved Africans were brought to North America, “a lot has happened in the 400 years since.” He said his father had not lived long enough to see his son become the Attorney General, but “if I had told my father this nation would one day elect a Black president, or that his boy would one day be the U.S. Attorney General, he wouldn’t have believed it.”

Mr. Holder also spent time discussing leadership as it relates to young people. Speaking as much to the teenage panelists as to the general audience, he encouraged big dreams, saying, “Leaders have a vision. They build inspiration in others. The greatest leaders have great talents, an ability to think beyond what exists. The status quo is comfortable, but great leaders take us where we didn’t think we could go. They look to the future and make the future better. Leaders are willing to take chances. The Founding Fathers of our great country were all young people with idealism and vigor.”

Mr. Holder, the 82nd U.S. Attorney General, also talked about the unique role of the Department of Justice.  As the highest judicial official in the country, the role of the Attorney General is to “serve the people of the United States and not the president” and “to lead the Department of Justice in a way that is not partisan. The greatest Attorneys General have a sense of independence, people like Elliot Richardson. It pains me to see what is going on now. It’s a unique department and it is hurting now.” 

Mr. Holder said he is optimistic with a strong sense of history. In closing, he said, “You need to ask yourself every day, ‘What am I doing?’ Look for the good in people. You will find it. Don’t let skin color limit your ability to see opportunities and solutions. If you don’t find the good, push through it. Keep going. Don’t be discouraged. Be idealistic, but able to adapt. Be tough. Progress is not linear. A setback doesn’t mean to stop. See yourself as leaders. You have a responsibility to lead. Young people are the largest voting bloc in the country, but you are not exerting your power. You need to vote. Don’t waste your power. Power has to be taken. You need to generate things that will occur. Ask yourselves, ‘What will the future look like?’ Keep in mind that giving up power is hard; it’s a loss of control. Older people need to be prepared. But the future is in good hands, as you can see from the young people here. We can bring the change we want. Don’t wait for the cavalry – we are the cavalry. We must commit to making the change we want.”

Wendi Kromash

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...