Panelists, from left, Christopher Shuttlesworth, Lisa Disch, Dino Robinson, City Clerk Devon Reid, former Illionois Governor Pat Quinn and Bennett JohnsonPhoto by Heidi Randhava

“It’s not a color issue – it’s a human issue,” said Christopher Shuttlesworth of the Illinois Poor People’s Campaign during a panel discussion titled “Understanding Institutional Racism,” held at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, 1655 Foster St., on Aug. 10.

Presented by A Work of Faith Ministries, Inc. (AWOFINC) Seminar Series, the panel discussion was the first in a series of events on understanding institutional racism: what it is, the profound impact it has on individuals, the long-term impact on our community and how to take action to dismantle it.

Mr. Shuttlesworth said his movement started while growing up, knowing that his uncle worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King during the segregation era.

“Systematic racism and poverty go hand in hand. … We have these systems that perpetuate poverty in our school systems – lack of funding for books, the closing of our schools. We have incarceration where, as a black man, I am seven times more likely to get arrested. … All these things perpetuate systematic racism and poverty.

“When I became part of the Poor People’s Campaign, I learned that more than 140 million people are living low income and impoverished. They are not all black people. This is going to take our coming together, to fuse all our interests together to really make change,” said Mr. Shuttlesworth.

Other panelists were former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn; Evanston City Clerk Devon Reid; Lisa Disch, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan; Dino Robinson, Production Coordinator at Northwestern University Press and founder of Shorefront Legacy Center; and Bennett Johnson, civil rights activist and founder of the Evanston Minority Business Consortium.

In her introduction, moderator Meleika Gardner of Evanston Live TV focused on the power of information in the battle against systemic racism in Evanston.  She credited Mr. Reid with increasing awareness in the community of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). “He educated us on that, and FOIA requests doubled,” said Ms. Gardner. She also said social media is a powerful tool for organizing.

Mr. Quinn, who served as Governor of Illinois from 2009 to 2015, said he and his Congressman, Danny Davis, met Mr. Reid late last year. “I told Devon that we were planning to pass a petition to have the power of initiative and referendum, and he said, ‘Why don’t we try that here in Evanston?’ That’s how our whole movement (Evanston Voter Initiative) began. We had a common interest –  his commitment, as you know, is to freedom of information.

“I believe in grassroots democracy. What we’re doing here in Evanston is gathering signatures – I think we’ve got to get 2,908 signatures … by Dec. 16 of this year,” Mr. Quinn said.

The signatures would give voters the chance vote on the Evanston Voter Initiative at the next election, March 17, 2020. If the referendum passes, Evanston residents could enact local ordinances through the power of voter petition and referendum.

 “We used that power in Michigan through voters, not politicians, to end gerrymandering,” said Prof. Disch, an ETHS graduate who is a Michigan resident. Prof Disch cited the rigging of district maps to entrench a governing party’s political power as a major way to lock minority populations and progressives out of power.

A willingness to take action was a common thread among the six panelists.

Mr. Reid said, “We put forward a plan to make our City more transparent by increasing access to the Freedom of Information Act and increasing access to the ballot.” He gave examples of one resident who has filed a FOIA request about to the way sales-tax dollars are generated, and another who filed a FOIA request to understand arrest data in the City.

“What they discovered with that FOIA is that 75% of all juvenile arrests in the City are of African American youth. We know that in our City, the African American population is less than 20% of the City, so to account for 75% of all juvenile arrests – we realized that something is wrong here.”

Evanston’s past, summarized by Mr. Robinson during the panel discussion, might provide some insight into problems and challenges that the community is facing today.

“Progress was stymied from the very beginning. Evanston likes to tout itself as this great, beautiful community to live in, where it’s safe and sound. But Evanston, just like the rest of this country and many parts of the world, practiced Jim Crow, practiced segregated policies, and Shorefront wanted to create a record so people can see how long this struggle has been going on,” said Mr. Robinson.

Mr. Johnson, a civil rights activist with decades of experience in the battle against institutional racism, shared his approach to roadblocks. “You don’t grow unless you have obstacles. And you don’t succeed unless you get over those obstacles. An obstacle is not something you need to be intimidated by. It’s a challenge,” he said.

The discussion concluded with a call to action from Evanston resident Baxter Swilley. “There are some serious institutional problems in Evanston. One of them is lack of information about what the government is doing. We’re organizing a FOIA March from a staging area to the Civic Center. Our goal is for marchers to have 50 FOIA requests in hand,” said Mr. Swilley.

The event was organized by Kenneth Wesbrooks, founder and chairman of AWOFINC, and William Eason, executive director of Art of Evolution Theatre Company and an AWOFINC board member.

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.