Mason Park, the site of a "defund the police" rally last summer, will be the site of some violence-prevention activities this summer. (RoundTable photo)

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In one of their last acts, the retiring City Council members on May 10 gave approval to a proposal from Health and Human Services Director Ike Ogbo to implement a new program, “My City, Your City, Our City,” to offer certain Evanston youth structured alternatives to just hanging out .

The Youth and Young Adult Division of the Health and Human Services Department and the Parks and Recreation Department said they identified a “major gap” in summer programs and services for young people age 13 to 18, which this program can help fill.

In a memo describing the “My City, Your City, Our City” program and a possible source of the $200,000 needed to fund the program, Mr. Ogbo said the program will provide summer activities for youth suffering emotional and psychological stress from social isolation and other factors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is almost that amount – $196,496, specifically – remaining in the more than $1.5 million the City received in CARES Act funding to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus.

Summer activities will include weekday evening recreation at four community centers; community building and violence prevention events on Saturdays; and community- building and violence-prevention events on the first Friday of each month. The first-Friday events will start in June and culminate in a back-to-school event to usher youth safely back to school for the fall, Mr. Ogbo said.

Violence Exacerbated by the Pandemic

The memo referred to a streak of violence in March of this year, when two youths were killed and another seriously wounded. “Community violence is increasing,” he wrote, “subjecting our youth in particular to emotional and psychological distress and physical danger.”

Mr. Ogbo acknowledged that the City had in past years undertaken several initiatives to address youth violence but said in his memo, “a collective response will be more important this year, as violence in our community has been heightened by the COVID19 pandemic.

“Studies from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have shown that youth are particularly vulnerable to the disruptions the COVID-19 pandemic has caused.

“Youth have been left behind in education, economic opportunities, and recreational activities during a crucial stage of their life development. These challenges have increased risk factors associated with crime, violence, and drug use and are accentuated by confinement and restrictive measures, leading to poor mental health and well-being as well as loss of social and community engagement,” Mr. Ogbo’s memo said.

On May 13, the Cook County Board unanimously approved a resolution declaring gun violence a public health crisis.

On May 17, New York Times columnist Charles Blow cited a report by Everytown for Gun Safety that said, “Record increases in gun sales, children homebound like never before, social isolation and economic struggles due to COVID-19 put many people at risk for gun violence.”

Mr. Ogbo’s memo also cited five strategies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce youth violence, which are incorporated into this program:

  • Promote family environments that support healthy development;
  •  Strengthen youth’s skills;
  • Connect youth to caring adults and activities;
  • Create protective community environments; and
  • Intervene to reduce harms and prevent future risk.

In addition to the two City departments, several community organizations have signed on to the initiative. They are Connections for the Homeless; Curt’s Café, Erie Family Healthcare, Infant Welfare Society of Evanston, James B Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, PEER Services, Youth and Opportunity United (Y.O.U.), and Youth Job Center (Y.J.C.).

Extended Community Center Hours

The following community centers will be open from 6 to 9 p.m. for the “My City, Your City, Our City” programs:

  • Robert Crown Community Center, 1810 Main St., Mondays
  • Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, 1655 Foster St., Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays
  • Levy Senior Center and Mason Park, with kayaking and canoeing at the lakefront, alternate Fridays.

Block Club Efforts

The City is also soliciting the support of block clubs to hold block parties and First Friday events in neighborhood parks.

Saturday events through BLOCK (Bringing Love to Our City and Kids) will be held from 2 to 7 p.m. June 5 through Aug. 14.

City staff and partners will work with community stakeholders, including active block clubs in the Fifth, Second, Eighth, and Ninth Wards to plan and implement neighborhood events, specifically in areas with a higher propensity for youth violence.

The City will work with community partners and residents to help organize new block clubs or resurrect dormant ones. All available food resources in the City of Evanston – such as the pop-up pantry at Family Focus on the first and third Saturdays of the month – and surrounding areas will be promoted at these BLOCK events.

First Friday/Back to School Community Building Events

First Friday activities, scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m., will be similar to Community Building BLOCK Events, Mr. Ogbo’s memo said, but they will be on a larger scale and will be open to the entire Evanston community.

The dates and locations for the First Friday events are:

• June 4, Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center

• July 2, Mason Park Community Center  

• Aug. 6, Kamen Park Community Center  

• Aug. 13, Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center (Back-to-School)

Activities for the Back-to-School Community Building Event will focus on making sure that youth are prepared physically and emotionally to return safely to school after a long hiatus from in-person/face-to-face instruction, Mr. Ogbo’s memo said.