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Whether together or apart, Evanston natives Ron Whitmore and Laurice Bell radiate a shared energy of enthusiasm, honesty, attentiveness and virtue. It’s no surprise that their podcast Evanston Rules feels the same. The project was birthed by Bell, Whitmore and Michael DeVaul in the spring of 2020 and features hour-long intimate conversations with prominent Evanston families and leaders.
Phoebe Hoyt is only one of the dedicated listeners of Evanston Rules, and she’s lived in Milan, Italy, since graduating from Evanston Township High School in 1980. Still, her formative years were spent growing up in a family of six on Evanston’s Michigan Avenue. She gets back to her hometown only sporadically, but regardless, she’s always tuned into the duo’s discussions.
What keeps Hoyt tuning in from 4,000 miles away? “Oh, it’s definitely to understand, first of all, what I missed…It’s a mirror.”
Bell, Whitmore and DeVaul take Evanston very seriously. Evanston Rules stands at 26 episodes so far and features long, intriguing conversations with important local figures including 5th Ward City Council member Bobby Burns; Dino Robinson, founder of Shorefront Legacy Center; Nancy Glick, former ETHS student and current Director of Infectious Diseases at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago; and Hecky Powell, the legendary community leader and owner of “Hecky’s” barbeque restaurant. Powell’s interview on Evanston Rules was the last he gave before he died.
Hoyt describes the podcast as provocative in displaying people’s various honest experiences as Evanstonians, especially about matters of race. “I think we have this image of our city. That isn’t really what it was . . . I think we were oblivious. And it was convenient to be oblivious,” says Hoyt, referring to her perspective as a white resident.
The three founding members, Bell, (age 59) Whitmore (age 59) and DeVaul (age 60), have known one another since childhood, and they reconnect at reunions, weddings and funerals. The conversations that would soon end up on the podcast would get started whenever they reunited, and they wanted to share them with a wider audience.
“We started talking about just everything,” Bell said. “About race, about the schools, about education, about life, about how things had changed, about how they hadn’t changed. The good, the bad and the ugly.”
“But there were plenty of stories that we hadn’t heard,” she added. “And we wanted to be able to hear those stories.”
In May of 2021, DeVaul amicably departed from the joint venture, but Whitmore describes the departure as “the best kind of breakup.” DeVaul said that he loved being part of the podcast because it’s rooted in history. “I left it primarily because I’ve got a new job working with a bunch of folks to develop a new nonprofit called the Center for Common Ground.”
Bell and Whitmore’s pasts are as eclectic as their podcast conversations. Whitmore is a retired educator. He taught preschool and kindergarten in Evanston for 15 years before eventually running the Early Childhood and Education Department of Chicago Public Schools. Afterward, he landed a role as principal. “I got an opportunity to be a principal at this wonderful school called Smith Elementary School in Chicago,” Whitmore said. “I stayed there 16 years.” While there, the Evanston-raised educator turned it into the first International Baccalaureate school in the hood.
Bell calls herself the “jack-esse of all trades” because she’s always had a lot of interests, mostly trying to “make things better.” But aside from her inner call toward social action, she also spent the last 30 years living in Los Angeles as a director and producer of music videos, working with elites in the industry. “I really worked with Tupac, Digital Underground, NWA, Miles Davis, Selena… Will Downing,” Bell said. Through all of it, she raised two children, now 21 and 24, and visited her Evanston family often.
Bell says they were intentional about the podcast being “Black-driven,” not about other people narrating Black people’s stories. The two hosts bring their insight about the city and their genuine curiosity about other people to the show.
“We understand Evanston in a way from my perspective that is transparent and unafraid,” Whitmore said. “ I’m not trying to make white folk feel comfortable about being white in Evanston. Nor am I trying to make Black folk feel comfortable about being Black in Evanston. And I think that we do a good job of using what we know about Evanston to ask those difficult questions and get out some answers people may be surprised to hear.”
Evanston Rules is recorded via Zoom, with Bell handling the editing. The show has a theme song and at the end of each episode she edits in a piece that represents “our struggles, our joys [and] our pain.” She says that Whitmore knows everybody, so the two never have trouble getting people in the community to show up. “We drive down the street. What happens? Ron’s head is out the window, ‘Hey, hey, hey,’ he knows everybody.”
Bernie Foster has known the hosts since his junior high school days at Nichols Middle School. He appeared on the program in July 2020 to talk about coming of age in Evanston as the youngest of nine children. Foster grew up on Sherman and Crain “in the big house on the corner that used to be a gas station” and was one of the first students to attend Martin Luther King Jr. Laboratory school.
After working 21 years for ComEd he was hired at Northwestern. He soon ran a student employment program called “Safe Ride,” where most of his employees were lower-income students of color. As a long-time Evanstonian, he appreciates that Bell and Whitmore are trying to create an awareness of what it’s like growing up in the town. “Because I think a lot of people get different impressions based on where they are coming from,” Foster said. “To me, it was different because I felt like I was in this little protected bubble.”
The name for the podcast was inspired by a hashtag on social media (#EvanstonRules). While some might point out the “rah-rah” enthusiasm suggested by the phrase, it spoke to Bell and Whitmore of the unspoken “rules” that prevail in Evanston, which function to separate Evanstonians from one another. In the logo for the podcast, made by Kristen Mitchell, a worker at Thalia Hall, this idea is portrayed visually too. In the design, the letters in “Evanston” are rendered in blue, orange, green, red and purple to represent different colors for different L trains. The city name is divided into “Evan” and “ston” while the bolded word “RULES” divides the word in the middle.
“That word ‘rules’ that cuts through Evanston functions as that piece to separate, that shows the separation of our city,” Bell said. “The rules could be the L train; [they] could be the river; [they] could be McCormick; they could be Emerson; [they] could be any piece that delineates and separates Evanston from being one piece that’s cohesive.”
The two partners have also used the platform to raise tens of thousands of dollars for local initiatives. The first cause they chose to support was local Chef Q Ibraheem, who focused on providing more than 60,000 meals to 60 families during the pandemic. Evanston Rules raised $12,000 for her. They also raised $25,000 for Shorefront. “We put out something saying to people, ‘Hey, listen, if you have $5, If you have $10, If you have $25, please give what you can,’” Whitmore said.
Overall, they say the feedback has been great. “Rodney Williams said we have magic in a bottle,” Whitmore said, referencing the native Evanston and marketing and brand management executive who was interviewed on the show. He remembers talking to a friend over the phone, one he hasn’t spoken to in 40 years, who told Whitmore he listens to the podcast.
Hoyt says that the group is careful about getting people into the conversation. “Whites, Blacks, young, older . . . they’re paying attention, they want a little bit of everyone involved in the conversation,” Hoyt said.
Bell and Whitmore say they don’t have a favorite episode – every story is critical to the conversation about Evanston, and they feel lucky to share local stories. “It’s the ability to be part of the stories and the history,” Bell said. “I feel like we’ve been given a gift every single time I talk to someone; I don’t feel like we’re doing anything for anyone. I feel like they’re doing something for me.”