You might have heard of Evanston Own It (EOI) through its annual 100-piece choir concert called Evanston Sings, but the Christian organization also works to strengthen the local Black community in a variety of ways throughout the year. Run entirely by Black Evanston clergy, EOI has steadily increased its impact since its founding in 2015. Over the past five years, EOI has raised over $50,000 through fundraisers and donates the majority of those funds to the Mayor’s Summer Youth and Employment Program.
Evanston Sings is their most popular fundraiser and contributes the most to EOI’s yearly funds. It is hosted in the Evanston Township High School auditorium and the event quickly became a ticketed event attended by hundreds. The profits have “really changed the trajectory of our organization and what we were able to do fiscally,” said Pastor Monte Dillard, tenured chair of EOI and senior pastor at First Church of God Christian Life Center for the last 11 years. The church has served the Evanston community for 111 years.
A string of gun violence in 2014, in which several young people in the Second and Fifth Wards were murdered, became the impetus for EOI. In response, former City Council member Delores Holmes put out “the initial rallying cry” for Black Evanston clergy to come together and think of a community solution.
“And we just thought we’d get together and begin building efforts that would help to alleviate some of these issues and to become more proactive,” Pastor Dillard said.
He said that Holmes proposed the name “Evanston Own It,” because it “essentially refers to the plan that we are going to own our community. We’re going to own its victories and its vicissitudes. And we’re gonna do something about the challenges that we see.”
The group determined that they would create “something systemic, sustainable and highly effective” to combat youth violence. Specifically, they preferred to make contributions that would prevent catastrophes from happening in the first place.
The group settled on hosting events to raise money specifically for hiring more youth.
“The goal was that it is likely the kids who have nothing to do were more likely to get into trouble,” Pastor Dillard said. “So if we can make a donation that hires a few more of them, more than [the city] would have been able to based on their budget, then we feel like we made a contribution to likely keep somebody out of trouble and into productivity, which also got them paid.”
The group additionally donates a small portion of its funds to The Officer and Gentleman Academy, a program created by some officers from the Evanston Police Department and spearheaded by Officer Adam Howard.
City partnership and events
Evanston Own It is well supported by the City of Evanston. EOI’s bylaws assert that they are a Christian organization that partners with other community organizations for administrative support, and their local partnerships are crucial.
For example, because Evanston Own it was created as a response to intracommunity violence, the Evanston Police Department also attends EOI’s biweekly Monday morning meetings to update the clergy on any new challenges and to answer any questions that might arise.
The city also offers administrative support in staging events. Pastor Dillard gave the example of a Father’s Day 2020 Evanston Own It event, where men and their sons marched from First Church of God Christian Life Center, toured a few historic Black churches and ended the walk at Friendship Baptist Church. The city directed Evanston Own It to people they needed to talk to at the Parks and Recreation Department, which permits they would need and which streets should be blocked.
“It’s all normal stuff that any organization has to do, [but] because oftentimes people don’t know what to do, we’re kind of given direction on it,” said Pastor Dillard.
EOI’s partnership with the city is what allowed them to use the ETHS auditorium for their yearly Evanston Sings It event. Other major annual events its sponsors include Passion Week – services on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – that First Church hosts leading up to Resurrection Sunday, also known as Easter. EOI also hosts several other events throughout the year.
Impact through clergy camaraderie
In terms of EOI’s impact on the local community, one thing that Pastor Dillard is particularly proud of is the camaraderie between the clergy, and the level of unity they’ve been able to accomplish working together, “because that’s not automatic in a community.” There are 16 churches that participate regularly in meetings, and all but one is active.
“One of the things that is really primary and important for us is that we be an organization that absolutely and tremendously represents the love of Christ,” Pastor Dillard said. “First and foremost, we want to be seen as a partner to our community to be able to help accomplish many of the tasks that require partnership, and we want to be seen as a proactive entity – individuals who are working to prevent certain [tragedies] from happening.”