The Moran Center for Youth Advocacy’s gala Thursday night demanded that its audience stay outraged about the school-to-prison pipeline that incarcerates so many of America’s youth.

Diversion programs – which keep youth out of the juvenile justice system and instead address infractions by turning to a school principal or other nonjudicial option – are vastly underutilized by U.S. courts, and white youths are diverted at a far higher percentage than Black youths, said Betsy Lehman, chair of the Moran Center board.

Rep. Maxine Waters ( D-California) was honored with the Moran Center’s Lighthouse Legacy Award at the center’s gala Thursday, Sept. 8 at the Ignite Gaming Lounge in Skokie. Credit: Genie Lemieux/Evanston Photographic Studios

The center, a nonprofit that advocates and provides social services for low-income youth and their families, is based at the corner of Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue. It was founded in 1981 as the Evanston Community Defender Office and renamed in honor of co-founder James B. Moran in 2010.

Lately it’s been busy: Last year, the center served 1,100 clients and handled 1,321 cases. There are 360 homeless students in Evanston, according to the center. And in the past year, it had a 46% increase in both clients and cases. 

“The need is there, and it is growing,” Lehman said.

The theme of this year’s edition of the annual gala was “Justice Heals.” The event at the Ignite Gaming Lounge in Skokie featured testimonies from people who directly benefited from the center’s intervention and support.

Nonprofit leader Michael DeVaul, an Evanston native who today is the YMCA’s National Director for Boys and Young Men of Color, shared that the Moran Center once paid more than $1,000 to have his juvenile record expunged, which opened career pathways for him.

“My parents gave me the life preserver, but they recruited others to tie a rope on that life preserver, because they knew I would face more challenges downstream,” DeVaul said. “So I had a whole community of people who helped me get through my time, but it was the Moran Center that was the catalyst for me.”

Justice for youth was also the focus of the speech by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the recipient of this year’s Lighthouse Legacy Award. In previous years, the Moran Center has honored Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Attorney General Eric Holder with the award.

Waters, 84, was recognized for her commitment to marginalized youth and their families. Throughout the pandemic, she has fought to prevent evictions and foreclosures of American families.

“As I read about the Moran Center, I thought to myself that there should be a Moran Center in every state and city in the United States,” Waters told the audience.

Waters took on the center’s call for action and spoke directly to Rep. Jan Schakowsky, (D-Ill.) and said that despite their congressional workload, they should work together to advocate for bills that support youth as the Moran Center does. 

“All children, all young people, deserve a chance, even a second chance,” Waters said.

In many ways low-income youth and youth of color, especially Black children, are abused by the justice system, Waters said, citing the case of the Central Park Five in the early ’90s, when Black children were coerced by New York City police to confess to a crime they didn’t commit. 

“Our children are oftentimes in the unfortunate position of having been born into poverty; having been born into dysfunctional families; having been born in ways that if we don’t intercede – they will never be successful; they will end up in prison; they will end up dead,” Waters warned. “I’ve seen it over and over again. Moran, thank you for what you’re doing.”

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....