An overflow crowd packed the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center Tuesday night to brainstorm ways of preventing violence in Evanston after the shooting death of 14-year-old Dajae Coleman.
“We need to, each one of us, commit to doing something in this community,” said Mayor Tisdahl, who organized the meeting. “The kids are watching.”
Organizers said they set up 250 seats for attendees, but the crowd spilled into the entryway to the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center auditorium and over into the basketball courts nearby, where dozens of people sat on the floor or on the bleachers.
After words from the mayor, Ald. Delores Holmes (5th Ward), and other local officials, attendees met in small groups to discuss ideas for engaging kids ages 13 to 25 and for preventing violence. After an hour of animated conversation, they reported back to the group as a whole. Their suggestions ranged from simple, technical solutions, like adding more streetlights, to big ideas like the creation of new nonprofit organizations.
One Evanston Township High School sophomore said she would like to see a teen center created by and for teenagers. It should be a place where young people could make art projects or play sports, not simply do homework.
“Who knows what’s better for us than us?” she said.
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Another participant said she wanted to fill the empty buildings across from the high school on Church Street with local nonprofits like Y.O.U., Restorative Justice or the James B. Moran Center For Youth Advocacy, “so when you exit the high school, there is something for you to do right there.”
Many groups talked about the need for more mentors in Evanston, an idea that also came up at Monday night’s public conversation at the McGaw YMCA.
“I think we don’t have a strong mentor program in town,” said social worker Geri Helfand. Among those local organizations that do have mentor programs—like the Y—most have very long waiting lists, she said.
One idea for increasing the number of mentors is already underway, according to Kathy Lyons, senior staff attorney at the James B. Moran Center. Lyons said the Evanston Community Foundation had recently approved funding for a new umbrella organization called Evanston Mentors. The nonprofit will survey mentor programs in town to identify which organizations have them and put together a website directing volunteers to places they can mentor. It will also work to retain and recruit more volunteers, Lyons said.
“It lightens your load as a parent if you know your kid has someone to be there with them,” she said.
Other participants said jobs were just as important as programs for kids ages 18 to 25. Some said the city government should provide incentives for local businesses to hire Evanston youth, while others said the city could at least provide job training.
Listening to the youth task force she meets with regularly, Mayor Tisdahl said that jobs were a request she’d heard often heard from them directly.
“I offered midnight basketball,” she said. “They said, ‘We want jobs.’”
To that end, the city has just launched a pilot program called “Building Career Pathways to Sustainable Employment,” which will provide 15 low- and middle-income Evanston young adults with subsidized wages and job training from local employers.
From a nuts and bolts perspective, several groups talked about the need to improve transportation options for teenagers. Evanston Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons said that when the city expands services for young people and no one shows up, it’s often because they don’t have good transportation options.
“We need to expand transportation,” he said.
Improved transportation should include safe rides to and from parties, participants said—something that can easily be done on a volunteer basis among parents.
Many people also said police could do a better job of walking around problem areas, rather than driving the streets in cruisers. Local parent Karen Maxwell suggested “safety officers,” who would go out on the streets and get to know kids.
Speaking to Patch after the meeting, Mayor Tisdahl said she and city officials would gather the suggestions made to determine the major themes, then see which ones could be implemented. Tisdahl said she would also be meeting with students at the high school and her youth committee soon.
“I’m going to listen to the kids before we decide on any course of action,” she said.