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Kevin Brown works to reduce youth violence in Evanston.

"We live in a very safe community, but my hope is that we can live in a community where homicides never occur. I believe our work is part of preventing violence and the cure for violence."

Kevin Brown is Evanston’s Community Services Manager and oversees the Youth and Young Adult Programs Division. Nina Kavin spoke with Kevin about how his work helps reduce violence in Evanston.

Kevin graduated from Northwestern University in 1985 with a degree in Political Science, and for a short time played football for the LA Rams. He received his law degree from Washington University in St. Louis, worked in the St. Louis City Attorney’s office, and then in admissions for several colleges and universities.

Kevin also served as a policy consultant for the California School Board’s Association before moving to Evanston.

Q: How long have you been managing the Youth and Young Adult Programs Division?

A: This is my fifth year. I moved to Evanston with my wife, who was born and raised in Evanston, who wanted to return to take care of her mother.

Q: What’s your role?

A: I oversee the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program and also our team of city outreach workers. We have a comprehensive outreach program founded upon the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention principles on outreach. I also manage other city workforce activities. I work with Northwestern University to identify Evanston residents who can participate in their construction projects and campus jobs.

I provide recruitment assistance and mentoring supports for the University’s skilled-trades program where they employ six Evanstonians every year to learn carpentry, painting, locksmithing and auto repair skills. I develop these kinds of programs and partnerships so that our residents can increase their employment and training options. I’ve worked with Oakton Community College, the Urban League of Chicago, the Youth Job Center (YJC), and the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy.

Q: How does your work relate to violence reduction in Evanston?

A: Most our activities are aimed at reducing violence in the city. At the genesis of violence, which is a public health issue, there are issues and deficits around health, mental health, housing, education, and employment, among others.

We have a team of six outreach workers. We identify medium- to high-risk young adults, 14- to 26-year-olds, who are known to either engage in violence or who could be drawn into it. We develop relationships with them, identify their needs, and connect them to community-based agencies that can address these needs. We’ve served about 700 youth since 2012. That number doesn't include young people who've benefited from the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. Not everyone we help has been affected by violence; we also help young people who are at-risk and just want an opportunity to succeed in life.

Q: Do you feel that the city has a big enough outreach team?

A: We’ve increased the program every year since 2012. Outreach is a very specialized job that requires a unique set of skills. It requires a lot of training and it takes time to ferret out people who are familiar with this particular community. That’s one thing that makes outreach effective—whether the people you’ve hired have connections and relationships with the population you’re trying to reach. I like the pace at which the program is growing.

Q: What successes have you had?

A: We have plenty of successes. With Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl’s support and the backing of the City Council and City Manager more than 1,000 summer jobs were created for young people the last two summers. This summer, we intend to employ 750 young people locally and at Six Flags Great America. The Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program has grown from 160 positions in 2012 to 750 in 2016. This has a major impact on violence reduction among young people.

We also have successes case-managing individuals. We have a jobs program with YJC, where we’ve seen more than a 60 percent placement rate for individuals into full-time positions who've retained those positions for at least 12 months. Our outreach workers identify young people and refer them to YJC, which takes them through a job-readiness program, and then helps them identify places where they think they’d like to work.

We've also helped individuals enroll in college and trade schools, assisted families with registering for the Affordable Care Act, helped individuals find safe housing, registered individuals into drug treatment centers, facilitated the expungement and sealing of criminal records, conducted violence interruption and peace initiatives, hosted recreational activities, and provided mentoring supports for students at districts 65 and 202.

Q: Do you think employment is the main deterrence to violence?

A: It’s a significant deterrence, but you have to look at decreasing violence comprehensively. That means thinking about housing, mental health, education, and addressing the life challenges people face. There is much trauma in communities that are experiencing violence. We have to get to the root of the trauma and anger if we're going to successfully reduce violence.

Q: What’s the secret to having successes?

A: To be an effective outreach worker, you have to understand street culture. You also have to understand the systems and structures that create and support systems that encourage anger and negativity. Most people want better lives and opportunities for themselves and their families. Outreach workers are skilled at assessing whether a person is ready for an opportunity. Our team works well with people who want to take full advantage of the opportunities that are being presented to them. We have a highly skilled outreach team that is passionate about their work.

We've also had great success because the City has strong and stable leadership. The Mayor and City Council have made the support of at-risk families a goal and city priority. Without the leadership and support of Evanston's policy makers and administrators, I don’t believe we would have made this level of progress so quickly.

Q: Do you work with youth who are engaged in criminal activity?

A: Yes. We develop a relationship with them. Our message is, I’m not shunning you; I’m not judging you. I’m in relationship with you. I’m here. When you're ready to leave that lifestyle, I’ll be here for you and we’ll start doing the things we know can help you. If you help someone who is still involved in criminality, you’re just enabling them. They have to be ready. We have to let them know: we want to help you; you can make it; we want to encourage you. If you’re ready to get help, I’m with you 1,000 percent.

Q: What about young men like Antonio Johnson and the two other young men who were shot and killed just in the past three months?

A: I want to offer my sincere condolences to the families of these young men. These are very sad cases. There are big and complex societal issues around systemic racism/white supremacy, juvenile incarceration, the proliferation of guns in African American communities, inadequate nutrition and healthcare, and the lack of equity in our education systems. These are some of the factors that negatively impact crime and violence in our community.

Q: How is it that so often the shooters aren’t found?

A: The question is, what is preventing people from telling what they know? Part of it is a mistrust of the police. Our police department is working to build better relationships so people feel more comfortable with them. It's an issue police departments across the country are working on.

People also have a fear of retaliation. There's a connection between the lack of prosecution and violence. If someone is murdered, and the perpetrator is brought to justice and goes through the criminal justice process, the violence ends. But when you don’t have convictions, people tend to pursue their own justice. And that's what fuels the continuation of it. That's why I supported Kim Foxx. I believe she will be a better state’s attorney for the City of Evanston.

Q: What’s your biggest challenge?

A: People who don’t understand that what we do is needed. We are one community and we are all connected.

Q: Do you worry about what’s going on in Chicago?

A: Sure. We border Chicago. There is a nexus that we have to be watchful for and do everything we can to prevent the devastation that’s going on in Chicago from coming to Evanston.

Q: What is the impact of your work?

A: Evanston is a great city. I love living here. I think we're building a better Evanston through this work. We're helping people take advantage of existing opportunities. I believe our entire community is benefitting from the work we do. We're seeing short term successes that are laying a foundation for greater successes in the future. We live in a very safe community, but my hope is that we can live in a community where homicides never occur. I believe our work is part of preventing violence and the cure for violence.

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