Colette Allen: Keeping Her Focus on Children and Families
"When I was growing up here, doctors, lawyers, postmen, everybody lived here. We had those role models right here. These men and women were very involved in the community.
If they saw you doing something you weren't supposed to be doing, they’d say something. That’s gone away."
Colette Allen is the Center Director of Family Focus, Evanston, which was founded 40 years ago by Berenice Weissbourd, whom Colette describes as the “guru” of the family support movement. Fifth ward Alderman Dolores Holmes was the center’s first director. Today there are seven Family Focus centers in the Chicago area.
Evanston’s Family Focus programs are directed toward three areas: an early-childhood program for parents of kids 0-3; a youth development program providing after-school programing and summer camp for third- to eighth-graders (and this summer to K-2 students as well); and a Family Advocacy Center, a program of DCFS, that works with parents who are about to lose--or have lost--custody of their children for a variety of reasons, such as abuse, neglect, incarceration or drug abuse. The program helps parents get their children back through parent education, home visits, and court advocacy.
Colette is a second-generation Evanstonian, and was born and raised here. She came to Family Focus after almost eight years in fundraising at the Museum of Science and Industry. She has lived in Atlanta, Nashville, San Diego and Washington D.C. But, she says, “I love Evanston and Chicago. I wouldn’t trade living here.”
Nina Kavin spoke with Colette at Family Focus, located on Dewey Ave., right in the heart of the fifth ward. Here are some of her thoughts about youth violence in Evanston.
Q: How did your family come to Evanston?
A: My parents were born and raised here. My maternal grandparents were from South Carolina. My great-grandfather, Grandpa Crawford, was lynched in South Carolina. That’s why they left. My father’s side came here from Birmingham, Alabama. I don’t need to say more about that!
Q: Why do you think youth violence has increased in Evanston in recent years, and how can we reduce it?
A: I think violence is the result of loss of community. Unfortunately, there isn’t the same sense of community as there used to be, and that’s because every child in the fifth ward is bused or walks to a school outside of the community. I call them the “lost tribe.” For example, a few weekends ago, we did a STEM fest at Family Focus. The stipulation was that it was for fifth ward families only. As part of the fest we offered activities for middle school students that in the past have been done at the middle schools, and on a Saturday. How unfortunate for our kids. Since they are bused to these schools, it always meant parents from our neighborhoods would have to get them over there on a weekend. So what’s the chance of them participating? It’s the same for after-school programs: sure, kids can stay after school, but they have to wait for a bus to get back home.
When I was a kid, I was over here all the time for different activities. I could walk everywhere. There was the Emerson St. Y, Foster Center (now Fleetwood). There were things going on right here all the time. So we had a sense of community and a pride in community. We’ve lost so many institutions over the years, including Foster School [the only school in the fifth ward during segregation, which was attended exclusively by black children], and so often the school is the center of the community. We lost the fight to open a new fifth-ward school a number of years ago. Of course, integration was a good and necessary thing, but it left us always having to go to the white neighborhoods for schools and services. It took away the tightness of our community.
When I was growing up here, doctors, lawyers, postmen, everybody lived here. We had those role models right here. These men and women were very involved in the community. If they saw you doing something you weren't supposed to be doing, they’d say something. That’s gone away. After desegregation, a lot of people moved away. There are great things for kids now, FAAM and Jr. Wildkits, but not enough. I never had a lack of things to do when I was growing up.
There are other reasons too. Take the achievement gap. It’s not just in Evanston: assumptions are made everywhere about children based on their color or that they’re bused in. When I see how many kids are labeled Special Ed. in this district, well, that’s just nonsense!
Black kids are constantly told there’s something wrong with them. Added to that, they have no sense of community. So they find a group of people who say they’re okay and tell them that to be super okay you have to be against 'those guys over there.' I knew we were in trouble on January 29, when someone shot a gun right outside our baby nursery. That showed me how much some of our young men have lost respect and have no sense of community no sense of anything. They’re empty people. Because before—you would never do that. Never.
Q: What do you think can be done to turn things around?
A: I think employment is really important. I really praise Kevin Brown and what his team [Kevin is the Director of the City’s Youth and Young Adult division] is doing in terms of outreach and employment. We’ve got to give our young people alternatives and reignite that sense of community and pride.
Q: How do you see Family Focus’ role in turning things around?
A: I tried to get through the recent D65 report on achievement gap but I couldn’t. It was so depressing. Say what you want about Foster School, but every child who went to Foster school could read, write and do math, and do them well. So it’s not that our children can’t learn. I think we’ve had generations of busing kids out of their community. Those kids are now parents who had bad experiences at school, and so they’re not engaged. They don’t feel comfortable going to the school, advocating for their children.
I think Family Focus can help to close the achievement gap by providing strong enrichment programs to our young kids, support to parents from the very beginning, and also working with the schools. For example, I’ve suggested that D65 use our building for parent/teacher conferences and meetings, so that it’s convenient for our parents and they can feel comfortable attending, instead of having to go to the schools where their kids are bused. It’s okay for the other parents to come to Family Focus for a change. We also need to work with the schools to help parents learn to be better advocates for their children.
It’s also important for the community and the police to have a better relationship. There’s a program that I really love that Police Chief Eddington introduced to us. It's a middle-school curriculum developed by the National Black Police Association. It explains kids’ rights and responsibilities. Three Evanston officers did the curriculum here with our kids for six weeks. The kids really benefited from it. At our STEM fest, I asked for a few police officers to attend, just for police presence. And it was great to see so many of our kids running up to the officers, knowing them, and feeling comfortable with them.
Q: What’s the bottom line?
A: There’s not enough being done for our young men. They need it the most. Too often they are the shooters and the victims. We need to be doing more for them.