“We are committed to providing a safe and supportive environment where we let youth be themselves without judgment or fear of failure,” says Jesse. “If a young person is engaged in our programs, we’re giving them a chance to avoid youth gun violence by allowing them the opportunity to control, change, and plan their trajectories to be successful adults.”
Jesse Chatz isn’t your cookie-cutter activist. He’s not intense and outspoken, nor is he leading passionate rallies in the streets. But the projects Jesse quietly organizes every day have the potential to affect hundreds of young people in a community struggling with inequity and gun violence.
Jesse is the Manager of Outreach and Recruitment for the McGaw YMCA - Evanston's youth services, where his two main projects are McGaw YMCA Camp Echo and the MetaMedia lab. He is also an ambitious go-getter, but you’d never tell from his relaxed demeanor. Besides his managerial job, Jesse is completing his bachelors degree in Human Services and mentoring a young man from one of his programs.
Camp Echo is a residential overnight program that offers camping trips for children in grades three to 12, as well as other leadership programming. MetaMedia is a free digital media lab open to all Evanston middle school students, including those who aren’t members of the YMCA. Here, children can work on STEM projects, such as building their own computer or 3D-printing their own phone case.
Two of the key goals of Camp Echo and MetaMedia are to establish partnerships with local organizations to subsidize participation costs, and to build relationships both within the program and within the larger Evanston community.
The working spaces reflect these ambitions: Camp Echo’s office is located inside a 12-foot-tall model log cabin, where the walls are covered in photos of smiling campers from past years; the MetaMedia lab is a brightly-painted open area with different working spaces, where students work under the inspirational words of Mike Hawkins, “Mentorship, at its core, is about love.” [Hawkins, better known as Brother Mike, was a Chicago poet, activist, mentor, and multimedia educator who died two years ago and who, at the time of his death was helping launch MetaMedia].
Both spaces were built in part with the donations from local organizations. Youth & Opportunity United and Northwestern University designed the MetaMedia lab in partnership with the YMCA, and both organizations frequently advise the center on its project.
Jesse says that he has always been acutely aware of his white male privilege. He recalls a childhood where opportunities he wanted to pursue, whether it be a better grade in math or a spot on the local basketball team, were almost always within reach. It’s this awareness that brought Jesse to the Y, and that pushes him to work harder to make the resources he had growing up available to children of all backgrounds in Evanston.
Jesse’s personal mission is to ensure that the Y is leveling the playing field of success for children of all backgrounds. To hang out at the Meta Media lab, for example, children don’t even need parental consent, just their contact information.
There are many opportunities for a wide range of children to engage in programming at the Y. At MetaMedia, Jesse says, “We get every type of child. Low-engaged, high-engaged, low-resource, high-resource.” For Jesse, providing kids with access to resources, financial aid and programs that nourish leadership development are the first steps to addressing racial and class inequality in Evanston. He believes that such programming and the accompanying sense of community they provide motivates children to apply these skills in their lives beyond the Y.
Jesse sees Evanston as a city poised to conquer its problems because it is so rich in resources. He points to the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, Y.O.U., and Family Focus, Evanston, as examples of centers making strides with their work.
One of his responsibilities as an outreach manager at the YMCA is to work towards a place of fine-tuned collaboration between the city’s different centers. In the past five years, Jesse says he has seen significant progress made towards this goal. He recognizes that many roadblocks still prevent young people from taking advantage of different opportunities. It's the job of every institution, Jesse says, to move toward a collaborative mindset that serves the entire community.
Jesse’s position allows him to see the effect of his projects on Evanston youth happen in real time. “It’s amazing to see kids who were apprehensive to try something new, or kids who were scared to step outside of their comfort zone really succeed once they put themselves out there,” Jesse says.
In addition to battling racial and class inequity in Evanston, Jesse sees the programs offered at the Y contributing to reducing youth gun violence in Evanston. “We are committed to providing a safe and supportive environment where we let youth be themselves without judgment or fear of failure,” says Jesse. “If a young person is engaged in our programs, we’re giving them a chance to avoid youth gun violence by allowing them the opportunity to control, change, and plan their trajectories to be successful adults.”
Although Evanston prides itself on diversity, Jesse still witnesses segregation, mostly due to the existence of strong sub-communities in the city. “People are so congregated in their own sub- communities that they often fail to understand their innate bias or privilege,” Jesse says. Jesse pointed to a local middle school he recently visited, where, during lunch, black students exclusively sat with black students, and white students exclusively sat with white students, by choice. It’s the lack of shared resources and experiences that drives these groups apart, he believes.
But it can’t just be the school district or another institution that puts the larger problems of inequity and youth gun violence on their back. “Everyone needs to come to the table and be action-oriented,” says Jesse. “There are so many stagnant programs and conversations, the city needs to see more action.”
These issues don’t just concern direct service workers like Jesse or the city’s administration. The best way to help as a member of the community is to get involved. Jesse encourages local residents to donate time or money to organizations like the YMCA. When the community invests in its youth, Jesse trusts that Evanston could better combat challenges with gun violence and racial and class inequity. “We need to tell organizations to keep pushing the buck. We need to support community organizations and change the status quo in Evanston. We can’t be satisfied with the way things are right now,” he says.
Morgan Smith is a Dear Evanston intern. She is a second-year student at Northwestern University studying Journalism, International Studies and Spanish.