ECF's Monique Brunson Jones: On Gun Violence, Racial Equity, and Grant-Giving
"Providing those basic elements in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—basic needs, psychological needs, self-fulfillment needs—helps prevent the decision to perpetrate violence."
Monique Brunson Jones is President and CEO of the Evanston Community Foundation. For the past 30 years, ECF (evanstonforever.org) has collected and shared Evanston’s charitable resources and knowledge to address the city’s greatest challenges.
ECF’s total grants and fund distributions of approximately $1.2 million go to local organizations in support of a vibrant, inclusive, and just community.
Dear Evanston sat down with Jones one year into her tenure as the head of ECF for a wide-ranging conversation about youth gun violence, the factors that contribute to it, and her reactions to the election of Donald Trump.
DE: From your perspective as the head of ECF and someone with a background in the field of violence prevention, do you think Evanston has a problem with gun violence?
MBJ: Most definitely. It’s a problem in Evanston that we’ve lost two lives in one year. We should not lose a life to gun violence. We often compare ourselves against other communities to define if something is a problem for us, and that causes us to disengage. That’s not the way to do it. If we’ve lost a life to gun violence, it’s a problem.
DE: Why do young people resort to guns to solve their problems?
MBJ: There are several reasons, but we’ll talk about social determinants of health that build around families who choose alternative methods for surviving and thriving. Gun violence is one of those methods. From working directly with families in the juvenile justice system, in the DHS (Department of Human Services) system, the DCFS (Department of Children & Family Services), we understand that families resort to violence when there are no other options. We’re looking at an entire system of how families live, thrive, and survive—and then choose violence as an alternative method of solving problems.
DE: Some believe young people carry guns because it’s fun.
MBJ: Not true. You don’t understand all the elements that went into 1) a person feeling like they need a gun, 2) that person retrieving a gun, and 3) using it for a purpose that may be very sound in their mind, even if the rest of us think it’s bulls---. Even taking away that gun doesn’t change someone’s mindset on how to survive and thrive in this community. You feel like you’re in an environment where it’s every man for himself and you don’t trust the authority figures.
DE: What role does the Evanston Community Foundation have in addressing youth gun violence?
MBJ: You won’t see gun violence spelled out specifically in the grants that we make. We don’t separate violence into an issue area unless there is an organization that addresses it specifically in a request for funding. Over the 30-year history of ECF, we’ve provided almost $7 million in grants to organizations that address our full system of services.
In our minds, that does help mitigate and eliminate violence and gun violence. We help the Evanston Police Department with the gun-buyback program. We also think about how we engage citizens through Leadership Evanston to help them build up their leadership skills in order to address the issues in the community.
While we don’t measure peace as a success factor for the foundation, we do keep track of it. We use the data to guide how we make grants to the community and how we are informed about our next steps and what we do. We’re really trying to listen and be responsive. We are always open to hearing what is needed and directly putting funding into it.
If you want to eliminate violence, you want to increase our educational achievement. You want to increase our economic achievement. Our civil and social relations have to start by knowing that our community needs very different things to be in those spaces together.
While ECF doesn’t say we’re going to prevent violence and gun violence in this way, we do provide resources to organizations that do—and that put those goals at the forefront of their mission.
DE: How does race play into the issues of violence?
MBJ: Let me say how race relations play into ECF first. It’s no secret that I’m the only African American employed here. I’m the president and CEO and the only African American. We needed to look at racial equity within our own organization and how we function. It’s not just about who you see when you walk into this office, but it’s also about our policies and our practices and how we engage the community in helping us make really sound decisions moving forward.
I think it’s a no-brainer. Race relations are important. Building bridges is important. Understanding your fellow man and helping him feel valued is important. You can’t have a community divided by race to solve this problem. We have to have a community that celebrates our racial differences, our ethnic differences, our cultural differences. Once you find out what someone brings to the table that’s different from you, it’s such a celebratory space to bring everyone into that. I can’t say it will immediately change our lives, but it’s a start. It’s a start I see every day, and I like it. And Black folks aren’t immune from learning about other cultures. It’s not a one-way street.
DE: Do you think the racial segregation in Evanston contributes to the violence?
MBJ: I think it contributes to the misunderstanding of how to tackle that violence. We are a system, and we can’t address it in just one part of the entire community. We often want to go to a community that is experiencing the highest incidence of violence and say, “Here’s what you need to fix it. And we’re going to give you this. And it’s going to be done.” But you haven’t engaged our entire community in thinking about it.
So, we can’t solve the problem by instituting something from a community that is not experiencing violence into a community that is. We have to look at it holistically. Part of that is bringing in folks who are not experiencing violence to understand what it’s doing to us as a whole community.
What happens is a privileged person may be seen as the enemy instead of an ally. And that’s where we miss the mark: those communications and those relationships that say, “I know what I have. I know what my privilege is, and I don’t think anyone else should be less privileged than me. It’s not going to take away from me to have them have the things that helped me get where I am.” That’s a complete shift of mindset. We don’t want people of privilege to feel like the enemy.
DE: What needs to happen to promote peace, to eliminate gun violence in Evanston? What kind of framework is needed spiritually, emotionally, morally?
MBJ: The common denominator for people experiencing violence is a point of crisis. When I’ve been in therapy with families, when I have engaged with families who are in our DCFS system or foster care system, there is a feeling of no other option. There is a lack of community. They are in environments or communities that have been de-invested. The moral framework is that everyone in our society, everyone in our world deserves to live a safe, highly educated, economically inclined community in order to survive and thrive.
Promoting peace does not mean that there won’t be violence. Guns don’t appear in our society because there is a lack of peace. Guns create a lack of peace. So you have to create a space where guns are not necessary or available. I think people perpetuating street crime or interpersonal crime, as well as families that are affected by crime but unable to adequately respond or survive, will perpetuate further violence in our community. Providing those basic elements in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—basic needs, psychological needs, self-fulfillment needs—helps prevent the decision to perpetrate violence.
This is a community you’re going to stay in. You’re going to love. You’re going to raise your family. Get to know what’s around you.
DE: What do you say to concerned residents?
MBJ: I say be engaged. Know your neighbors. Know your community and know when that spark of violence is not from within. If someone who does not live in Evanston comes to Evanston and commits a crime, I want us to understand that there was a relationship somewhere that helped perpetrate that crime. It’s not easy, but be knowledgeable about your neighbors, engage your community, know what’s happening. That keeps you informed and teaches you how to be safe in those times.
DE: We’re a community of protesting people.
MBJ: We’re a community of protesting people. I believe in getting out there, and I want to know the people that I’m doing that with. Getting involved in community meetings with the police department are always helpful. Knowing your beat officers is always helpful.
DE: How is the Evanston Police Department doing?
MBJ: I think our police department is intelligent and uses data the way they should. They keep their eyes and ears to the ground. Evanston is 75,000 people in 8 square miles. It’s not Chicago. I think we have a good chance of knowing and hearing what’s going on in our entire community. The department does a good job of that.
DE: Do you think we have a chance of getting it right?
MBJ: I think we have a very good chance of getting it right. We have an excellent group of community members—from Dear Evanston to our social services agencies to our business community—that understand what they can do to help solve our violence problem.
DE: Now that you’ve been with ECF for a year, what do you appreciate most about working in Evanston?
I appreciate the people. I gravitate naturally toward positive people. And everyone I’ve run into, even people who have told me not-so-positive things about this job, want the end result to be positive. So I greatly appreciate that the most. It’s been refreshing.
DE: What do you like least?
MBJ: There’s a disdain or dislike for our surrounding community. And there is a disdain sometimes for the city of Chicago and the cities north of us. It’s like we live in a little bubble and don’t understand that we are a community regardless of where we are. We have to engage with surrounding folks. So that has disheartened me a little bit about working here. That was a little unexpected.
DE: During a strange and tumultuous campaign season, we found our nation swimming in a dark narrative of negativity and anger. It has sparked hate crimes and violence. Do you think it will affect violence here at home?
MJB: If there are policies that change our access to guns and that put our families at more of a disadvantage, I think so. Protests happen when the fabric of your community is threatened.
What we decided as a foundation was: we wait. I’m in a nonpartisan organization, and we wait to see the experiences of our partners in the community. In that waiting time, we rebuild our spirits. We think first how things will affect our families, so we know that’s secure. We can’t have people feeling threatened in their own homes and then coming to work for other people. Self-care. Regroup. Still have a little fire and anger. We can do this.
DE: What inspires you? What strengths do you draw on to address challenges?
MJB: There’s this little five-year-old named Brielle who inspires me. I wake up every day with a spark of energy ready to solve any problem she has. Usually the first problem is getting her daddy to make her pancakes for breakfast! What inspires me is the legacy that most of us will leave here. Do we want to leave this world the same way we found it? My answer is no. I’m 40 years old. When I’m 70, I don’t want to see this community the same way and leave it to my five-year-old to fix.
DE: What to you want to leave for Brielle?
I want her knowing that she, as a little black girl in this world, is valued and of value. That she’s valuable to the community and she has a voice, a space to create, and a space for everyone who’s here. I’m teaching her to be a world citizen. I want her to learn to be who she is no matter where she is in this world and what’s coming at her. And I want her to be strong, speaking her truth about life and what she thinks is morally right.