Evanston's First Equity Coordinator: Patricia Efiom talks about her role and vision


"… a community where all individuals have access to the opportunities and resources necessary to satisfy their essential needs, advance their well-being, and achieve their full potential--and where all barriers and biases, institutional and individual, that limit access to those opportunities and resources have been eliminated."

-- Evanston’s draft equity statement

Meet Evanston’s first-ever Equity and Empowerment Coordinator, Reverend Patricia A. Efiom. In her position, Efiom is charged with advancing the City’s efforts to tackle persistent racism and exclusion in services, programs, and offerings to the residents of Evanston. The new coordinator is responsible for developing policies and promoting practices to ensure equity in everything from policing, to affordable housing, to libraries, parks, and economic development.

What exactly does “equity” mean? How is it different from “equality”?

The two are related, but EQUALITY assumes that all residents start at the same level and are entitled to the same level of City services. EQUITY, on the other hand, takes into account systems that have intentionally or unintentionally oppressed certain communities and placed them at a disadvantage. Equity refers to fairness and equality of outcomes—giving people access not to an amount measured in equal parts, but to what they NEED for a better quality of life.

As Equity Coordinator, Efiom will lead initiatives with City staff, alderpersons, and community partners to promote the equitable delivery of critical City and community services. The goal to integrate access thoughtfully for all people of Evanston--regardless of class, age, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, gender, gender identity, geographic location, physical abilities, etc.--presents challenges as well as opportunities to follow through on the community’s commitment to inclusion.

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How does one even begin to confront an impossibly large and complex issue, one that stretches so far back into our history as a city? We sat down with Rev. Efiom to find out.

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DE: What does it mean to you to be the first Equity and Empowerment Coordinator?

PE: I really believe that the city is taking seriously this charge, this concern that there are inequities that are stifling and hurting our community. And to be the first, well, I’m humbled by that. If I could have designed a trajectory, this would have been it—to come to a place where you’re starting something new, fresh. How do you bring in people who have been marginalized, to open the door so more voices can be heard? The people of Evanston have a real desire to be inclusive. How they go about that is the issue that we need to begin to attack. This is a good step forward by the City.

DE: You raised your family in Bloomington, Indiana. What brought you to Evanston?

PE: I was transferred here [to Ebenezer Ame Church Evanston] seven years ago. The church happens to be in the 5th Ward, which is how I ran up against some of the perceived issues of inequality. I was pastoring a people who were hurting, who were being dismissed. Fighting on their behalf, I began to understand some of the complexities of the Evanston community.

DE: What alerted you to the problems here?

PE: I had a woman at church who was taking her husband to the bank. She noticed a police car following her until she pulled into the bank parking lot. She went inside with her husband. A few minutes later, the police came in. They had a K9 dog with them, and they asked her who owned the car out front. She said she did.

They said, “Well, we need you to come with us because the doors of the car are open.” And she said, “No, I didn’t leave the doors of my car open.” But they took her outside, searched the car, and asked for her husband’s information. She was very intimidated. She called the police department to make a report but felt that they were directing her away from making a report.

DE: Were you surprised?

PE: I’m an African American woman who has lived in America all of my life, whose husband is from Nigeria, so we’ve experienced a lot of that. I wasn’t surprised, but I was wounded. I was wounded for our community, that we still have to experience these types of things. We have no voice. Where do I take this, where do I go with this?

DE: Your job is intended to bring change. Tell us about it.

PE: I report directly to [Evanston City Manager] Wally Bobkiewicz. The City is clear that there is systemic racism and that there are inequalities in the system. They spent about two years trying to get serious about these issues and figure out how to deal with them and came to the realization that we don’t know enough to be able to do this. They needed someone to hold them accountable.

The big question is where do we begin? And where I see this going is taking a little bit of time to listen. I come with my own agenda: I’m an African American woman, married to a first-generation African, with my own kids. And if I come in only with my agenda, it leaves out the voices of others.

So, I want to be sure that I’m listening to the voices that have been silenced, the voices that aren’t mine. We all have a story and we have to get to those stories so we can understand where we’re excluding voices. I see my job as facilitating the coming together of people to have these conversations. Not myself leading this or even the City leading this, but rather us working together as a community to figure out what we’re missing and what we need.

DE: You’ve said that this work is a natural fit for you. At what point in your life did you place yourself on this path?

PE: Well, I did not place myself on this path; life placed me on it simply by being African American, by being female, by having four children. I’m from Queens. We were living in Connecticut, and I went to Bloomington, Indiana, to study. It’s a predominantly white community. Very welcoming. However, inherently, there were some systems in place that limited my children’s access and as the only African Americans in their class, they were called on to speak on behalf of all African Americans.

I loved living in Bloomington, but we were the first everything there. I remember going to the post office, and a little blonde girl walked up to my daughter and said, “Oh my gosh” and put her hands in my daughter’s braids and said, “I know you Negroes do this a lot, but we’ve never seen it.” Honestly, I wished I could be mad at her, but a lot of this is simple ignorance. I want to live in this community, but I need you all to help me live in this community.

I’m not going to pick up and move. I’m not going to go to an all-black community. I like this community. It’s a wonderful place for my family to live, but we have to work this out.

DE: What in your background has prepared you to make the big changes that will be necessary?

PE: I would say my experiences with my own children, my experiences working with the Girl Scouts [1991–1994]. I then went to work for Indiana University [1994–2010] and worked in human resources. I was hired to be the HR Director, to establish a department [2000].

And there began a journey of building systems. My first Master’s degree from Indiana University is in what is called Instructional Systems Technology: training and development essentially. Standing back and looking at problems and putting systems in place to address them.

From there I was promoted to Associate Director of Administration [2003], where my work involved diversity and equity. Once again, there was nothing there. It can be overwhelming at first when you know there’s nothing and you have to build it. But I really depended on my systematic approach to things. Begin to look at the issues and how we can tackle them. The issues define themselves. People are hurting. People are wounded. Those people help give shape to what this should look like.

When I interviewed for this position