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 [Equity Coordinator], I saw that the City was very serious about wanting to do something. They said, “We don’t know what we want to do. We want you to do something, but we don’t want to direct you. We want you to help us sort all of this out.” That excited me.

I’m a really good cook. And what I love about cooking is that you take a bunch of ingredients that don’t necessarily go together. You spread them all over the counter, you begin to chop and cut and season, and you bring together this beautiful dish that is very satisfying to the palate. That kind of work, of taking all these miscellaneous pieces and various thoughts from people, capturing them, and putting them into some kind of systematic plan that we can all live with—that just excites me.

When I cook, everybody gets excited. “Oh, this is so good. Oh, that’s wonderful.” And that’s what I envision for the City of Evanston.

I envision all of us who have doubts, those of us who are fearful, those of us who think we’re just going to do what we always do, standing back and watching this thing flourish and blossom. And then watching our community benefit from that.

DE: Did your work as senior pastor at Ebenezer AME Church here in Evanston and at Greater St. James AME Church in Gary, Indiana, lead you to equity work?

PE: I don’t see it that way. The work that I started in Bloomington came out of my academic experiences. I was pastoring part-time and so feeding some of that back to the congregation. When I moved up here and took on full-time ministry, I recognized that that was for reason. If you take away the walls of the church, it’s just people. And we all have a desire. We want to be in community.

DE: What motivated you to be a pastor?

PE: That was an interesting journey. I was not of the church. My husband was Catholic, and I converted to Catholicism to marry him. We were 18 and 19, and we never went to church. A friend of ours invited us to an Easter program. We ended up joining. And about two months into it, someone noticed I was pregnant. I said, “Well, they tell us the baby has spina bifida, and they’re counseling us to abort. And we don’t know what to do.”

I had been to several doctors, and it was clear that the baby had spina bifida. If she lived through the pregnancy, she wouldn’t live very long outside the womb. But these people prayed, and they were praying things like, “God, give her a healthy baby. Get rid of the spina bifida. Bring healing.” My husband and I withdrew a little bit because it felt sort of like voodoo or black magic.

She was born perfectly healthy at 10 pounds 4 ounces.

You have this extreme academic person, okay? “I need to understand how when you all prayed for me, you think there’s a man sitting in the sky who heard your prayers.” And they said, “Well, yeah.”

And so that began my quest to understand who is this God? You know where He is? How do I get to Him? Does he really answer prayers? I went off to seminary because I needed to know, I needed to understand how this happened. The test results were very clear, and the doctors were very clear. And the doctors were very unclear when she was born. “We don’t know. This is unexplainable.” They used words like “miracle” and “things happen.”

That’s what led me into a relationship with God. I may be completely wrong about God. Maybe God doesn’t exist. But if it allows me to live a life of hope and therefore joy and to love you and other people because I believe in this God, there’s certainly no detriment to my belief. And I wanted other people to feel the hope that I felt. I believe we deserve hope. I believe that it’s hope that leads us to live for tomorrow. That’s how I ended up in the church and as a pastor.

DE: How does your religious faith inform your work with people who do not hold the same beliefs? Many Christians do not respect the LGBTQ community or a woman’s right to have an abortion.

PE: My faith calls me to love all people. I believe very strongly that God created humanity. And if you read the story in Genesis, He created us to be in community. God created this beautiful Garden of Eden with everything that we could possibly want, and then He set humanity down into it and said this is for you, multiply. My faith teaches me that all people are equal. And it breaks my heart that we have so divided each other. I have been torn apart from so much because of my blackness. I have been torn apart so much because of my womanhood, sometimes because of my motherhood.

I’m not going to give somebody a sermon or judge you. But my faith gives shape to who I am. It helps me stay grounded. It helps me remember that the person who walks in and wants to cut my head off still deserves my love. And that we’re all good.

DE: Why do we need an Equity and Empowerment Coordinator in Evanston?

PE: Because we’ve never had one. That’s number one. We have never systemically looked at issues of disparity. We make a lot of assumptions in communities, but where’s the data that tell us what we need to do differently? Who is holding us accountable for looking across the board?

When you have issues of police relationships and conversations on lack of trust, when you have violence in the 5th Ward that seems to affect only the 5th Ward, when you have an LGBTQ community that nobody seems to be voicing any concern for, where’s the head to all of this?

This came together for me when my church members were deeply affected by family members who were dying, family members who fell on both sides of the issue. A man showed up at our church one Sunday morning in 2012. He said there was a shooting, and a young man was killed Saturday night. It was Dajae Coleman.

We asked all the pastors to come to the church and speak with the young people. They were going to get the communities together and talk about this. It was the work that came out of those deaths [three homicides in 2012] that caused us to begin to work together toward something. But you have to have a center. You have to have a grounding and where is that grounding going to be? The city is the heart of what we are. I mean, they oversee our Parks and Rec Department, right? They oversee our streets. Let’s start at the head, and let’s attack the issue from the head down. For me, having that centralized voice that could collaborate and bring together other voices, it was a natural fit.

DE: Dear Evanston was started in 2016 out of a concern for young victims of gun violence [four homicides in 2013, one in 2014, three in 2015, two in 2016]. What have you learned that would be instructive to Dear Evanston readers about how we address gun violence in Evanston?

PE: I felt like I was running all over the place and never getting to a table where all of us were together. We were at a meeting at Second Baptist Evanston with Alderman Holmes of the 5th Ward. I remember one my colleagues stood up and said, “Chief Eddington, how do you suggest we deal with this?” And I said, “Stop. I don’t want Chief Eddington to tell me how to deal with it as a pastor. I want him to deal with it from the policing standpoint, but we, the faith community, have to decide how we’re going to deal with it.”

And pastors from the 5th Ward came together, and we founded Evanston Own It. And there began our journey to hit the streets with a collective impact. It was clear we could not get these families together to talk about the violence. But we all had them in our congregations. So if we could bring our congregations together in moments of fellowship, perhaps we would come to appreciate one another.

That first year we raised $18,000. We gave $13,500 to the Mayor’s Summer Youth Jobs Program. We’re coming into our third year now, and we’re about to do that again. It has allowed us to come together and say this is what we can do and this is how we can contribute. I felt empowered because I had a mechanism, a vehicle, an organization through which I could work out the stress and anxiety that come from dealing with this kind of violence.

DE: What do you think had greater impact, the fellowship or the jobs program? Or does it all go together?

DE: I was getting ready to say, I think it’s the working together, the fellowship that allowed us to reach out to the youth. It allowed us to be able to say from our pulpits, “Listen, we want you young people involved.” Often, they didn’t know the Jobs Program existed. It allowed us to go to City Hall. It allowed us to enter into a space where we had not been before. And it allowed us to bring our children and our membership and say we have a right to this because we own this. That’s what it was about: we have to own this.

It allowed us to come together last year when there was a shooting. We were all together in a worship service. The police were there. The alderman was there. A young man was shot and killed [Benjamin “Bo” Mandujano-Bradford]. And when we announced it, the community gasped. But we gasped together. We wept in each others’ arms. We prayed for each other. We recognize that it’s not our job to go out on the streets. But being together to hold each other up in this moment of difficulty was such a beautiful experience. And you had people from all areas there. And the pastors standing together in unity and ministering to our community, it was just such a powerful moment.

I don’t think that a job that pays minimum wage is going to solve the issues. It’s not. But coming together to continue to talk about how we solve the issues can help determine what is valuable. Is the Mayor Summer Youth Program helping and, if not, then what are we hearing from the people who are using the program? What can we do differently? What can we do better? It’s all of it together, because it puts us in conversation with each other. And anything that does that is going to be successful.

DE: Conversation.

PE: We have the people of Evanston coming together. We have Evanston Own It. We have PeaceAble Cities: Evanston, and we have Dear Evanston. All of us in conversation with each other. And all of us then reaching out to others. That’s how I see this.

DE: How do we start to address equal access, fair and just solutions for all?

PE: By listening. We have folks out there who are addressing these issues. We have folks dealing with ADA [disability] issues. We have folks dealing with LGBTQ issues. We have folks dealing with homelessness. We have all those partners. How do we listen? How do we make sure they’re listening?

Obviously, I have some very personal thoughts about what needs to happen, but that’s from a very personal experience. And it would not be fair to bring that to this job, so it’s all about listening. It’s getting the word out that we’re going to have a series of listening experiences. We’ll publish that and get that out. And we’ll go out and we’ll listen.

The goal is to get enough people to come together to understand that our city is accountable. And we need to give them some direction. That direction comes from the grassroots. You have to give shape to this equity plan. A plan will hold us accountable—a plan we can go back to with benchmarks and metrics. I can’t write that plan because it would be Pat Efiom’s plan. I need our partners to come forward and engage in that conversation with me so we can present something that covers the entirety of the city.

DE: What can the City expect? Is there a timeline for the listening phase?

PE: If you look at the job description, it says the first three or four months. My hope is to be able to present something to the City Council in June, to have a draft of an equity plan.

DE: That’s fast.

PE: What we might find on this journey is that June is too fast. But having a June goal helps us to be accountable to something. You don’t want someone who’s going to sit here and a year later you still have nothing.

DE: Who are underrepresented in Evanston? When they ask, “Do you see me,” how do you answer?

PE: No, I can’t see everyone. And that’s part of the problem. Because of my womanhood, because of my Black status, I see the pain of that community. Because I just came off of a scooter, I can see some physical disability issues. But there are a lot of people and a lot of groups that I have no clue about. And those are the voices that I need to shake out of the trees. How do I open the door so that when they ask the question, “Does she see me?” and I say “no,” they can say, “Good, then I’ll call her.” That’s what we want.

DE: How do we get more people around the table?

PE: Let’s say you have five people at a table and it’s only a table for four. Somebody’s going to have to give up a seat if we’re really going to be just, if we’re going to be fair, somebody’s going to have to give up a seat or we’re going to have to decide to buy a larger table. Inequality cannot exist. And when it does, we cannot be the most livable city. We can’t, no matter what we say and no matter how much we close our eyes to what’s going on.

I really believe that the City made a bold statement by deciding to put this position in place. And now we have to live up to that statement.

DE: Is there a way to hold you accountable?

PE: Yes. And part of what we’re looking at in the equity plan is how do we put systems in place to allow voices to be heard? But then we want to track whether we listen to those voices and respond to them. And that’s going to be critical.

DE: Are you responsible for the way the police department operates in our city?

PE: Yes, I’m working with the police department. The idea is to form a civilian group to begin to look at and examine how civil complaints are received from the community. I hope to be involved with that, but to do some very specific work around a process for civilian review.

DE: What is the City’s vision of an equitable Evanston?

PE: In a perfect world, Evanston would be “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.”

That statement is the work the city has been doing over the course of the last two years. This is what I walked into and am free to reshape. But that says a lot right there. That, for me, creates an incredible challenge. Not only do we define it, now we’ve got to flesh that out with measurables. Those are pretty big goals.

DE: This is beautiful, but it’s tough out there. We have the highest level of foreclosures in the Black community in the North Shore. There’s a persistent educational achievement gap. There are very stark challenges. How do you keep from becoming overwhelmed?

PE: It has to be taken apart. I’ve been pondering. I’ve been chewing on it. When you take that definition and then you put that into a plan, that’s very different. The plan talks about where we’re going, how we’re going to eat this elephant one bite at a time.

Evanston Cradle to Career, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and Evanston Township High School, and so on are all partners in this. They’re all people who are struggling with the same issues. Connections for the Homeless deals with these issues, and so I’m not in it alone. There’s no way I could do it alone. We’re going to have to break this down. How do we measure this? What are we going to attack? What are going to be our priorities? What are our priorities? And how do we prioritize without oppressing?

DE: Now this is paradigm shifting. This is shifting a whole culture.

PE: Yes it is.

DE: There is going to be pushback. People fear losing power. How do you react to resistance?

PE: Part of why I do this work is because I am a mother and I had to deal with it. And I couldn’t stop as a mother and say there’s pushback. We’re talking about the lives of my children. So what I learned about my own personal style is that I do extremely well in those situations. I have had a good legacy of being able to build relationships across boundaries. And part of that is because it’s recognized that to give voice to one doesn’t take the voice away from another.

I have absolutely no problem with confrontation, and I think it’s necessary. I think that without confrontation you can’t turn over the tables. You can’t turn the game around. I believe in building partners that will help hold me accountable to ask, “Why are you backing down on this?” But then I think one of the keys is transparency so that folks on the outside know what’s going on in the inside. There will be accountability partners. That’s critical.

But pushback, see, pushback is good.

DE: Well, it’s not so beautiful though.

PE: I’m not willing to compromise. I know what it meant when I couldn’t sit at the table. I don’t ever want anybody to feel that way. The reality is not all this is going to turn out right. And I’m going to be pushed into some corners and up against some walls and it’s not going to all turn out right. And I’m going to make some mistakes and it’s not going to turn out all right, but it’s important that you have someone who’s committed to it. And who’s willing to stick with it and I’ve been through this over and over and over again.

Indiana University was a monster organization. And to tear down the walls in some of those places, did I do everything I set out to do? Absolutely not. Did I make some significant change, I did. And I believe I can do the same here.

DE: The Open Communities Evanston Justice Team is asking to establish an Evanston Citizens Equity Advisory Board to support you in developing and implementing a viable plan. What do you think about working with organizations like this?

PE: We’ve got to hear everybody. And so we have to partner with everybody. One of the concerns I have is, are we going to start limiting participation to only organizations? That’s where I become very uncomfortable because we need to hear all voices. Some of these groups are doing the ground work. They have the data we need. So we absolutely have to be in conversation with everyone. But it has to be a full conversation and not limited to those they pick and choose for you.

DE: What do you say to those who fear they will lose privilege in the equity equation?

PE: You’re right, you might lose in the equation. But your loss is really your gain because we gain so much more when we’re in community together. And when we’re figuring out solutions together. Some people are going to take their ball and go home. They’re going to quit. And perhaps that’s what this whole process is about. It is about weeding out and bringing in and recognizing that I can only offer you a better way. I can’t make you take it. And if your way is the only way, perhaps you don’t need to be part of this conversation.

DE: Is the new equity conversation a part of the old conversation around equal rights and affirmative action? Is this just rebranding an old struggle?

PE: I would say absolutely not. I think this is a much broader issue. I think because we have become so global, because we have become so complex, because we’ve been made aware of marginalized groups that we didn’t allow to exist in the past. It changes the conversation quite a bit. There are so many pieces to it. So it’s not rebranding it, it’s including it but also looking more globally.

DE: Some are going to say this is all about set asides.

PE: That was a problem. I mean the set asides. It frees the majority to say, “We gave them WIC. We gave them a welfare check. We gave them a street with their name on it.” It still kept us segregated. This is about bringing us together and being together in all that we do. I think that’s the major difference for me.

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