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Emeric Mazibuko: A South African in Evanston

"No-one should feel satisfied just because his or her own child is okay. Everyone in Evanston should be aware that there are third-world conditions right here. There are lots of generous people who care about the wellbeing of our community and donate money to agencies such as ours.

But we also have to give more of ourselves in order to truly understand the needs of the community. Most importantly, to learn what it means to be an ally."

Emeric Mazibuko is an Outreach Case Manager with Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.) Raised in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Emeric moved to America 18 years ago, just four years after apartheid ended. Nina Kavin spoke to him about his work.

Q: How did you end up in Evanston?

A: My parents divorced when my brother and I were young, but had split custody. My father later married my stepmom whom he met in Israel, and they decided to settle in Evanston, where my stepmom was raising my two step-siblings. My wife Karen is an Evanstonian and we’re raising our eight-year-old son here.

Q: How did you become a youth worker?

A: I wasn’t a particularly good kid. I could have easily become marginalized. I was never satisfied with answers I got from adults and I always wanted to do things out of the box. I questioned and challenged authority. But I was a good student so I always hide behind that. I never thought I’d be doing this work.

The idea of working with young people terrified me, because I remembered how difficult I made things for grown ups. What I’ve learned is that young people are the smartest in society, but the process of growing and leaving behind childish ways is messy. They see the inconsistencies and contradictions between what adults do and say, and want nothing to do with it, so they rebel.

Q: What prevented you from becoming marginalized?

A: I grew up in a Port Elizabeth township under apartheid. There were lots of parameters, lots of fences around me. I had family, neighbors, community members who looked like me and held me accountable. We all knew the police weren’t looking out for us, would never look out for us, but we had an entire community. We lived in an oppressive society and understood that we were all oppressed because we were black. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” was our mantra. In our neighborhoods there were postal workers, doctors, teachers, janitors. There wasn’t a concentrated level of poverty. This was my saving grace. I was a kid who pushed against the fences, but our strong community kept me from falling apart so my bad choices weren’t as detrimental as a result.

When apartheid ended, the people with means could get out from under the yolk of segregation, leaving behind those who didn’t have the means; leaving a concentration of poverty. And with a concentration of poverty, comes a high level of crime and violence. I think this is what happened in a lot of American urban areas. The history of racial oppression, denial of equal access, housing and school discrimination and all sorts of social inequities connected to racism and greed have created this situation. And Evanston, a small city in the shadow of one of America’s top five most segregated cities, is not immune. It’s a conundrum. When desegregation happened, there were other things that weren’t paid attention to. It needed to be a more intentional process so people with fewer means weren’t left behind.

Q: What do you do as a youth worker?

A: I work with youth between 12 and 22 at ETHS and beyond. I’ve partnered with Curt's Cafe, the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, Youth Job Center, McGaw YMCA - Evanston , YWCA Evanston/North Shore, the City of Evanston, and different departments at ETHS.I serve the whole young person by forming a meaningful and genuine relationship. I assess the youth’s and family’s needs and connect them to Evanston's many resources.

At ETHS, I help identify youth who are falling through the cracks. Marginalized youth don't have a one-dimensional story; they don't exist in a vacuum. To serve youth better, we must see their entire context and not just for the few hours we have with them. As someone who works for a community-based agency, I partner with the school by filling in the blanks. It’s critical to keep in mind that the issues faced by the youth we serve did not begin in high school. From pre-school on, there are things we can do to minimize issues later in their lives. For example, we can begin by not labeling children as good or bad and working on their strengths instead of their perceived deficits.

Some of the youth I work with have very intense needs by the time they get to their later teen years, which makes sense if we look at the many obstacles they’ve overcome to get here. We have to appreciate their resiliency and not just be critical.

I work with mostly black and Latino youth, from the fifth ward to the south end. The common thread is their disadvantaged backgrounds. I’ve worked with families from Latin America and across the African diaspora right here in Evanston. It’s amazing how diverse this community is, but if we look at who is dying or getting arrested, it’s the disadvantaged black and Latino youth. It’s a systemic problem. Evanston’s diversity, like America, is a curse and a blessing. The history of racial segregation, racial inequality, and racial oppression serves as a background. It breaks my heart that in the six years I’ve worked at Y.O.U., 16 black youth between the ages of 14 and 25 have lost their lives to gun violence. These are all young men of color who grew up here. It’s sickening.

Q: Do you think we as a society can change this?

A: I think we can, but our inaction makes it difficult to believe we want to. I think there are things we can change within institutions, but some issues are so deeply ingrained it will be difficult.

We can start by looking at all kids as just that: kids. All teenagers make bad choices at some point in their lives. But these choices shouldn't have such dire consequences that they determine the rest of their lives. And for black and Latino youth there is not a lot of wiggle room. Even in their deaths, news coverage of shootings will use terms like “gang-related” or “gang-affiliated,” without telling the young man’s complete story, simplifying it so we can all go to sleep at night. It’s almost like saying there are times when it’s okay that a 14-year-old boy is murdered. But all of the young men we’ve lost to violence have stories and backgrounds, and the nobility of their spirits shouldn't be reduced to the bad choices they’ve made.

There are also subliminal messages that take shots at the psyche of black boys that violate their nobility. There are many things we can do to stem the violence: stop treating teenagers of color as potential criminals by ending the practice of stop-and-frisk; community policing, is another. There are a handful of Evanston police I know and work with because they participate in community life. The police must connect with the community they serve and protect so they’re not seen as an occupying force.

As a parent, I want the police to protect my son and the many young kids who live in Evanston. Because of the levels of trauma and re-traumatization of youth of color, trauma-informed care as a practice in youth services is also helpful. This includes schools and teachers, administrators, security and police officers. This would go a long way to show all our youth that they matter. As a society, we might be far from this, but I believe we can do it in Evanston.

Q: In your work, does it matter that you’re not from Evanston?

A: I wasn’t born here and I have an accent. In Evanston everyone knows each other, especially in the communities we serve. But I was welcomed with open arms. I learned that we are all humans and just want to be seen, treated, accepted and respected as human beings. I know I’m human because I see in you my own humanity. In South Africa, this is called Ubuntu. I want every youth, every family, to know that whoever they are, they have a right to be here. I want them to know, you’re amazing, and your conditions don’t change your dignity. I’m saying to them, come out from the shadows and join us.

Q: How can wealthier community members help change things?

A: No-one should feel satisfied just because his or her own child is okay. Everyone in Evanston should be aware that there are third-world conditions right here. There are lots of generous people who care about the wellbeing of our community and donate money to agencies such as ours. But we also have to give more of ourselves in order to truly understand the needs of the community. Most importantly, to learn what it means to be an ally.

We all need to pay attention to the fact that the academic achievement gap is still so wide, even as science tells us that talent is distributed randomly. Black and Latino youth are more likely to be stopped and frisked and arrested for drug possession, though research shows that youth across racial lines use drugs at the same rates. And the young men who've died from violence in the few years I’ve worked here have all been youth of color. Everyone must recognize some kids don’t have the same protection as others, and that’s everyone’s problem.

Q: Are you religious?

A: I'm Baha’i. My father became Baha’i in college and my mother in high school. My dad’s family was rooted in Christianity, so it was quite a rebellious thing for him to do. We grew up as the only Baha’i family among Christians.

Q: Do you have hope that things can change?

A: I am hopeful. I have to be, otherwise, what’s the point of my work? This is where my faith comes in. I hope I’ve affected lives, even in small ways. I see what I do as serving my community, rather than helping it. There is a difference: to “help” has a superior connotation. When you serve, you’re doing it for the sole purpose of doing it. Nothing makes you happier than the serving itself.

Every once in a while I hear from a young person I haven’t heard from in years. Recently, I got a call from a kid I worked with a long time ago. He said he thought of me and just wanted to say “Hi.” Any number of horrible things could have happened to him. But he was in college and grabbing coffee between classes. And he still had my number. I can’t describe how it felt to know I’d made a difference in his life and that he remembered me. I’ll hold on to that feeling for the rest of my life.

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