"One of the most difficult things is going to funerals, especially when you've worked with the person ... every time there's a shooting or homicide the bad tends to eclipse the good things that have been put in place."
Nathan Norman grew up in Evanston. At 32, he's the Supervisor of the Youth and Young Adult Outreach team with the City of Evanston. He spends 80 percent of his time in Evanston’s neighborhoods working with disengaged youth. He is an ex-offender.
DE: What do you do?
NN: I interact with young men in the community every day. I spend time with them in the community centers, I tell them about opportunities that are available to help them change their lives and develop. I engage with community partners to connect young men and women with resources like programs, jobs and support. I work with them to find and prepare for job interviews. I attend court with them, I advocate for them, and I connect them with the Moran Center. I’m passionate about this work. I want to make Evanston even more peaceful and livable than it already is. I’m really intentional about that.
DE: What makes you good at your job?
NN: I have a unique approach because I experienced a lot of the same situations as the young men I work with. So when I speak with them, I speak from experience, not from out of a book. I was in a street gang from a young age. I was involved in violence. I sold drugs. I had to fend for myself on the streets. My mom was on drugs and I had no sense of family and no stability or structure at home. So I looked to the streets and older gang members for direction. I got my support, friendship, and family from the streets and the gang structure.
DE: Tell me about your childhood.
NN: When I was eight, my dad took me to live with him. I lived with him till I was 12. He was a religious man and took me to church every week. That’s when I discovered a relationship with God. I began to miss my mother very much and I wanted to go back and live with her. After a while of acting out, my dad relented and sent me back to my mother. I stopped going to church and I lost my sense of direction. I put my relationship with God on the back burner. I ran wild and only went to school on and off. At 12, I was sent to juvy hall. Even though it was a bad time, it was a good experience for me, I learned discipline. I learned to appreciate my freedom. I had more solitary time and I found God again.
DE: What happened after that?
NN: When I got out, I had nothing. I had no hope, but I wanted to live better. I began to learn how to sell drugs because I had to get food and feed my family. I was the oldest of eight siblings. After a time, I went to live with a friend. He had a stable home and I started going to school every day. I was still selling drugs and involved in a gang, but my friend's grandmother didn’t know that. All through high school, selling drugs continued to be a part of my lifestyle. I graduated from high school and kept selling drugs. I started making a lot of money. I grew up with nothing so I wanted whatever I could get. I wanted the things that I previously couldn't afford. Selling drugs quickly evolved from a need to a lifestyle for me. Eventually I was arrested for manufacturing and delivering 100g to 400g of cocaine. I did three straight years in the Illinois Department of Corrections.
DE: So how did you end up here?
NN: When I got out of prison, I came home to Evanston, but this time something in me had changed. I had more time to reflect on myself and grow closer with God and He had put something in my heart and I believed Him. One night, I prayed to God and asked Him if He would give me something to replace my lifestyle, I would gravitate towards it. By the grace of God, I met Mr. Brown [Kevin Brown, J.D., Youth and Young Adult Program Manager] and he believed that I could do this job. It's been five years since I got out of prison and four years since I've been working in this capacity in the Youth and Young Adult Division.
DE: How have things changed since you were younger?
NN: When I was growing up, the goal for youth in gangs was to get fast money but you still had to attend school. The gangs were structured that way. In contrast, today, youth are more fascinated with violence, like getting guns and committing acts of violence. In the 80s, the last of the gang chiefs were locked up and that left gangs fragmented and in chaos. By 1998, that was the last of the structure. Today, there aren’t cohesive gangs. Everyone’s out for themselves and there are cliques. Back then, if you wanted a gun, you had to ask your gang leader for one. Today, anyone can get a gun.
DE: Do you think Evanston has enough resources for disengaged youth?
NN: Evanston has a wealth of resources for its youth. The problem is that many youth simply either don’t know about the resources that are available to them or don’t take advantage of them most of the time. Evanston has the YYA Division, YMCA, Family Focus Y.O.U., Curt's Cafe, and the Moran Center, amongst others. I believe the problem some have is they don't take advantage because they're too busy emulating the wrong things out there for example rap music, rap videos, things that aren't reality. Things like that, coupled with drug use and mental illness, is why we see so many acts of random violence in our community. The advantage that I have and that our staff has, is that we have credibility in our community. I was born and raised here. People remember me from back then when I dealt drugs and when I went to prison and that I changed my life around. I believe when they see this positive example it gives them something tangible that they can look forward to. They think, “well, if he can do it, maybe I can do it too."
DE: What's rewarding about your job?
NN: Everything! The reason I say this is because it's always rewarding to watch a young man turn his life around. Our staff attended a client's graduation last week and it's truly a blessing to see a young man who was on the wrong path who is now leading a more successful life. I had another client who spent eight years in the penitentiary who wanted change in his life. We were able to help him receive gainful employment. His life too has been changed for the better and he is living a more stable lifestyle now that he has a living-wage job. The Youth and Young Adult Division has helped six young men participate in a Northwestern University apprentice program where they make $18/hour and have benefits. It’s rewarding to help people out of a negative situation and help them transform their lives.
DE: What’s challenging about your job?
NN: One of the most difficult things is going to funerals, especially when you've worked with the person. Challenges are always out there because there's a lot of good being done, but every time there's a shooting or homicide the bad tends to eclipse the good things that have been put in place. Another challenge is when my patience is stretched to its limit when I see youth with the capacity to change and not wanting to do so.
DE: If you could could do one thing to contribute to reducing violence in Evanston, what would it be?
NN: I would like to see improvement in the relationship between the community and the police department and also to prevent youth from getting illegal guns.
If you know a young person who could use some support, please reach out to the city's 311 number and they will put you in touch with Nathan Norman.