If there's a symbol that represents Evanston's The Officer and Gentlemen Academy, the necktie is it.
Which is why about 100 Evanston residents, parents, students, community leaders, and police and fire folks each placed a newly purchased necktie into a box on a table as they poured into the auditorium of the JEH building on a recent Saturday morning to kick off OGA's third year.
OGA, a much-admired organization that partners Evanston police officers with a cadre of 13 young Evanston men whom they mentor, has grown in leaps and bounds since Evanston Police Department Officer Adam Howard proposed the idea to former Police Chief Richard Eddington and then co-founded it with D65 principals Adrian Harries and Bryon Brady Harris three years ago.
"The necktie represents power," Officer Howard told me. "For the young Black boys in our program to wear a necktie is a commitment to excellence and respect for themselves and for others. We strive to encourage kids to step out of the box and focus on their goals, even at their young age. To think about the future. To visualize it."
Howard says that there are few opportunities for Black boys to be taught by Black men. "Throughout the country, there are very few male teachers and even fewer Black male teachers," he says. "It's inspiring for the young men to see other Black men like us, as teachers, in shirts and ties."
OGA's officers--detectives, school resource officers, foot patrol, and sergeants--volunteer their time twice a week to meet with a group of young Evanston men from 6th through 8th grade who attend Haven Middle School, Chute Middle School, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School, Bessie Rhodes Magnet School, or are freshmen at Evanston Township High School (ETHS).
"Serving and protecting our community is our duty, but mentoring our youth is our purpose," said Howard as he opened the event, which included introducing each young man and all the OGA officers to the audience; an oath read by Sgt. Ken Carter and recited by the young men; an inspirational keynote by Pastor Zollie Webb of Friendship Baptist Church; remarks by Evanston/Skokie School District 65 School Superintendent Paul Goren; and, at the end, an all-hands-on-deck tie-tying teach-in.
On Wednesdays they gather after school--all wearing dress shirts and ties (no sweats or tees for the young men, no uniforms for the officers)--at the police and fire department building on Emerson Street.
They spend two hours together watching and discussing motivational videos, doing homework, learning everything from financial literacy to etiquette, and confiding struggles to their mentors and getting advice. The officers keep on top of the gentlemen's grades and behavior at school, and parents/guardians and officers are in constant communication--so they each know if a student is having difficulty or so they can celebrate successes.
Lachisa Barton, who is an outreach worker in the City's Youth and Young Adult Division, joked that she was sold on the program for her son when she heard they had to wear ties on Wednesdays.
"I started tracking down officers to find out when they'd open the program at King Arts, because at the time it was only in two schools," she said.
Barton said what she appreciates most about the program is the relationship the officers have with the students and the discipline they help provide.
"As a parent, I can call them whenever I’m having issues. I let them know, hey, my son had a bad day at school. As you know, raising an African American son is hard these days, and I have three sons."
Every other Saturday there's an OGA field trip and more time to bond with each other in a less-structured environment (no ties!). The group has gone paint-balling, attended sports events and the annual car show, volunteered to serve meals to the hungry, and more.
Gabe Rosen, who's in eighth grade at Nichols, joined OGA in its first year after his mother and principal Harries suggested he participate.
Rosen said that though he was initially skeptical about OGA, he's developed a great relationship with Officer Howard and, he said, pretty much everyone to whom Howard has introduced him.
"The officers have taught me that they all care about us and want the best for all of us. We have serious conversations about serious topics like Laquan McDonald, and we also do fun activities," he said. "They’re just trying to prepare us for life, since it’s kind of a struggle for African American men."
Howard confirmed Rosen's comments.
"I'm not going to lie," Howard said. "We'll have some tough conversations. Laquan McDonald. Or they'll ask what happened with Lawrence Crosby," he said, referring to the highly publicized incident where EPD officers arrested a young Black man for "stealing" what turned out to be his own car.
Howard pointed out that this year several white officers have joined the original group of mentors. "We have to break through the barriers and build trust," he told me when I spoke to him after the program.
Howard thanked the community for its support. "For the donations, for the words of wisdom and encouragement, for the teachers who email to tell us our young men are wearing their shirts and ties in class. It's a wonderful feeling," he said.
Deputy Police Chief James Pickett emphasized that the officers who are involved in the program go above and beyond.
"We know the relationship between the police and the community is fractured. We can’t hide from that. But these officers are making an attempt—they’re not told to do this—they’re not trying to make the EPD look good, that’s not what this is about. This is real passion you see."
Pickett said that in his 27 years in the department he's seen too many young men die.
"I can’t tell you how many young men, I see them one day, and the next day they’re not here anymore," he said. "One death is a death too many. One person incarcerated is a person too many. This is a start. And I want you guys to understand that these guys really care about you."
Pastor Zollie Webb spoke about his childhood growing up in seven foster homes, separated from his seven younger siblings who were placed throughout DCFS. His message to the young men: "When you go home, look in the mirror, tell that person you see in the mirror, 'I can be the best that I can be.'"
"I grew up not really knowing that somebody cared," Pastor Webb said. "And to see these young men, and the police department and the school working together for them to be achievers, it makes me feel good to know that somebody cares about them."
Webb remembered a woman he met while he was in college who, he said, scrubbed floors for a living, but every month would send him "canned chicken, a wrinkled $5 bill, and some groceries in a box. If you have determination and you’ve got someone in your corner, you can make it," he told the young men. "And that’s my dream for you. I don’t care what the background—single parent, no parent--you can make it if you’re determined to do it."
OGA was Officer Howard's brainchild, and he spread his enthusiasm and commitment to fellow officers--Det. Mario Miller, Ervin De Leon, Ken Carter, Robert Robbins, and others -- who now work together on the organization. Tawana Sudduth, Georgia Martin, Karli Butler and others support the organization by fundraising, and providing administrative and programmatic support.
Howard pointed specifically to former Chief Eddington for believing in the program and supporting it from the get-go.
"We wouldn't be here if you didn't believe in us," he said.
On a personal note: having spent time in the classroom at and several OGA events, and having talked to the officers and the gentlemen in the program, I have to add that while the neckties symbolize power and respect, they have also come to represent the supportive village this program has fostered. These neck ties are ... the ties that bind.