How Jeron Dorsey saved 2020 and kicked off 2021 on the best foot ever.
When Jeron Rock Dorsey was a kid, his mom nicknamed him "Rock." He thinks it's because he had a big head. Or maybe because his head was hard. He's not sure. Regardless, starting in fourth grade, Jeron's friends started calling him Rock too, and the name stuck.
Today, at 31, Dorsey is the program director at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center. He has two small children, three months to go till he receives his MA in Sports Management from Northwestern University, and is highly respected as a role model by many in the Evanston community. With firm determination he has made his way, weathered adversities along the road, and realizes that his nickname--once attributed to his big, hard head, is now more a tribute to his big, soft, but solid heart.
"Now it kind of symbolizes something different, you know, and people are making me realize that," he said when we chatted via Zoom this afternoon.
I've known Jeron for about three years, mostly because he's the person with whom I book the Fleetwood-Jourdain auditorium for our every-other-month Dear Evanston Racial Justice Book group, and he's there to set it up and respond to all our group's needs. Even through our fairly minimal contact, I've always sensed he was special.
But when I received an email from him on New Year's Eve telling me that he wanted to donate his entire $2,500 paycheck and a bunch of gift cards to the Jackson family, who a week earlier had lost their apartment and almost everything in it as a result of an early-morning fire, I knew he was a true mensch*.
Jeron had heard some details about the fire from an Evanston Police Department officer who was at the scene and who went into action to mobilize support for the family. But a few days later he read the whole story about Mayra and Latwian Jackson and their two young sons in the Dear Evanston newsletter.
"It actually brought me to tears," Jeron said.
I was so taken with Jeron's generosity that I posted about it on Facebook on January 1. To date, the post has been seen by 22,000 people, 'liked' almost 700 times, and shared 127 times.
"Well I definitely wasn't expecting that," Jeron, who isn't on Facebook, laughed.
I wanted to ask Jeron why he thought his action made such an impression on so many people and to find out what inspired him to such kindness. We talked about this ... and about a lot more.
DE: Why do you think your gesture captured people's hearts?
JD: I think the biggest thing is that people just don't expect that out of people anymore. When I initially decided to do it, I had no intentions on getting any recognition. It was truly from the bottom of my heart. But I think that when people show more of their true self, I think it inspires other people to do similar things. It doesn't have to be at that same level, it doesn't even have to be financially, but I think during this time it's super important and people are looking for inspiring things. We have to lean on one another.
DE: What was it particularly about this story that hit you?
JD: The biggest thing that hit me is I see myself in that story. I have two young children as well. It could have so easily been me in that same situation, and what really really hurt me about it was that this year has been such a tough year already.
And two days before one of the most joyful holidays of the year, something so tragic can happen. It really touched me deeply. I've always been a person that has a lot of compassion for other people. And I just could not ignore the fact that this family had lost literally everything.
When I read it, it made me very emotional. One reason being is because my aunt passed four years ago on New Year's Eve. She was preparing for a new family tradition. She wanted to do a New Year's Day breakfast. And so she's cleaning up her house prepared for all of us family to come. She had a severe heart attack and died, and she was only 38 years old at that time.
So I was emotional that day already. And it's common for me to check my email as soon as I wake up, and I'm like, 'Oh I haven't heard from Nina in a while. Let's see what this is about.' So, I read it and it just, man, it took me into a deeper state of emotion.
And then after that I just prayed about it, and I got all my guidance from God from there.
DE: That's a really sad story. It sounds like your emotions about the day and about the season are very wrapped up in that, and understanding tragedy, and having the empathy for somebody else's tragedy because of your own.
DE: You said in the letter to the Jackson family that you were born and raised in the 5th Ward.
JD: I actually live in Round Lake now. I haven't lived in Evanston for about 10 years, but I'm deeply rooted in that community, of course, by working there. I love the community. I grew up there. I see the kids running around--that was me.
DE: One of the things you said in the letter to the Jacksons was that you yourself had experienced being down.
JD: I grew up as not the most stable kid. We didn't grow up super wealthy. My dad died from renal failure when I was in eighth grade. I've experienced pain all my life. God has blessed me recently to overcome a lot of things, and I'm kind of living in my abundance right now. And I think that's truly testament to me getting closer to faith, and believing in something bigger than myself.
It has truly been a blessing. We know this family has sacrificed so much with this tragic event. And I asked myself, 'What can you sacrifice to make a difference in their life?' And my check was just the first thing that came to mind.
What really touched me about the Jackson family was that Black dad, because I see myself in him. I have not met this guy ever in my life. And, I mean, I felt like I've known him forever. Mayra told me that 'We're family now.' Man, as long as I'm alive I'm always going to be involved in that family's life.
DE: When you got my newsletter, it made you cry, and then when I got your email it made me cry!
One of the last times I saw you was in the summer in the parking lot at Church and Dodge at the Black Male Alliance rally. How do you see the state of the Black community in Evanston? How can the community, particularly the white community, support and help uplift the Black community?
JD: The Black Male Alliance was brought to me by Nathan Norman. He's been a good friend of mine for many, many years and Nathan and I have a lot of deep conversations about racial equity and we've grown to have more candid conversations about stuff that really matters.
Nathan came to me with this idea and I love to be a part of something like that. And as we started to plan for how we will move along, because we are just getting started on this alliance group, we decided our first phase would be the rally. And I was kind of nominated to speak there.
What I saw at that event that inspired me was how many white people actually showed up to that event, and supported our movement. And I think little things like that is what really matters--when we all can come together and agree to disagree but still work towards a common goal. I think that's beautiful, man. I mean, this is a long journey that we're traveling, and we can't do it alone.
So I think that is one of the most important things a white person can do to help support Black people in this community.
DE: This captured everybody's imagination because it was a fire, because it was right before Christmas, and because you really showed up. What are ways that people can show up every day?
JD: My motto has always been to push and build up others. Once you shift your mindset to know that what you do is not only about you and your family, I think that we as a whole will come out much better.
I am a giver at heart. I will give you my last. I like to see other people happy. And if that causes me to have to sacrifice a little bit, I'm okay with that. So I think if people start to shift their mindset and start to see that we can get much farther together than alone, I think the sky's the limit for us as humanity.
DE: Tell me what you do every day at work and how you live out those values through your job?
JD: I've been at Fleetwood for seven years, and it surprises a lot of people that it's is my first job ever in my life. I came there as a seasonal employee to run a summer Basketball League. It was an opportunity that was presented to me by one of my best friends. We were at his house one day and he's like, 'Hey, would you like to help me put together this basketball league?' and I'm like, 'Sure, let's do it.'
So he takes me to the facility. And we did the summer league, which was outstanding. Everybody in Evanston knows that every seat in that gym was filled.
It was an adult league and the league was built to reduce the violence that was going on in Evanston at that time, so it was like an at-risk league. All we wanted to do was get people off the street, to be in a safe environment, and try to minimize the stuff that could happen outside during this time. It was great experience.
And then when the summer was over, I'm like, 'I kind of like a job. You know, I've never had had a job before. I like working with the community that I'm from.' I probably had two weeks left on the seasonal job, so I kind of just start picking up brooms and mops and sweeping. I thought, 'Maybe if I do this, maybe I can stay.'
And that's exactly what happened. I did a fall league, and then I did about three or four leagues after that. Alando Massey was the weekend and evening coordinator at the time. He'd always been someone that I looked up to. So I started to sneak in his office a lot to see what he did day-to-day, ask some questions. I was curious to know, 'How did how did you get here?'
I give all glory to God for this: once Alando left, I was given his position. And then I was promoted four times, most recently about a year and a half ago, which is the current position that I hold. I do programming for seniors, adults, kids. Right now, we're doing an e-learning program where we have kids come every day and we work with them during their e-learning. And then we have leisure and recreational activities baked into that after the school day is over. We serve them breakfast, lunch and dinner.
DE: What made you leave Evanston?
JD: My mom had actually moved from Evanston first. I was still in Evanston with friends, still trying to be around Evanston, and I'm like, you know, I got to get back with my support system. We originally moved out to Waukegan, and we stayed here for a while. And then I decided I'd rather work one place and travel home some other place. I don't confuse work and home at all. That 50-minute drives allows me time to clear my thoughts from work, and when I get home I'm able to be a father and the strength of my family. And when I'm on the way to work I'm able to Leave the family and prepare to serve the community.
DE: And so it wasn't a matter of being priced out of Evanston? Because a lot of Black families have had to leave Evanston, because it's become so expensive.
JD: Absolutely, that was a no-brainer. Waukegan was much cheaper, and my mom has always been a single mom. Her and my dad co-parented when he was alive, but my mom's always been a single mom. So she had to make the move that was best for us in our family. I spent over half of my life in Evanston and I love the place, and maybe one day if I can afford to live in Evanston, I may come back, but my intention now is that I just like to live elsewhere and to work in Evanston.
DE: What do you think about the reparations initiative that started in Evanston last year? How do you feel that's going to benefit the Black community?
JD: I love the reparations initiative. I think Ald. Simmons did a great job getting that resolution passed. Based on the conversations that I've had and things that I've read, I think that it's going to do a very great job at allowing Black people opportunities that they never thought that they could have. And I think a lot of times Black people, particularly in Evanston, are accustomed to to what they've been used to. They don't know anything different or they think it's too hard to obtain.
I think that with a little support and a little guidance from this reparations fund a lot more people can become homeowners.
When I first became a homeowner in 2015, it was like the best thing in the world to me. You know, coming from renting other people's houses forever to finally have something that's yours and that gives you this sense of comfort. It makes you feel more part of the community, that I'm the owner here, I'm imbedded in this community. And if we can get more Black homeowners in Evanston, it will kind of start to inspire others--even without the reparations fund--that this is obtainable.
DE: I know you are at Northwestern or just graduated from Northwestern. What you are studying?
JD: I'm currently a grad student at Northwestern in my capstone class that starts next week, so I have about three months left before graduation. I'm studying sports administration. My goal has always been to work with kids who struggle to balance academics with sports. When I grew up, I was a pretty good football player at Evanston Township High School (ETHS) and I struggled a little bit with the balance of academics and sports. At that point I loved the sports. But the academics was second.
When I left high school, I went to college for about a year and a half. But I went too far from my support system. I went to Grambling State University in Louisiana and it was about 900 miles away from here. Me and my mom decided, we tried to make this work, but I just want to come back home. So I came back home and I kind of had a transition in my life where I tried to figure out where I was going. That took some time for me to figure out.
I explored a lot of different things, some things I should not have and some things I should. I was a kid trying to find his way with a mom that has very high expectations and with a very loving family, so it really was no excuse. You know, it was just me, maturing.
And then I was presented with the opportunity at Fleetwood-Jourdain, and then in 2015, my daughter was born. And that kind of changed everything. It's like you have someone looking up to you now, so I think about two weeks after she was born I was back in school.
My daughter just completely transformed my life.
I finished the rest of the three and a half years of my undergrad at Ashford University, an online university that's based in San Diego. With my busy schedule, I didn't have time to go into a classroom and do all of that. I graduated Magna cum Laude. I graduated in two different honor societies. From there I was like, man, I turned into this academic! Like, I needed it. And so I'm like, man, I have to go right to grad school! And that's what I did when I got accepted to Northwestern University.
And now I just recently had a son. He's eight months. And he just took me to a whole other level as far as faith and commitment and dedication. He's just took me to a whole 'nother level.
*mensch: yiddish for a person of integrity and honor.
Jeron told me that initially he didn't want to put out in public what he was doing for the Jackson family.
"My mom knows I hate attention, and she's like, you sure?" Jeron told me. "But I looked at it more as how could I inspire other people to sacrifice? I like to fly under the radar, but I just want to inspire other people who come from similar upbringings that there's no limit on what we can do you. Know that you just got to keep on pushing and believing in something bigger than yourself."