“Everybody loved Dajae,” said Tiffany Rice, mother of Dajae Coleman, as she sat opposite me on an unseasonably warm and sunny afternoon at Curt's Cafe South last week.
I had arrived early. I was anxious. I had never met Tiffany. And until last week, I had never sat face-to-face over a cup of coffee and a tuna sandwich to ask a fellow ETHS mother how she felt when she got the news that her son had been shot and killed near our children’s school. Would I cry? Would she? Would my questions hurt or offend her? I have two teenagers—a current sophomore at ETHS and a 2015 graduate. I couldn't help but try to picture how I would feel if I were on Tiffany’s side of the cafe table.
But as new and uncomfortable as this experience was to me, it is something Tiffany has done many times over the past three and a half years. Turning her son’s short life and violent death into something positive for Evanston’s youth—for the whole community—is Tiffany’s singular mission, and talking to anyone who asks about what happened to Dajae, and why, is one of the things she’ll do tirelessly toward that end.
Tiffany grew up in Evanston. She attended Lincolnwood, Haven and ETHS. Her whole family—her parents, two brothers and two sisters all live in Evanston. She has a 10-year-old daughter, Savannah. She’s committed to Evanston, and to the future of all it’s young people.
Shortly after Dajae’s death, Tiffany founded the Dajae Coleman Foundation (DC3F), whose mission is “to uplift, encourage, empower and reward our youth.” She also sits on the boards of COPE (Caring Outreach by Parents in Evanston) and Peacable Cities, whose mission is to "stimulate, coordinate, and support the efforts of all in our community who strive to promote respect and prevent violence.”
As almost every Evanstonian knows, Dajae was leaving a party with a group of friends at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 22, 2012, when he was shot in the back by 20-year-old Wesley Woodson, III. Dajae was 14 years old, a Freshman, with just one month of high school under his belt. Woodson was charged with 153 felony counts, including first-degree murder and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. Evanston police said that Woodson, who had gang affiliations, mistook Dajae for someone he knew, and described the shooting as “a retaliatory act upon an innocent group of teens with no gang affiliations.” He pled not guilty.
Just two days before he was killed, Dajae had turned in an assignment for his Humanities class, a Belief Statement, in which he wrote: "I believe that support from family and friends really helps…My friends and family really care about me, they get me things I need, and they make sure I am always doing good in school. My mom pushes me to do better, she always tells me to never settle. I think the kids that are on the street not doing anything with their lives don’t get the type of support they need from family. They probably don’t have anyone to look up to.”
DE: How did you feel when you heard that Dajae had been shot?
TR: I felt so many emotions that I mostly felt numb. I wanted to know why? Why Dajae? How? It was as though I was there, but not there. I still feel that I’m in that same state. I haven’t come out of it even almost four years later. I know I have grief that I haven’t addressed yet, probably because I have been keeping so busy. I knew from the moment it happened I couldn’t let people forget Dajae. I wanted to transform what happened to him into a positive outcome. I knew I had to build off the momentum immediately after it happened. I didn’t want to let it go.
DE: Before Dajae was shot and killed, did you ever worry about this happening to him?
TR: No. My kid wasn’t the kid to get shot. And not in Evanston. If I worried, it was more about whether, as an African American boy, he would have negative encounters with the police or with educators. Too often, there are educators who relegate their own understanding of African American boys to the common misconceptions that float around about them. This results in them being mislabeled, and misplaced or displaced. Unfortunately, these are the shared experiences of some of our young black males, and surprisingly enough, something Dajae and I experienced when he was in fifth grade.
DE: Did you know the young man who shot Dajae?
TR: I knew of him. In fact, when my brother was a sophomore at ETHS in 2010, he dated Wesley’s sister.
DE: Where is the process now?
TR: Wesley pled not guilty. But we still haven’t gone to trial. It’s been almost four years. We go to court every month, and so does his family. I have to go through it again and again. I want this phase to be over so we can move to the next one. I used to have hatred toward him. Now I just want him to pay. I want him to be in prison for a long time. I’ll leave it at that.
DE: Why do you think shootings in Evanston have increased over recent years?
TR: It’s an issue between certain groups of kids. They’re in small cliques, gangs. They retaliate any kind of disrespect, especially public disrespect, with violence. Social media is a huge problem. Insults that are posted on social media lead directly to deaths.
Before Dajae’s death, I had no idea how bad things were. I really didn't know the core issues that create conflict between young people had devolved to such trivial things. These kids have lost their morals and values. Some of them just don’t have any support. The thing is that there are young kids in these groups, and most of the time, they are not the problem. They’re reachable, impressionable. But there are older guys in the gangs who cause the problems because at some point along the way they fell off someone's radar, and now there has to be an extra effort to try to redirect the course of their lives.
DE: If you could fix one thing to prevent violence, what would it be?
TR: Education. Education is the turning point for everything. A friend told me of a study that shows that when kids as young as 11 find out how much college tuition costs, many of them just check out. They exclude college as a possibility and there’s a downward shift in their grades and in their interest in school. So that is an important age to target and give them more positive conceptions about their futures.
I also think that school systems are designed without African American kids in mind. There’s little to garner their interest. For example, literacy is so important, but it’s hard to teach a kid to read if they can’t see themselves in the books. Literacy is the most important tool for every child to have, so books must include our children. That’s why the DC3F has a summer reading program where we select books for African American kids. Last year we read the Newberry Prize winner, "The Crossover," by Kwame Alexander. I work with Jarrett Dapier who is a former librarian with the Evanston Library. He really is the brains behind the program. He has a wealth of knowledge about African Americans and literacy, and he is really creative in his selections.
DE: What kind of work does your foundation do?
TR: I started the Foundation to celebrate Dajae’s life and to provide positive reinforcement for other kids in our community. We hold college readiness events, tutoring programs, a summer reading initiative, a $1,000 Dajae Coleman Achievement Award scholarship, and an annual #DaeDaeWorldWeekend that promotes the values that shaped Dajae's life, such as family support, determination and positive social interactions.
I love kids. I’m an unofficial teacher. I believe that young people are the catalysts for change and peace.
Read Dajae’s Belief Statement.