On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, I sat down with Dickelle Fonda and her husband Jevoid Simmons in their cozy home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Evanston’s Second Ward to talk about violence and safety in Evanston. Dickelle is a psychotherapist in private practice and a community activist. Jevoid is an artist and Director of Employee Relations at the Art Institute of Chicago. Read about and view Jevoid's work here.
Dickelle was raised in New York, and lived in Texas, Washington and Iowa before moving to Evanston with Jevoid in 1980. Jevoid was born in Alabama and moved with his family to Iowa as a young child. In Iowa, Jevoid worked as a Deputy probation officer for juveniles for several years while Dickelle did intensive in-home family therapy. The two met in 1976 while working on opposite sides of a juvenile court case. The couple has a 30-year-old son, and two other young adults who became part of their family when they were teenagers.
DE: Why did you choose to live in Evanston?
A (Dickelle): For a short time after we left Iowa, we lived in Oak Park. But we’d find ourselves coming to Evanston on weekends to run on the lake front, so we decided to move here.
DE: How did you decide on this neighborhood?
A (Dickelle): This is the part of Evanston that is actually integrated in it's diversity. It’s what people like to think all of Evanston is about. Everyone knows that Evanston is diverse, but it’s mostly not integrated. As an interracial family, we wanted our neighborhood to reflect all of our family, so we chose this community.
Our neighborhood is a real mix. It’s full of progressives, social activists, artists, writers, working class and professionals; all ages, races, and cultures. We are a well-organized neighborhood and have been for the past 30 years. We have good working relationships with the city departments.
DE: Do you feel safe in your neighborhood?
A (Dickelle): We think it’s a safe neighborhood. We wouldn’t have moved here to raise our family if it wasn’t. Things happen sometimes, but people watch out for each other and respond quickly. The police are responsive. There have been homicides, but they’re not random. They were generated by arguments between specific people over specific situations. Most of the violent crime is between young people who have been devalued so it’s a question of how much they value their own lives.
Some people avoid our neighborhood because of the perception that it’s not safe. The Heartwood Center, which opened six years ago, Curt’s Cafe South, which opened about a year ago, and recently Valli Produce, have brought people into the neighborhood who would otherwise not have come, and they are discovering a unique and interesting community they did not know existed.
DE: Do the police do a good job managing violence in Evanston?
A (Dickelle): I think there is over-policing in certain neighborhoods, especially in the Second, Fifth and Ninth wards, which is where the majority of people of color reside. While we have not seen the type of violence that's occurred in Ferguson, Cleveland, even Madison, where unarmed young black men were shot by police, there are other forms of violence that youth of color experience here; the psychic or psychological violence that results from being stopped randomly, frisked and questioned. In our home, while our young people were teenagers, they would often come home with stories about being stopped at random and being pushed up against cars or walls, handcuffed and searched. These micro-aggressions toward young men of color leave them feeling degraded and humiliated and always hypervigilent. They begin to expect this treatment by police. They’re taught to prepare for it, how to behave when it happens. Their white peers don't have to deal with this.
(Jevoid): Police officers don’t develop their biases in a vacuum. Growing up in our society, its difficult to escape developing biases, which are often unconscious. Who the police view as a criminal problem is reflective of what the larger society views--black and brown young men. Police attitudes are the product of our society and their communities, and many of our police officers come from homogeneous communities. This said, they shouldn’t be allowed to be in their role without being required to seriously examine and deal with their own biases. This is true for all officers regardless of color. No one should get a pass.
(Dickelle): Right now, young people of color don’t trust cops, and so when things happen, they won’t tell them what’s going on.
DE: What can we do to improve the relationship between Evanston's police and the community?
A (Jevoid): We like Chief Eddington and what he’s trying to do. Recently he started ongoing training for the police department to address bias, perceptions and prejudices. Still, our community and the broader society hasn't had the really hard and uncomfortable conversations about the legacy of slavery on the country's psyche and the systemic inequities that have grown out of it.
White people are more likely to see the police as their protector. Older African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to call for help. But, as Dickelle said, young African Americans are far more reluctant to depend on the police or see them as friendly.
I think we have to get the relationship between the community and the police started at a very early age so that we can change the perceptions of the police toward African American and other brown kids and vice versa. Start with little kids. Cops could come by on bikes and play ball with them. That used to happen more, but it doesn’t happen as much now. Kids need to know and feel that the police are not here to harass, but to protect and serve them too. The police have to change. It won’t happen overnight. But having said that, it comes down to the fact that communities have to change, because police come from communities.
DE: So police/community relations and violence is a small part of a larger issue?
A (Dickelle): Yes. It’s really difficult to talk about violence in a vacuum. When conflict is addressed with violence on a national and international level we have already established a norm for resolving differences. This unfortunately is the world that our youth have grown up in, learned from, and emulate.
(Jevoid): We also have to look at what’s happened to families. Look at all the black and brown dads who were jailed in the 80s and 90s for small infractions in such large numbers and with no resources to fight the system. There’s a different setup for different people: black life is just not valued the same as white life. There’s unfair justice.
DE: What can white residents in Evanston do to help reduce the violence that mostly affects the African American community?
(Jevoid): I love that we came to Evanston to raise our family. But Evanston has issues too, and, as Dickelle said, many well-meaning people don’t get what the issues are. There is an “it” that they skirt around. And it’s really important that we get to “it.” We have to do some serious talking! Black and brown people feel “it” because "it" happens to them. But “it” has never been resolved. If you haven’t experienced it from a personal standpoint it’s difficult to relate to. White people who live in Evanston need to engage in self-assessment and engage in dialogue.
White people who “get it” can help other white people understand that the negative impact of poverty, of violence, is on the whole, not a part. I think that the best diversity and inclusion trainers can be white males who “get it.” They can be the best advocates for change among white citizens. And Evanston is the ideal place for people to recognize that there are issues here and work on them. Because if we can do it here, then there is hope for other places. There are many folks here who are working on these issues. Evanston is a great place to do self-reflection.
And it really is a two-way thing. For African Americans to give and to engage in dialogue, white people must recognize the learning process. We have to meet in the middle, not from the margins. People may say the wrong things, but we all have to be willing to forgive each other if wrong things are said by people with good hearts and good intentions. I would love to see in this microcosm that is Evanston, conversations between well-meaning people who want to grow to have more compassion, to not make assumptions.
Black on black crime is a complex and serious problem. It's possible to attribute it to so many young black men having limited legitimate access to get the things they see all around them. There may be a belief that the broader community and society does not care about them, which may result in less care for each other. Lack of opportunity can lead to a sense of desperation and hopelessness. Over so many years, communities have been decimated. Families have been torn apart. Opportunity is the main thing. Locally, Kevin Brown’s Youth and Young Adult Division’s outreach work in the city is a really important step in reaching this segment of our youth.