"I think [violence] comes from a long history of being ignored, judged, and not accepted for who you are. It's about anger, and aggression and revenge, and not knowing how to stop the cycle."
The group of Freshman girls surrounding Lachisa (pronounced La-Keesha) Barton at the Mason Park field house last Wednesday afternoon were engaged in animated chatter and vying for “Ms. Keesha’s” attention.
An outreach worker with the City of Evanston's Youth and Young Adult Division, Lachisa, 37, seemed to be, all at once, a parent, aunt, counselor, confidant, and celebrity.
Soft-spoken and quietly confident, Lachisa works with boys and girls as young as 11, I think it comes from a long history of being ignored, judged, and not accepted for who you are. It's about anger, and aggression and revenge, and not knowing how to stop the cycle. as well as teens, youth, parents, guardians and grandparents in the fifth ward and all over Evanston. Her days are full and varied. On any given day, she may help someone find housing, enroll in a GED class or employment program, or write a resume. “Whatever I’m doing, I’m always advocating for them, being a helping hand,” she says.
Empathy is Lachisa’s driving force. “I’m the definition of the clients I serve,” says Lachisa, who was born and raised in Evanston (her grandparents moved here from South Carolina with their nine children in the 1960s seeking better opportunities for their family). “I'm someone who needed help all through my youth and adult life. I come from a low-income family and I was raised by a single mom with four kids. My mom was always physically there, but she was so busy trying to put food on the table that I couldn't depend on her for much guidance.”
Growing up, Lachisa could have as easily failed as succeeded. At ETHS, she got good grades, but not good enough. “I was that child in the middle. Not smart enough and not needy enough to get attention at school,” she says. At home, she got little support. “I needed someone to believe in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and give me a chance,” she says. “Someone to challenge my expectations of myself. I didn’t know back then that I could be the person I am today. My dream was just to not be overlooked.”
Lachisa attributes her success in life to a few people who saw her potential. A couple of her aunts looked out for her and gave her things she needed. Her grandmother was her backbone. “She was the one who always said I was going to be something one day.” And Family Focus, Evanston where she hung out with friends as a pre-teen, was where she met people—her mentor JoAnn McKire Avery, and friend Sandy Williams (now Domestic Violence Residential and Community Services Director at the YWCA Evanston/North Shore) who supported her and helped her get ahead.
It’s this kind of support she provides today to young people who are disconnected and who often live in areas of Evanston that contend with issues such as lower high-school graduation rates, lack of jobs and opportunity, and violence.
Lachisa’s goal in life is as simple as it is ambitious: to create a community that cares. “When you help someone you’re also teaching them how to genuinely care for someone else. You uplift them and show them hope by standing beside them,” she says. “You make them feel good. When they feel good, they want others to feel good. And that’s how we get a positive cycle going.”
Lachisa shared her thoughts about challenges her clients face, and ways to improve life in Evanston:
Q: What do young, low-income youth and families need to improve their lives?
A: They need jobs. They need acceptance and to be appreciated. We need to acknowledge that it’s not a level playing field, and makes things equitable. We also need second-chance programs for our young men who have become victims of the system. Curt's Cafe is great, but there’s nothing in place for men 25 and older. Sometimes men are incarcerated for so long they have no idea how much the world has changed. They’re not prepared to come back. They’re fathers of young kids and they can’t provide for them. Then their kids go through same thing. It becomes a cycle.
Q: Are there enough fun, affordable activities for youth and families in Evanston?
A: I did a program one summer with the McGaw YMCA - Evanston. We worked with kids to create a list that would be available to all community schools and recreation centers of free or low-cost activities for young people. The kids couldn't find enough information to fill up even a page. They expressed not feeling wanted at various restaurants in downtown Evanston, and not being welcomed into stores or places when they were in groups with their friends. They felt the community was not meant for them. They find safety in community centers and organizations that offer free drop-in programs, but other than that they have nowhere to go. They travel to surrounding areas like the Skokie waterpark, Cici’s Pizza in Niles, or Old Country Buffet in Chicago. They’ll take the train from Evanston to 95th and back again, just for the ride.
Q: What would you like to see in Evanston for young people?
A: An arcade. A bowling alley. An affordable buffet. Places that are family-friendly but have special hours for adults and young adults. Everyone needs to have an outlet where they can be themselves and step away from the daily stress of life.
Q: Why is gun violence a problem with young black men in Evanston?
A: Black men aren’t taught how to express feelings and emotions when they're growing up. We’re taught school subjects, but not about emotions or conflict resolution. That should be a school subject. Where kids can think about how to work on issues in their personal life. In the African American community, there’s a stigma about getting mental health help. We need kids to know it’s a good thing to find help. Even when we experience death, we don’t talk about how we feel.
Some of the kids I work with have been victims of the recent shootings in Evanston. It affects so many people, the cousins, the extended family. They’re angry. They need to learn how to cope with the loss, with the anger. They don’t cope, and that’s why cycle of violence keeps going. When you’re mad and you hate, you don’t even realize how much it’s tearing you apart. Sometimes we have to forgive those who did this to us so we can be open to blessings. My blessing is that from my experiences, I can be here for these kids. They're not taught the importance of self-expression and that it's okay to be sad or angry. No one considers how they cope with their feelings of anger and aggression. They don’t know what to do with their uncomfortable feelings. Then they learn on the streets.
Q: What’s your experience with gun violence?
A: When I was 10, my uncle was shot and killed on Dewey Street. He was 24. That was so hard for me. I was angry. I didn’t know what to do. I was angry at the person who did it. I was angry because we needed my uncle. The shooter’s family tried to protect him, and I was angry toward his family. He was in jail, but now he’s free. I don’t have anger in my heart any more. I learned to let go. It took a very long time for my family to say we’re okay. But I'll never forget his face.
Q: Do you think most of the violence is gang-related?
A: No. I think it comes from a long history of being ignored, judged, and not accepted for who you are. It's about anger, and aggression and revenge, and not knowing how to stop the cycle. When you don’t know how to resolve a conflict, you act from rage. You want revenge. Your initial thought is ‘I’m going to make you pay. You going to feel how I feel because I’m hurt.’ Often, it’s about mental illness or trauma, but the law, and people, will say that the person who shot didn’t think, or is a bad person. They don’t recognize the person has a problem.
It's hard to get people who have been stuck in their negative ways to understand that hate takes way more energy than love. We should give people who need help a little more support. Think about it. If you've never been happy, how do you know what it feels like? What are you supposed to do if you're always struggling but can't seem to get ahead?
Q: How can we help stop the violence?
A: Having people in place who genuinely care for people despite their background or income is a start. Invest time and money in education—not just college education—but teach about emotions, and about real life. We get to adulthood and we’re missing a set of skills: how to balance a check book; what other options are available if you can’t or don’t want to go to college; to understand that if you only make $8.50 an hour, you will never be able to pay rent. People become adults not being ready for it. They’re low- income. They have to survive. They become angry. They start taking from each other.
We have to learn how to work together. We need to make us all better by making things more fair. We need living-wage jobs. I think everyone should live a day in the life of a low-income family. I know they would think differently after that experience. People need to know what is going on in all of Evanston, not just in their neighborhood or with their friends, but with everybody. People with money can have sympathy, but if they could experience for themselves what it’s like to have so little, they’d have empathy too.
Q: What's the biggest challenge in your work?
A: That the world really doesn't believe in second chances for some of the people I work with. Once you do something wrong, you carry that mark with you for life. There are so many people who, if they could go back in time, would never do what they did. If these people are given tools to learn how to communicate to make things right when they’ve done wrong, I believe a lot of the violence wouldn’t continue.
Q: What's your biggest joy?
A: Helping people and seeing them overcome obstacles. Understanding that people are more than their issues. Every issue has a lesson. If we take our problem and look at it from a growth perspective, it isn't as bad. Sometimes you need someone else to show you that.
My true joy is that though my mom wasn't able to guide me as a child, she was my driving force the minute she became an adult. She was the only reason I was able to work, and she's really proud of me. Thats what I'd been waiting for my whole life. To make my mom proud.