"If we don’t push ourselves, we will fail in Evanston. So many of us think that
because we live in a city that’s diverse, we are inclusive, but that's not the reality yet.
We don’t do the hard work of engaging."
I met Cicely Wilson Fleming two years ago when she returned to Evanston after 10 years away. We worked on a Curt's Cafe fundraiser together, and the first thing that struck me about the Evanston native was how her words tumbled one after the other, as though they were fighting to keep up with her thoughts. I discovered soon after that she follows her words with action almost as fast.
Since we met, Cicely, a wife and mom of three kids, has volunteered at soup kitchens and other social service organizations, founded OPAL, started and finished her Masters in Public Administration at DePaul University, mounted her campaign for 9th ward alderman, knocked on hundreds of doors, and still attended her children's lacrosse games and cheerleading championships both in town and away. Driven by her love for her family, her commitment to social justice and her fierce Christian faith, Cicely seems to accomplish in a day what most of us do in a month.
“I was fortunate to grow up in Evanston with lots of family around and it really provided me a secure and unique experience," she told me recently when I met her at Curt's Cafe South to catch up and find out what motivated her to run for office. "We moved back because I wanted my kids to have the kind of support and love I had, and I work hard in town because I think many people believe that Evanston can be a close community again and I want to make that happen.”
Cicely traces her Evanston roots—and her commitment to public service—to a long line of active ancestors on her mom’s side. Her great- great- grandfather Samuel White, known as “Big Adam,” came to Evanston’s 5th ward from Abbeville, SC, around 1890, along with many others who made the journey from Abbeville to Evanston after the lynching of Anthony Crawford—many of whose descendants settled in Evanston as well.
Cicely’s great-grandfather, Samuel White, Jr. and his wife Evelyn McCoy had seven children. “Sam was the first elected official in my family,” Cicely told me. “He became head of the Democratic Party when the 5th ward was Evanston’s only democratic ward.” Cicely’s great-aunt Edna became a two-term 5th-ward alderman and Evanston Township Supervisor and Edna’s son, Michael Summers, also served as alderman of the 5th ward. One of Big Adam’s sons, Clarence, changed his name from White to Whyte—presumably, Cicely believes, as a result of a family dispute. “His daughter, my cousin Rochelle Whyte Washington, also served as a 5th ward alderman,” she says.
Her dad’s side of the family hails from Georgia. Her great-grandmother owned a restaurant called C&W. Her grandfather, Edwin “Skip” Wilson split his time between Georgia and Evanston until high school and was a postal carrier here for more than 30 years. “My grandfather died last year,” says Cicely, “But he was my hero. He was so kind and supported everything I did.”
DE: Are you glad you came back to Evanston to raise your children?
CF: Overall I am pleased. I have a large family here and it's nice to have my kids develop close relationships with them. But I'm disappointed with how much has not changed, particularly that the economic divide seems so much greater, and that many neighborhoods are still very segregated.
DE: Where did you go to school?
CF: My sister Kye and I went to King Lab from Kindergarten through eighth grade. My mom sent us there because it was an academically rigorous school with a heavy emphasis on African American culture. As a child, my mother was part of the school integration program and had to leave Foster School to go to Haven, which was a horrific experience for her, being called the N-word by classmates and teachers, for example.
She decided my sister and I wouldn't participate in the school busing program. Stories of her experience had a great impact on me, which is why we chose to live in south Evanston now, so my kids can attend Chute, a neighborhood school. We talked about race at home a lot when I was growing up, and my mom forbade us from saying the pledge of allegiance.
DE: How did that feel?
CF: I felt a bit left out as a kid, but no one really made a big deal about it. I think that was the beauty of King Lab, it very accepting. Now I realize that my mother was very brave. That she was teaching me to stand for what I believe is no matter what other may have said. She taught me about courage and conviction. My kids say it now. But we talk about it. I support them making choices as long as they can defend their positions. I don’t want them to do something just because someone else is doing it. I want them to be brave, even if they’re the only ones.
DE: And you lived in the 5th ward. What was it like growing up?
CF: It was great. I had a huge family. My dad had 10 siblings. My mom had a small extended family. Every day I’d walked past houses that my cousins, my aunts and uncles, lived in. Big packs of us would walk around together. We weren’t as worried about violence back then, and I think society isn’t connected as much as it was back then.
DE: Obviously violence has increased.
CF: Yes, I think the violence we see now, the youth violence, is the outcome of years of neighborhood divestment in predominately black neighborhoods, educational failures, the continued achievement gap, and the lack of community support. I also can't discount the effect of easy gun access and society's numbness to violence in general.
But in our community, we have lost so many youth because of poor education that leaves them unable to attain a livable wage, the rise of untreated mental health issues, and the neglect of the historically black community. By that I mean the divestment of institutions due to ‘integration’ that left the black community without their own resources while unwelcome at newly integrated institutions. Without education, community resources, and community support, we now see youth who are without hope and opportunity.
DE: Have you or anyone in your family ever been directly affected by violence?
CF: Just living in a community that has experienced violence has a direct impact on us all, like when I have to explain to my children that a young man has been killed by another young man. Although we aren't the victims, or related to the victims of the crime, that doesn't mean we're not affected. If we view violence that way, it will continue to be someone else’s problem. And another person's problem is not one you see yourself responsible for fixing.
DE: So what should we do?
CF: I don’t claim to be a pro on gun violence. I think some of our restorative justice programs in our schools at younger ages will help, but we have to get away from penalizing kids. For example, at the high school there were so many suspension of black boys a few years ago. We have to make sure our kids are educated, and treated with respect so that they have hope for themselves, so they can become productive people and get jobs.
The fact is that everyone has to eat. So if we produce a student who is educated and employable or who has dropped out and has no hope they’ll eat because they’re working, or they’ll eat because they’re stealing. And these students who are undereducated are right here. When I volunteer at the homeless shelter, I’m serving my peers. Men in their 30s and 40s. They went through the school system and didn’t do well. And now they’re homeless or near-homeless adults. They’re still our responsibility.
We have to do better with our continuum of care plan. I’m not saying that city government has to turn into social services, but we have to think about our city in terms of our citizens. So when we think about property tax increases and water increases, things we justify as financial needs, we have to think about them from everyone’s perspective.
DE: You founded OPAL soon after you came back to Evanston. Tell me about that.
CF: When I came back to Evanston, I was surprised that there were still so many disparities. I thought things would have progressed more. So I got to work and I learned about people and talked to people who felt disconnected. I’ve spent the last couple of years getting people to be more connected.
I founded OPAL last year with the goal of achieving equity in Evanston through voter-education efforts, increasing civic engagement, and developing community members to hold elected office. We decided to focus on the political arena because it's through our governing bodies that decisions are made. Without leaders who understand and value all Evanston residents, we're concerned that we will continue to lose valuable community members.
DE: Do you think Opal can contribute to reducing violence in Evanston?
CF: Yes. OPAL can help by framing it not as a black or youth problem, but as an issue in which our entire community can see their role. Through issues like keeping the educational system accountable for closing the achievement gap and dismantling policies that contribute to racial inequities, we are working to ensure that today’s students have better outcomes and opportunities.
OPAL is also working to identify local leaders who will make decisions that are best for all Evanston residents. Decisions that affect Evanston's affordability and quality of life are vital because they help our community retain its racial and socio-economic diversity. We also support leaders who value equity to help ensure that residents receive resources they need.
DE: What made you decide to run for city council and what do you want to accomplish?
CF: As a city council member, I plan to serve my ward. But I understand my ward is within the greater city that measures just 7.8 miles. So if there's something proposed for a ward that's bad for the city as a whole, I think I need to say so. I need to bring that conversation, and I think I’ve shown people I can do that, and that I’m not afraid to do that.
I think that because I’ve lived in Evanston at different stages of my life and under varying personal economic conditions, I have a particular perspective. If you’ve always lived on the lakefront and you have a car, and a traditional job, you don’t know what it’s like for the people who have limitations—they don’t have time, they don’t have a ride, they don’t have the mental capacity—I have to represent those people. I have to get answers, advocate, and call for change.
I've heard from people who live in my ward that they feel south Evanston is used as a buffer to Chicago. That people don’t see it as a real community. So I really would like to engage the city and ask how can we ensure that city services are accessible here. I think you can’t bring that conversation to city council if you haven’t experienced life as a poor person.
Right now our health department has services at the Civic Center and at Erie Family Health Center on Dempster, but what do we have south of Main? The Civic Center is not on a main bus line, and it closes at 5 p.m. It’s just not accessible if you're battling other issues in your life. There’s a substantial amount of poverty as you get closer to Howard Street. There are lots of refugee students at Chute. How can we get some services for those people?
It’s the same thing with the library. How can we expand it? We talk about achievement gap, and the need to encourage early literacy. But our closest library is on Chicago and Main and it’s a tiny library and no parking.
And at school. My husband talks about this all the time at my kids school. There’ll be a program at school at 2 p.m., but there are lots of parents who can’t make that. And then we penalize those people. We think, well, they don’t care about their kids schooling because they're not there.
I’d really like to do a better job of engaging our constituents in the ward. As an example, people are frustrated about the decision to bring Smiley Brothers to Oakton. It’s been explained in a very financial sense that it will bring money to the city and get that property back from the tax rolls. But there are parents of children at Dawes who are very worried about how this will increase traffic on Oakton, concern about a liquor establishment on a park and so close to a school.
The greater concern is that people felt they weren’t even informed of the process. There was no community engagement. Not everyone is going to love every decision that's made, but if people feel they were consulted they can be more reaonsable. I want to make sure I'm getting information back to the voters in the ward.
DE: What do you want for Evanston's future?
CF: I like to believe everyone is doing the best they can, making the best decisions they can. But I feel that you are limited if you work only from your own life experience and the people around you. People talk about being empathic and I think that's important, but you have to really engage with people whose lives are different than yours. And you have to know what you don’t know.
If we don’t push ourselves, we will fail in Evanston. So many of us think that because we live in a city that’s diverse, we are inclusive, but that's not the reality yet. We don’t do the hard work of engaging.
I really value history. I think we never addressed historical wrongs that were done in our city. I think we need to have a day of reconciliation. It won’t change everything, but we can verbalize the hurt on both sides. Apologize. Tell the truth and change the conversation. It needs to be done in a genuine way by the mayor, who sets the tone for the city. To say, I’m sorry this happened, and this is our first step to bringing our city together. I would love to have that happen.
DE: Thanks, Cicely.