Every Wednesday afternoon, five police officers and 13 young Evanston men--from sixth to eight grade--don collared shirts and ties and gather in a conference room at the Evanston Police Department for The Officer and Gentlemen Academy (OGA).
The Academy, now in its second year, is a 12-week mentoring program that, says EPD Officer Adam Howard, one of the Academy's founders, is designed to educate, inspire, and empower its participants and help them gain confidence, stay on track at school, and make good life choices.
"The purpose of the program is to help eliminate the pipeline from the school system to the prison system for our young men," said Howard.
"Statistically young black males are plagued by school failure and mass incarceration. So as police officers and educators we felt compelled to come together to formulate a program to change the dynamics."
The Academy started as a partnership between District 65's Bryon Harris, Adrian Harries, and Officer Howard, and served students from Nichols Middle School, but it's now overseen by the EPD and serves selected students from all Evanston's middle schools.
One student, Joseph Masalu, who attended last year's program as an 8th grader, is a freshman at Evanston Township High School (ETHS) this year and has returned as an assistant facilitator.
I visited OGA one Wednesday afternoon. The young men were just finishing watching a motivational video and had started a discussion with the mentors about overcoming obstacles, and visualizing and sticking to goals.
During the class, they also presented short speeches about famous Black American leaders and listened intently as Officer Howard read a quote by each leader about perseverance, overcoming fear, and reaching goals. The young men were serious, focused, and interested in the programming, but also found time to joke and chat with one another and their mentors.
"They're like father figures, male role models," said Demetrius Antonio Mayfield Campbell, an 8th grader at Nichols. "I like the trips, and getting to know the brothers," he said.
Joseph Masalu, the only high schooler, said, "My principal thought I'd be good for this program. I've been through some things, like with my mom and stuff. It feels great to be back. I can be a leader. If you don't have pain, you don't succeed. Something might bother you, but you have to push through it."
"They teach you a lot of things that will help you not screw up," said Gabe Rosen, 7th grade. "We had a financial literature class. I feel comfortable around all these guys and they're just fun to be around."
Eighth-grader Tre Wright said, "It's helpful knowing that they've been through everything I'm going through. It kind of helps set your goals in life. I leave every day knowing something I didn't know before."
In addition to weekly meeting to do homework, read, watch and discuss motivational videos, hear from successful community members about overcoming life's obstacles, learn concepts of etiquette, professional attire, positive interactions with law enforcement, financial literacy, goal setting, and more, the young men and the officers meet every other Saturday for fun and educational field trips. They've visited the DuSable Museum, attended the Car Show, enjoyed a Northwestern basketball game, and were treated to a private screening of Black Panther.
OGA's mentors--Officer Howard, Detective Ken Carter, Detective Mario Miller, and Officers Erv DeLeon, and Robert Robbins volunteer their time and energy to this effort. Each has his own story of overcoming adversity as young men of color to achieve their goals.
"It's great we get a chance to reach out to these young men so they don't make the same mistakes we did," says Carter, who organizes OGA's Saturday programs.
Carter works in EPD's neighborhood enforcement team and focuses on gangs and narcotics. Raised by a single mother on Chicago's south side, Carter says he was involved with the wrong people and ended up getting shot in the chest at a party.
"It was a wakeup call," he says. "I went to college and that's when I started surrounding myself with positive people."
Detective Miller was a teacher prior to becoming a police officer. His parents divorced when he was young. His father was a Chicago police officer and his mother a public school teacher.
He says he didn't have good experiences with the police in Chicago's 18th district where he grew up. as a youth. "A lot of cops weren't very friendly," he says. "We would be standing on the corner using a pay phone to make plans and there were these, what they called 'jump-out boys.'" These officers would simply arrest them and take them to the station for no reason.
"I decided coming on this job I would make a difference," he says.
Currently Miller is an EPD school resource officer and OGA's director of finance.
Officer Robbins, who works the midnight shift doing patrol, says he grew up very early. "I had a very short childhood. At 10, 11, I had to make adult decisions to survive in life. How am I going to get my next meal? How will I travel to and from school?" He met his mentor, who turned out to be a police officer, when he was working at Evanston's Century 12 movie theater.
"It was a no-brainer for me," says Robbins, who organizes the Wednesday night programs, about volunteering for OGA. "Not just to give back to the community, but to see your work go into someone that you're going to see grow. Just giving them hope to understand that regardless of the cards you feel you've been dealt at this point in your life, you always can make a decision to do better, to be better. You may need to work harder than the next, but it's very possible."
Officer DeLeon has been an officer for the past 22 years and is currently on foot patrol, walking neighborhoods and developing relationships with members of the community. He has been a youth sports coach for 12 years. "This was an opportunity I didn't want to pass up," he says.
"I was fortunate to have a very supportive family, very structured family system around me. That's what gave me the thought that it's something to pass on."
As for Officer Howard? He grew up in a single-family household.
"If it wasn't for a praying grandmother and hardworking mother, I don't know where I'd be," he says.
OGA's Inaugural Empowerment Breakfast is Saturday, May 19 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Hilton Garden Inn. If you'd like to purchase tickets to support the program ($40 now; $50 May 11 to 14), you can pick them up at the police station's front desk at 1454 Elmwood Ave, or online at cityofevanston.org/ogabreakfast.