Evanston outreach worker inspires through example
October 9, 2012
Dajuan Blackwell was “mad and frustrated” when he dialed Evanston street outreach worker Nathan Norman’s number. Blackwell, 21, had just been shot and was considering joining a gang to retaliate. He had not held a job for a long time.
“I was trying to put myself together,” Blackwell said.
Norman talked him out of revenge, and the two were soon having phone conversations twice a week.
As Evanston’s only street outreach worker, Norman speaks to least 50 Evanston youth like Blackwell every week, he said. The Evanston City Council proposed hiring a full time staff member for street outreach as part of its youth engagement initiative, said Kevin Brown, director of the city’s Youth and Young Adult Program division.
Brown said he hired Norman for his empathy and familiarity with Evanston neighborhoods.
“The outreach worker is an important person who connects youth and young adults with resources they are not aware of ... (and can) redirect people into positive activities that will help him grow," Brown said. "(Norman) just has a personality type so that he can relate to any person or any situation. He's a very tolerant individual, very mature, and his own life experiences have helped him become that."
A former disconnected youth himself, Norman said he wants to change the mindset of kids growing up the way he did.
“I want to show them … that they themselves can change their lives,” Norman said. “And not just to give them a glimmer of hope, but to model it right before their eyes … because they knew me.”
Since assuming his post in April, Norman has divided his time between the streets and the office. He created “Open Mic Spoken Word,” monthly community event in which neighborhood kids can eat free pizza, express themselves and enjoy some family time. Brown credited Norman with “single-handedly” assembling a waiting list of participants to the recently launched Building Career Pathways to Sustainable Employment program, which places youth in career counseling and paid internships. Norman writes an intake profile form for every kid he works with – there have been more than 60 so far – in order to aggregate basic demographic data.
But often Norman just hangs around the neighborhoods, talking to youths like Blackwell and telling them about opportunities to engage with the community as well as his own life experiences.
“He's a really helpful person," Blackwell said. "People don't just open up and talk about their lives (like he does). It was easy to talk to him.”
Brown said Norman’s life experience lends credibility to the program.
“It’s important they see a person who was once on the wrong side, who’s now on the right side,” he said. “That really helps us draw … disconnected youth.”
But for Norman, his past is both a gift and a curse.
“The gift is that you can really really identify with these guys and they trust you,” he said. “The curse is that sometimes your patience wears thin. Sometimes … you have to come to the realization that you can’t save everyone. Sometimes there’s a fear of change.”
But people like Blackwell do change. With Norman's help, Blackwell landed a job as a custodian at the Levy Senior Center in September. It was a proud moment for him, Norman said.
“The staff there tell me all the time how polite he is,” Norman said. “When we take these guys and actually give them an opportunity, they become responsible.”
With additional funding, Brown said he plans to hire another full-time outreach worker as well as a part-time one. He said he's looking for people exactly like Norman.
"We can't have too few Nathan Normans on our staff," Brown said.