Anti-violence campaign looks to expand conversation, outreach beyond social media

Nora Shelly, Assistant City Editor

The “Dear Evanston” social media campaign is wrapping up its official project after three months, but organizers are looking to continue the conversation they started.

The campaign, which began in February, aimed to bring community awareness to youth violence in Evanston as part of the Leadership Evanston project, which connects people from the city interested in learning leadership skills and forging connections with other residents, program director Jennifer Moran said.

The 10-month program is run through the Evanston Community Foundation and organizes the participants into groups to address issues such as youth employment, access to mental health services, affordable housing, social equity and safety and violence. The “Dear Evanston” project arose from the last theme.

“It’s really about the process of learning how to work with people you don’t really know,” Moran said. “It’s really about the process and not just the product.”

The “Dear Evanston” group members — along with others involved in this year’s Leadership Evanston class — presented their project to a crowd of over 35 people Thursday morning at Evanston Public Library.

The group said they originally didn’t know how to address safety and violence issues in Evanston. In the end, the common theme among all of their ideas was giving the community a place to speak out about violence, said group member Nicholas Gehl, the chair of the department of fine arts at Evanston Township High School.

“We modernized the concept by coming up with this idea of a social media platform,” said group member Juliet Bond, the executive director at Caring Outreach by Parents in Evanston, which provides support to Evanston students in need and their families. “We hoped we would capture various aspects of the community.”

Although they said they were pleased with the overall outcome, the group hit a few snags, including some community opposition.

During the presentation, Mitchell Smith, a member of “Dear Evanston” who is also on the ministerial staff at Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal, 1109 Emerson St., played audio from a 5th Ward meeting he attended earlier this year, in which attendees can be heard vocally criticizing the group’s approach.

“It just speaks to the idea of how it’s a hot button topic,” Smith said. “There are people who are on the ground in the fight who are tired and who are hurting but don’t know what to do.”

The group also had trouble at first engaging people on the social media platforms, said Nina Kavin, another group member who is also on the board at Curt’s Cafe.

“One of the challenges was … getting anybody to initiate connection with us,” she told The Daily. “I was like, ‘We’ve got to get out there,’ so we moved ourselves into the community and found people.”

To counter this, the “Dear Evanston” team started to reach out into the community and conducted interviews concerning violence with city officials such as Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and others involved in anti-violence activism.

They compiled portions of these interviews, as well as comments and posts from the group’s Facebook page, into a video.

“It really connected people to stories and histories they may not have ever heard about,” Moran said. “It was very powerful.”

Although they are pleased with the interactions on their Facebook page, some members of the group said they are hoping to take the dialogue off social media and initiate person-to-person conversations.

“Now, the real work begins,” Smith told The Daily.

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