Everything Evanston: YWCA hosts racial healing circles, Y.O.U. hosts MLK Day event

Christopher Vazquez and Kalen Luciano

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Christopher Vazquez, and this is Everything Evanston. One day, when Eileen Hogan Heineman was twelve years old, her neighbors started getting riled up about something she didn’t quite understand. They were planning to protest the bussing of seven black students into a nearby all-white public school.

EILEEN HOGAN HEINEMAN: A woman from our block came to our house and wanted my mother to sign up to take a shift, and my mother’s saying very clearly, “Don’t go to that school tomorrow, and please don’t ask other people to do that.” And it was surprising to me to hear my mother talk sort of in a scolding way to an adult. I didn’t fully understand what the situation was until the next day on the news. I saw the women of the community on TV screaming and having these really ugly, mean faces and spitting. And I knew there was something wrong with people who were mothers of friends on my block, them going and screaming at some other mother’s children. I think that formed me forever.

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: Eileen is the manager of community outreach at the Equity Institute of YWCA Evanston/North Shore. The Equity Institute organized five racial healing circles in Evanston last week as part of the Kellogg Foundation’s Chicagoland Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Initiative. The initiative aims to challenge the racist effects of social, economic and governmental policies.

LEANN JENKINS: A racial healing circle is a chance for people to come together and to talk about their own personal narratives and stories, particularly for the sake of healing and moving towards a different understanding of our relationships with one another.

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: This is YWCA Equity Institute coordinator LeAnn Jenkins.

WENDY YANOW: It includes this experience about understanding across difference by getting to know someone whose story is different from yours.

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: And this is Wendy Yanow. LeAnn and Wendy facilitated a racial healing circle together last Wednesday at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, in a conference room on the ground floor.

LEANN JENKINS: I mean, you come into a room and literally the space that you’re participating in is a circle of chairs. Usually, there will be something in the middle, some type of fabric with some objects on it that represent in some way the facilitators of the circle bringing themselves and their stories into the circle.

WENDY YANOW: So it’s our collective space which we create with our chairs and being physically close to one another but also these artifacts.

BETTYE COHNS: I would say there were approximately 10 to 15 people, mainly white women, no males at all, three to four people of color.

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: Bettye Cohns attended one of last Wednesday’s circles. At one point, participants were asked about their earliest experiences understanding their gender and race. Bettye shared this story.

BETTYE COHNS: Earlier messages were related to my gender because I came from a religious family, and ladies were supposed to do certain things and act a certain way, and we had our roles and men had their roles. And it was more related to understanding that I was a female and that I could do certain things, as opposed to later on when I realized that I was black, and that made a difference also. It was a comfortable, safe atmosphere. We were sharing without judgement.

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: Bettye said the circle consisted of introductions, sharing stories like these and reflecting on those stories. She said the focus was much more on personal experiences than on Evanston’s own history of racist structures. Eileen Hogan Heineman said sharing those experiences is a crucial part of a racial healing circle.

EILEEN HOGAN HEINEMAN: What ends up happening is that we start to hear the similarities in our stories. No matter our backgrounds, there is this common humanity and at the end, we get to talk about what were the themes we heard in the stories and what does that mean for going forward, things that we can work on or things that we want to address.

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: Eileen also said that the YWCA will continue offering community-wide racial healing circles. LeAnn and Wendy hope people will use these circles as a stepping stone to address current racial inequity issues in Evanston, and in general.

WENDY YANOW: You know, we are a community of people, many of whom think we’ve already addressed these issues, and clearly we know we have not. This is another strategy, coming at it from a different perspective, a different direction, to try to understand the damage that structural racist policies have made culturally as a society but also on individuals. And beginning to break those down is a painful process, but it’s also part of the healing.

LEANN JENKINS: I’ve had the experience of seeing a community of people who come to an understanding about the inequities that are taking place. When they finally decide, “Okay, we should do something about this,” I think sometimes what I’ve seen happen is that they underestimate the necessity of sitting down together and actually sharing their story. They experience a lot of obstacle hiccups and sometimes stalling or paralyzation [sic] because they haven’t done the racial healing work that needs to happen to prepare the way for us to rethink, recreate together, actually do something new together that requires a bit of risk and trust because you haven’t seen it done before.

I think Evanston right now is on the precipice of a few things. They’ve made a declaration to have reparations and dedicated some money toward that. They’re trying to figure out what that means. You see different people who work in Evanston trying to understand how do we work in a new way that is more equitable. I don’t think we can overestimate the necessity of sitting down in a room and actually sharing our stories together across the difference to reconfigure our relationship with one another, so that we can actually do that work.

KALEN LUCIANO: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Kalen Luciano. This is the sound in the hallways outside Evanston Township High School auditorium. Younger children are running up and down the halls in packs. Some of the older students are posing to take group pictures. In the auditorium, hundreds of people hug one another as they enter and fill rows upon rows of seats. Student performers and adult organizers are all wearing black shirts with the words “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” the theme of the day’s MLK Day celebration…

STUDENT EMCEE: … To honor Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of peace, diversity, unity, leadership, and service.

STUDENT EMCEE: We chose this theme because we are working to be everything our ancestors would look up to and be proud of. We are on our way to achieve what our ancestors dreamed about and we are here to show how we will change the world.

STUDENT EMCEE: Through this theme, we honor our ancestors and the people who came before us. We uplift the work that they’ve done to advance our journey towards freedom and we continue on the path that they have laid foundations for.

KALEN LUCIANO: Before they start the performance, two student emcees lay the groundworks for a safe and positive space for diversity and inclusion.

CROWD: By entering this space, I agree to love myself and others… I agree to struggle against racism, sexism, ableism, misogyny, and all other harmful systems.

KALEN LUCIANO: Then, they go onto the performances. The performers range from elementary school to high school students. There’s drumming and dancing.

KALEN LUCIANO: Oral stories of prominent black women in history,

STUDENT PERFORMER: As I travel through the Underground Railroad, I realize that I can help thousands of other slaves escape their oppression and have the freedom they rightfully deserve.

KALEN LUCIANO: And poetry.

STUDENT PERFORMER: I am my ancestors’ wildest dream. Slaves survived by any means necessary.

KALEN LUCIANO: It ended in a call and response of a poem called In Lak’ech.

AUTUMN ANDERSON: In Lak’ech,

CROWD: In Lak’ech,

AUTUMN ANDERSON: Tú eres mi otro yo.

CROWD: Tú eres mi otro yo.

AUTUMN ANDERSON: You are my other me.

CROWD: You are my other me.

KALEN LUCIANO: And they go through the whole poem and end on:

AUTUMN ANDERSON: If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.

CROWD: If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.

AUTUMN ANDERSON: Thanks again for celebrating with us. We are our ancestors wildest dreams.

KALEN LUCIANO: But three months before the last applause and cheers, the event was just an idea with a lot of planning left to do. One woman who led those efforts was Susie McMonagle, the creative director of the show.

KALEN LUCIANO: This is her after the show ended. When she walked around the halls, she couldn’t help but stop and say “hi” to every other person she passed by.

SUSIE MCMONAGLE: This is, I think, it’s my sixth year. I’m like the main cheerleader.

KALEN LUCIANO: That she was. She used to be in Broadway shows in Chicago. Using this experience, she went to each of the 12 schools planning something for the event and tried to enhance their performances and get the students ready for the stage.

SUSIE MCMONAGLE: I coach them, just to kind of up their performance, and for me, the goal has always been for everyone that’s involved in this to feel some level of confidence, and pride, right? Nobody here or maybe very few of these people are ever going to be performers. But I think to be able to stand up in front of that crowd and do their best and speak into the microphone or to dance or to sing or whatever their role in the show is. And that’s why all those hugs just happened down the hallway. That’s what it’s about for me: to bring a level of confidence to these kids.

I live for it. Sometimes, I will run into people in the summertime who will run up to me and say “Miss Susie!” And that’s makes my world. That’s why I do it. This is my community. I live in Evanston. This is what I love about about contributing a little tiny bit.

KALEN LUCIANO: Before the students could get to that level of accomplishment, Susie had to remind them that this progress takes time.

SUSIE MCMONAGLE: The progression of where they were in November, saying, “Well, we wanted to write something about I don’t know,” and I’m like get out your pen and paper and just start writing, and none of it’s going to be perfect today but make a start. And to see those little starts and where they came to today makes me really proud.

KALEN LUCIANO: There was one student in particular who she was happy to see grow.

SUSIE MCMONAGLE: There was a young man named Brandon, and he was watching the rehearsal. He was not involved, and he was kind of sitting in the back and watching. After a couple of weeks, I said, “Brandon, would you at all help me, maybe help me like backstage?” And he was like, “Yeah, I think I could do that.” And I don’t know if you noticed, but he was my right hand man today, and I could never have done any of this without him saying, “No, no! There’s two microphones.” He had the whole thing down. That was my biggest accomplishment today was just giving somebody an opportunity and asking if they’d be interested. And he wasn’t as comfortable on stage, but boy, he did nailed it shut off stage, and I guess that was my pride today was Brandon.

KALEN LUCIANO: Susie said those little moments of pride were everywhere in the making of the event, but these moments didn’t come without their challenges. ETHS students Autumn and Soleil Anderson were both emcees of the show. Playing such a large role came with its own set of challenges.

SOLEIL ANDERSON: For me, most challenging, probably getting up and like speaking in front of people because I’m kind of scared of performing in front of a large group of people. And also I’m in track, so coming here and spending long hours like even though it was exhausting, it was still fun. Like everyone was smiling, happy, even if they were like a little bit shy getting on the stage. They still did their best, and that was all anyone cared about.

AUTUMN ANDERSON: I feel like the most fulfilling part for me was to see everybody in the crowd that had gathered together to celebrate this day and be there and support the kids that were part of this. It brings together a sense of unity throughout our community. So I guess a day to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King and how we are able to exist in this society because of him.

KALEN LUCIANO: Em Wilder, one of the event coordinators, graduated from ETHS. She echoed the importance of this day and the changes she’s seen even in the small amount of time since she left ETHS.

EM WILDER: Sometimes history is taught as a thing of the past, but history informs everything that’s happening in our world today. Honoring that connectedness to the past is a really important thing to do. The way in which a lot of space has traditionally celebrate MLK is that he was, you know, this incredible civil rights figure who stood for peace and justice. He paved the way for a lot of other folks. It’s not just about racism. There’s a lot of harmful systems that penetrate our lives, and so I think his legacy is about broadening that. And our students are the first ones to push us to do that.

So I identify as a queer person of color, and I didn’t feel like there was space for me to be my true authentic self in high school. But now, I see upstanders. I see interrupters in a way that is very different. I see students claiming their blackness, claiming their queerness, claiming their nonbinary-ness, claiming their mixed race-ness. And being celebrated and celebrating each other’s bravery for that.

Students creating a space that exists within MLK’s legacy for this and dialogue around and leading the charge around language that gives more space and life and love to folks that tend to be the most marginalized. They’re leading the charge and you hear it in the dialogue every day. We’re acknowledging all these systems. And that charge is, again, that’s led by students.

KALEN LUCIANO: In her work at the high school, Em sees countless acts of empowerment and inclusivity among the students. It’s because of this charge that Em believes in including young voices.

EM WILDER: I think one of the most important pillars of what the day means for us is that it is driven and like led by high school students. The message is all delivered through the voices of young folks. They have a lot of control over the script, the theme. The process can be a little weird because you give them the torch and they’re like “Don’t you want to like say no or don’t you want to have an opinion about this?” Or like, “Is this okay?” All those questions are just from being conditioned and being told no, a lot. And so I think for us, I think it’s bigger than that. It changes the way in which we work with young people, like this day is incredible. They absolutely killed it. And so that should bleed into everything we do.

I think there’s a lot of spaces where incredible conversations are happening between adults, but I don’t know that we always take a moment to make sure that we’re also letting young people claim space in those conversations. They’re often a perspective that we don’t have around the table. They’re a lot more inclusive. There’s things that we may not think about, and so if we’re not doing that, this is a way to check ourselves.

It shouldn’t just be this day, right? What’s the next action? What can we do better?

KALEN LUCIANO: Thanks for listening. We’ll see you in our next episode every other Thursday.

KALEN LUCIANO: This episode was reported and produced by me, Kalen Luciano and Christopher Vazquez. Our digital managing editor is Heena Srivastava and our editor in chief is Troy Closson.

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YWCA Evanston/North Shore to host racial healing circles
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