Evanston Live TV owner Meleika Gardner educates, advocates, inspires

Jorja Siemons, Assistant City Editor

When Meleika Gardner founded Evanston Live TV in 2016, she threw herself into the work, filming her conversations with Evanston municipal election candidates as they drove around the city in her car.

“I just grabbed my phone and hit the streets,” she said.

Four years later — and during another local election cycle — the Evanston Chamber of Commerce has honored Gardner as the 2021 Community Leadership Person of the Year. Her platform, which produces content covering local politics, social justice efforts and community leaders, now has more than 44,000 views on YouTube and over 6,000 Facebook followers.

Catching the “entertainment bug” early in her life, Gardner moved to Los Angeles as a young woman and worked as both a touring dancer and casting director before she returned to Evanston in 2013.

“Once you know you’re this artistic, creative person, I don’t think it ever leaves you,” she said. “You feel like you’re dying when you’re doing anything other than (entertainment).”

Describing Evanston Live TV as the “perfect combination” of activism and entertainment, Gardner said she creates content, alongside her cameraman Donghyun “Don” Lim, that centers resident perspectives.

Rev. Dr. Michael Nabors, president of Evanston’s branch of the NAACP, met Gardner shortly after he became pastor at Second Baptist Church in 2015. One of Gardner’s first guests on Evanston Live TV, he said she has a natural ability to bring people together.

“You see the work that she does and the quality that goes into it,” he said. “It can only happen through someone who has deep convictions about justice.”

Although the pandemic has disrupted some of Gardner’s traditional reporting methods — she can’t approach residents on the streets or visit community centers any more — she said she’s found some silver linings. Zoom has enabled her to do more interviews than normal and her audience has grown, Gardner said.

“I think we’re actually reaching more people right now,” she said. “More people are at home to pay attention.”

Last year, Gardner not only prioritized COVID-19 coverage — interviewing Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty, local doctors, mental health experts and business owners about the pandemic’s impacts — but also made videos educating the public about Black history, the Black Lives Matter movement and what anti-racism looks like.

Willie Shaw, political action and civic engagement chair for Evanston’s branch of the NAACP, said Gardner has a unique ability to make her community feel comfortable.

“It’s really elevating community voices, and particularly the African American community,” Shaw said.

As a board member at Women Empowering Women In Local Legislation (WE WILL), a nonprofit, lobbying organization focused on women’s and children’s rights, Gardner continues her emphasis on activism even outside of Evanston Live TV.

Last year, Gardner authored an amendment to a bill sponsored by State Rep. La Shawn Ford, (D-Chicago) that seeks to combat systemic racism in Illinois K-12 schooling. Gardner’s amendment calls for the inclusion of pre-enslavement history, contributions and achievements of Black people from 3000 BC – 1619.

“I truly believe systemic racism starts at home, and it starts in our school system,” Gardner said, emphasizing the harmful impact of neglecting to teach the contributions of Black peoples, especially in U.S. history curriculums. “The Black and brown (students) question their own self worth and value in this country because of what’s being taught and the images being portrayed of their community.”

Gardner said when she testified before the House Committee in Springfield last March, the bill received pushback from some state representatives who were concerned that if they expanded Black history education, they would have to do the same for every other group.

“Why wouldn’t you do that?” Gardner said, recalling her reaction.

Once again collaborating with Ford, she contributed to another piece of legislation that would establish the Inclusive American History Commission updating state history curriculum to be more inclusive of diverse perspectives. Both bills await finalization.

With the municipal elections quickly approaching, Gardner has continued to bring her social justice-oriented reporting to Evanston Live TV, leading multiple forums and interviews introducing residents to the candidates and their policy positions.

“Decisions are being made, and a lot of people are asleep,” Gardner said. “I really want people to get engaged early so that they can have a voice in (local politics).”

Executive Director of Art Encounter Lea Pinsky met Gardner through Gardner’s mother, artist and activist Fran Joy, and said Evanston Live TV’s recent coverage is very impactful.

“She’s led me to be a more conscious citizen … She teaches people how to listen because she models it so well,” she said, calling Gardner Evanston’s own “local investigative journalist.”

As for what the future holds, Gardner said she is excited to see how Evanston Live TV further develops.

“Every day I pray to God,” she said. “Whatever it grows into, it’s His will. I just want it to serve the people at the end of the day.”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @JorjaSiemons

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