Longtime Evanston resident Madeline Ducre sent her six kids through the city's newly integrated school system in the 1960s.
Sometimes, she says, she felt that her children were neglected and hurt by a system that didn't fully bring them into the fold. Decades later, she believes that problem is still going on, given disparities between the performance of white students and minorities.
"The gap is still there," Ducre says. That issue, along with others, inspired her to approach the city's human services committee two years ago, and again, about six months ago. She told them that she believed there were problems related to race in Evanston, and that she thought the best way to tackle it might be to bring everyone together to talk.
“We need to have some type of town hall meeting, some type of dialogue where…people come out and just tell it like it is,” she recalled telling the committee. “I do believe that once you bring things out in the open, that things would be better, and it would help this town not only city-wise but District 65-wise.”
From Ducre’s suggestion came the city’s series of “Dialogues on Race,” which began Thursday night with a crowd of roughly 100 people at the . At the first of three such community meetings, Evanstonians from around the city talked about the way race intersects with the public school system, segregation of neighborhoods, economic disparities and crime.
With the mayor and several aldermen in attendance, participants were divided in groups of five to eight at small tables. They talked about why their family came to live in Evanston, and whether the city had lived up to their hopes, then shared their reactions with the group as a whole.
Speaking to the small group at her table, Ducre said she was born in Louisiana and moved to Evanston in the 1960s, where she met her husband, got married and had six kids.
Growing up biracial in the south, Ducre said she felt like her family protected her from racism. It wasn’t until she read about the murder of Chicago teenager Emmett Till, by a group of white men in Mississippi, that racism became real to her.
Years later, when her own children were attending Evanston's public schools, she said she noticed that their academic performance began to suffer when they were in third or fourth grade. Her boys, in particular, were most hurt, she said.
“You’re in a school system, and you know you’re being mistreated, or you’re not expected to do as much as other children,” Ducre said. Today, she said, the gap between white students and minorities is still a problem.
Rebecca Mendoza, who immigrated to Evanston from Mexico City at age 5, said she, too, saw problems manifest themselves in Evanston’s public schools. Her father declined bilingual education, and she quickly adapted to learn English. But, she added, “what I didn’t adapt to was the very cliquey circles that exist in Evanston sometimes.” Most of her friends came from her church, in Chicago, rather than from her schools.
Mendoza graduated from and went on to the University of Michigan. She returned to Evanston to after college, and now has a daughter in elementary school in District 65.
“When I came back, a lot of things hadn’t changed and I was really frustrated,” she said. “Living in Evanston is hard, especially if you’re a person of color.”
Observing her daughter’s experience in District 65 schools, Mendoza said she believes that the community still fractures along color lines. First, she signed her daughter up for the Two-Way Immersion track, then transitioned her to the African-centered curriculum.
“There’s a lack of racial harmony in the schools,” she said. “I want her to be able to focus on learning. It brings me back to thinking whether I want to be here.”
Several other people at the forum said they felt the achievement gap between white students and minority students in schools was the biggest problem related to race in Evanston.
Longtime Evanston resident and former second ward alderman Lionel Jean Baptiste, who spoke at the beginning of the event on Thursday, recalled fighting for integration in Evanston schools in the 1960s.
“While we fought to integrate the schools, there is still a gap,” he said. “If we sit back and tolerate the gap, then we’re part of the problem.”
Beyond disparities in the public schools, several people also said they moved to Evanston for its diversity, but were surprised that their neighborhoods turned out to be largely populated by one group of people.
Aretha Hartley, who grew up in South Haven, MI, said she never felt a racial divide in her small beachfront town. When she came to Evanston for a job, however, she was surprised by how segregated the community was.
“I did not experience racial divides so right in your face as when I started working in Evanston,” she said.
Moving forward, attendees agreed that they wanted future efforts to focus on the school system, segregation of neighborhoods and a reduction of crime among all children. Evanston will hold two more dialogues in the series, with topics based on the discussion in the first two. Those are scheduled for tentatively scheduled for Oct. 25 and Jan. 24, 2013.
Reflecting on Thursday’s conversation, Ducre said she was pleased with the discussion as a start to the process—or as a steppingstone in a process that began a long time ago. Still, she said, she would like to see more diversity among the attendees at future forums, including representatives of more socioeconomic classes, more people from the Asian community and perhaps a representative from Northwestern University.
Ducre said she also hopes participants will get a little more specific about problems and solutions at future meetings.
“I think we’re tiptoeing through the tulips,” she said. “We should be more direct.”