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Black in Evanston: Exploring Social Justice in Evanston’s Education, Leadership, and Art

In December 2020, then Honors College senior, Jamal Graham presented a film as his Capstone Project to a packed zoom audience, a very personal and powerful project about the challenges faced by Blacks living in Evanston, Illinois. Jamal Graham, who graduated as part of the Class of 2020 with a major in Teaching of English, completed his final Honors Capstone project with guidance from Honors College Faculty Fellow and Academic Advisor, Lauren DeJulio Bell. After graduation, Graham will be working as a community organizer with Connections for the Homeless. He dedicates his time to advocate for affordable housing within the Evanston community. 

During my interview with Jamal Graham, he shared the difficult experiences he faced as a child and during his troubled adolescent years. Graham was suspended several times from his middle school, and in high school, he was subjected to unwarranted verbal abuse from his teachers. Nevertheless, he eventually made it to his high school graduation. After pushing through a grueling journey at school, Graham was overcome with an unwavering sense of determination to study harder and expand access to resources in his community. Because of this goal, he was inspired to shed light upon the challenges and unfair disadvantages faced by African Americans in Evanston for his Capstone project at the UIC Honors College.

Graham’s Capstone film project was titled, “Black in Evanston: Exploring Social Justice in Evanston’s Education, Leadership, and Art!” The project, as the title suggests, highlighted issues faced by Blacks living in the Evanston neighborhood. Each of the three episodes in the film focused on a core aspect of the community: art, education, and leadership. Each was very informative and insightful, serving his aim to reach out to audiences from other races and educate them on what they could do to further accommodate and welcome the Black community into their neighborhood.

Graham interviewed several high-profile individuals in Evanston to add different perspectives to his impressive work. In the first episode, Graham interviewed Ben Blount, a graphic designer in Evanston working to acknowledge race and diversity through his stirring graphics; Blount single-handedly printed more than a thousand ‘Black Lives Matter’ yard signs. In another interview, Nikko Ross, an educator at the Rice Education Center, commented that life as a Black male has been empowering and enlightening. Even so, -he has faced animosity while being in Evanston. Nikko highlighted a contradiction among non-African Americans: everyone widely appreciates Black culture and the arts, but not the people. The second episode began with Graham’s conversation with Mike Ellis, Evanston Township High School’s (ETHS) basketball head coach. He has been actively raising awareness for racial injustice in America by painting ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs. Moreover, Marcus Campbell, the principal of ETHS, took – time to discuss the differences between equity and equality.  The episode ended with thoughts  from Abdel Shakur, who teaches an all-Black male section of English at ETHS, empowering youth in the community. -Graham concluded his series with his interviews with the ninth Alderwoman, Cicely Fleming, and the Mayor of Evanston, Steve Hagerty. Both individuals shared their inspiring and multiple efforts to improve the quality of life for Blacks in Evanston.

Undoubtedly, Graham was extremely grateful for the time and perspectives offered by each – subject. He was able to draw connections between his own experiences and most of his interviewees’ journeys as a Black individual. They all recognized the existence of social injustice in the Evanston community and were deeply passionate about addressing the issues faced by Blacks. Most of the subjects aimed to push the Black youth to break the stereotypes set against them and to become more than what society expects them to be. Graham notes  that it is necessary to come together and talk about the disadvantages that are specifically reserved for the Black community. The setbacks faced by – African Americans should no longer be simply accepted as part of their fate but as a source of inspiration to turn their own lives around. Graham’s dedication and hard work serving the Black community. It was absolutely heartening to see both Graham and his subjects committed to building a promising future for the Black community.

In addition, Graham shared insightful advice for all the Honors College students who are about to embark upon their own Capstone projects. He viewed his Capstone as an opportunity to sum up his personal life and his time at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) before graduating. Graham described the film as a “beautiful beginning” disguised as an ending to his time at UIC. He asked all future students to have fun with their projects and ensure that they have personal meaning. Certainly something future UIC Honors College students could consider while crafting their project proposals!

Jamal Graham elevated his Capstone project to a whole new level of creativity and excellence. He has continued to use it effectively to impact Black lives and to establish a welcoming environment for the future, especially in Evanston. Ampersand wishes Jamal Graham the best of luck in his future endeavors to ensure racial justice in Evanston!