Structural Inequality in a Predominantly White Chicago Suburb

    At 3 p.m. on a January afternoon, 20-year-old Bejamin Mandujano-Bradford, known as Bo, held up his sanitation certificate at Curt’s Cafe and grudgingly smiled for a photo. Latasha Triplett, general manager at Curt’s Café, placed Bo’s sanitation certification in his folder, right on top of about 50 résumés and numerous sheets detailing job opportunities.

    “He was prepared to move on,” says Triplett.

    Eight hours later, Bejamin Mandujano-Bradford was dead, another young life snuffed out in the violence that has so hit the Chicago area, and after involvement in the criminal justice system.

    I. Bo’s Beginnings: A Separate and Unequal Evanston

    “Once he came up front, he started meeting some of the customers and opening up. I noticed that he was taking a little bit longer with each customer…He was talking to every single customer, and asking them questions. ‘How long have you lived in Evanston? Where are you from? How did you hear about Curt’s?’ He was looking for teachers, and mentors in the crowd.” -Latasha Triplett

    Mandujano-Bradford was shot and killed in the 1300 block of Darrow Avenue, not far from his home in Evanston’s 2nd Ward- West Evanston. He lived with his mother and younger brother just blocks from his alma mater, Evanston Township High School. Police believe the shooting was targeted. A first-degree murder warrant was issued for Ronald Kyle III in April. The motive remains unknown, and the status of the investigation remains unclear.

    Curt’s Café is a non-profit organization that provides training and job skills to previously incarcerated and at-risk young men in Evanston. The mostly black and brown students range in age from 15 to 22 years old.
    In November of 2015, Bo became a student at Curt’s Café. According to police and courthouse records, Bo was charged twice for unlawful use of weapons in 2014, and once in 2015 for residential burglary.

    Djorgy Leroy, the social services director at Curt’s Café, has had some troubling experiences with youth that led him to believe Evanston’s structure, and lack of access to services, was causing many of their problems.

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    Djorgy Leroy. Social Services Director at Curt’s Café. Photo by Nida Bajwa

    “If you grew up on the south end, you’re most likely feuding with individuals from the west end,” says Leroy. “If I give somebody a ride home I have to think who I’m going to drop off first. If I drive through the south end and I have somebody from the west end in my car, like they’ll physically start shaking or like duck down in the car.”

    According to Triplett, the resources of Evanston are not at all evenly distributed, leaving students at Curt’s feeling “like they’re not cared about.”

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      Latasha Triplett, General Manager, and Djorgy Leroy. Photo by Nida Bajwa

    “I don’t want to live in Chicago,” says Triplett. I feel like it’s turning into Chicago. Clearly when you go to the Magnificent Mile, it’s beautiful and it’s clean…but then you go a few blocks outside of the loop west and it’s filthy… and it’s like those areas and those people are forgotten about…I feel like it’s the same thing happening in Evanston.”

    Triplett’s sentiments are reaffirmed by Evanston’s long history of residential segregation.

    In a report published by the University of Illinois in 2009, Evanston was found to have a dissimilarity index of 70.8, placing it in the category of “high segregation”.

    II. A Broken System

    “Tasha used to say, ‘Oh when you come in he just perks up because, like, that’s your kid right?’ He had that quality to make you feel like you were important to him.” –Djorgy Leroy

    Curt’s Café came to be in 2012 as a response to a national crisis- young people face limited option for re-entry into society after prison and as a result, high recidivism rates. As of 2011, Illinois’s recidivism rate was at 51.7 percent, a statistic that put the state above the national average of 43.3 percent. For juveniles, studies show that things are worse.

    A study conducted in 2012 investigating juvenile incarceration and re-incarceration in Illinois found that 68 percent of youth were re-incarcerated within three years of release from the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. Most of these youth were re-incarcerated as juveniles, and most of them were youth of color.

    Maya Dimant Lentz, a fellow at the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy in Evanston, expresses frustration at the disproportionate rate of incarceration.

    “Some people will say, ‘Well, is it possible that youth of color are committing more crimes?’ And I could not care less what the answer to that question is. Because even if they are, that’s still our failure,” Lentz says.

    According to the Evanston-based Juvenile Justice Initiative, in 2013 black youth were arrested at a level three times their representation in the Cook County population. They were also seven times more likely than white youth to be arrested.

    In response to troubling statistics, many politicians advocate for a less punitive criminal justice system. Presidential contender and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has claimed she will end mass incarceration, and provide employment opportunities for ex-prisoners to re-assimilate into society. Trump’s position on the matter remains unclear. He does, however, continue to express a commitment to “law and order,” one that could threaten a continuation of the broken criminal justice system. Regardless, the debate around the criminal justice system misses one vital component: what really is the cost of the current system?

    A study published in 2005 examined mortality rates among youth in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Sixty-five of the 1,829 youth they studied died after release, between the ages of 15 and 24 at death. Ninety percent of the deaths were homicides. Overall, these youth were four times at greater risk of death than the general youth population.

    Of the 65 youth who died, 44 of them were black or Hispanic males. The cost of the system, for these young men, was death.

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    Source: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Bulletin September 2015

    III. Evanston: A Study in Paradox

    “A lot of customers knew him by name. Every time they would come in they would have long conversations. By the time he was getting close to ending his time here, we couldn’t get him to shut up. I told him a couple weeks before he passed away, ‘Man, I really wish I hadn’t started poking you because now you won’t shut up.’… but like he always had something funny to say.” -Latasha Triplett

    In 2012, nearly 85 percent of Evanston’s votes went to Barack Obama. The city is home to an active YWCA involved in the “Stand Against Racism” movement. The organization regularly engages in racial equity workshops and engages the community in tackling racial issues. The Unitarian Church of Evanston also espouses ideals of acceptance, having publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement. Although the city seems nothing short of a liberal haven, Evanston is no exception to national and state trends.

    According to the Organization for Positive Action and Leadership, 88 percent of youth who go to jail from Evanston are black males. No surprise, then, that a majority of the students at Curt’s Café are youth of color residing in Evanston’s west or south ends.

    As of 2010 Census data, Evanston was 66 percent white and 18 percent black.

    Dino Robinson, founder of Shorefront- a non-profit organization that collects information on Evanston’s black history, says community racial demographics have not changed much over the last century.

    Of the 18 percent of black residents, 81 percent live in the city’s west or southwest sides. Similar trends exist for Hispanic populations.
    Triplett believes something has to change.

    “We need to be more diligent about being more inclusive of everybody in this town,” Triplett said. “You can’t have a meeting in North Evanston about what’s going on in West Evanston when the people who live in West Evanston can’t get there to speak their mind. I feel like a lot of people are afraid to go into the community where all of this is happening, and I think that’s despicable because there are so many great things about this town, and it should be all inclusive, everywhere.”

    Patrick Keenan-Devlin, deputy director at the Moran Center, believes the criminal justice system’s failure is linked with Evanston’s structural issues.

    “When a child comes to the Moran Center or when a child enters into the juvenile temporary detention center, I always say to people, hundreds of institutions have failed that child,” says Keenan-Devlin.
    Maya Dimant Lentz agrees, and believes that nonprofit organizations like Curt’s Café and institutions like the Moran Center exist to fill a gap left in the system. Yet they can’t do it alone.

    “How many more Beys (Bo) would there be if it weren’t for Curt’s Café, if it weren’t for the Moran Center, if it weren’t for the Evanston youth outreach workers?” Lentz questions. “A lot of this is a manifestation of such deeply entrenched institutional inequality and institutionalized injustice that we’re a drop in the bucket.”

    IV. Bo’s Endings

    “When I met the two students that came in after Bo passed away…they told us how Bo used to talk about this place all the time… ‘Yea, he told me about you. He told me that you’re tough…He told me that you gave him a rose one time,’ and I was like ‘Yeah I let him take a rose to take his girlfriend’… I didn’t know we had such an impact on him that he was telling other people, like we were a part of his stories.”-Latasha Triplett

    Triplett still finds herself crying from time to time.

    “I don’t think it’s ever going to be something that goes away,” she says.

    Bo’s final day at Curt’s was a happy one. On his second attempt, Bo passed his sanitation test. Despite involvement with the criminal justice system, he was one step closer to obtaining a job. A photo of Bo on that day shows him looking down, half smiling, while staff at Curt’s Café hold his certificate.

    The day after Bo passed, he was scheduled for an interview at Hackstudio, an after-school programming center in Evanston. For many young people who spend time behind bars, obtaining a job can be near impossible.

    According to Djorgy Leroy, the students at Curt’s cannot apply for grants, they cannot receive public aid, and most jobs will not accept them.

    Maya Dimant Lentz expresses the same frustrations.

    “If you come out of custody, you don’t have an ID, you don’t have a place to live,” says Lentz. “You may or may not be allowed to go back to live with your family. You maybe are living in a homeless shelter. You certainly don’t have a resume. You probably don’t have a high school diploma.

    Who the hell is going to hire you?”

    As of December 2015, 24 states – including Illinois – instituted “ban-the-box” policies to prevent employers from seeing applicant’s criminal backgrounds. However, recent studies have argued that these policies may have negative unintended consequences.

    A paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that ban-the-box policies decreased employment among young low-skilled black and Hispanic men. They discovered that this consequence was due to broad employer discrimination against demographic groups believed to have a criminal record. Without the information presented to them, employers biases came through. Curt’s Café, Lentz explains, attempts to bridge the employment gap.

    But for Bo, and many other young people alike, a broken criminal justice system and structural inequality limit their success.

    Bo’s mother, Debra Caluya, began a GoFundMe page after Bo’s passing to raise money for his funeral. On the page, she expresses her frustrations at her environment.

    “I need to get my other kids out of this neighborhood so I need to move out as soon as possible because I can’t do this any longer,” Caluya writes on the page.

    Assan Taylor, 18, is now a student at Curt’s Café. He was a friend of Bo who came to Curt’s after Bo’s passing. Bo was his mentor.

    “We were supposed to come up together. We were supposed to be doing the right things together. Because we did bad together, we were supposed to do good together, too,” Taylor says.

    Taylor hopes to live on Bo’s legacy. For now, he’s focusing on working the counter at Curt’s.

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