A look at Evanston’s grassroots organizations

As a part of The Evanstonian’s civic engagement issue, we felt it was fitting to profile a few of the many grassroots organizations that help fuel the progress of our community. The following organizations closely target local issues, all with a common goal of empowering youth and improving life for Evanstonians. 

FAAM Article

For more than 50 years, the Fellowship of Afro-American Men (FAAM) Hoops Youth Basketball program has been a part of the Evanston community. Recruiting from 200 to 250 participants yearly, FAAM teaches its players not only basketball skills but larger lessons to aid them in their future.

FAAM was founded to provide an inclusive environment for middle school students, focusing on African-American teens. The program reflects Evanston’s diversity and promotes self-respect, positive decision-making and the value of education through a competitive basketball program.

“FAAM has serviced over 1,000 junior high students over the last five years, allowing them to play competitive basketball. We have provided the players with positive African-American role models,” FAAM President Willie Miller says. “We are proud of our history and reputation and that we have been around for 54 years.”

2020 may have been the most challenging yet for FAAM.

“Like many programs, [during COVID-19 lockdowns], FAAM shut down completely. We lost a whole year of replenishing our program. Our numbers are down as we started up this year, but kids are excited about being back out. We are trying to make do with the numbers that we have, but with the COVID challenge, we have had to implement several safety protocols,” Miller says. “It is a different world right now, and we are just trying to make the best of what we have.”

“After the COVID year off, our goal is to try and get the program up and running again. We started back up a couple of weeks ago after taking a long year off from practicing and competing, and our goal is to get the program up and running safely,” Miller added.

As Miller and FAAM put the limitations of the pandemic behind them, they’re excited about what the future can hold. Motivating players to be involved in the Evanston community, as well as encouraging a future in ETHS basketball, are pillars of FAAM. 

“Youth members that participate in FAAM are active in the Evanston community. Many of the kids who have gone through the program become coaches in their future for FAAM,” Miller says. “We are always looking to get the youth involved. FAAM has a close relationship with the ETHS Basketball Program.”


Founded 50 years ago, Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.) has strived to close the opportunity gap and prepare Evanston youth for success.

The goals of the program are to provide young people in Evanston a safe, supportive space to connect with friends and build trusted relationships with adults. The organization has also added mental health support services to its original program.

When schools shut down due to the pandemic, Y.O.U. was forced to shut down as well. Despite aiming for a COVID safe space for the young people participating in Y.O.U., Chief Executive Officer Craig Lynch explains some challenges the organization has faced due to COVID-19.

“Y.O.U. was trying to figure out how to continue to do the work that we do but in a safe manner for our staff, students and school communities. We had to adjust how we delivered our programming, adjust capacity and develop robust safety protocols. It was a really scary time for the staff to figure out how to continue doing the work that we all wanted to do,” Lynch explains.

However, Y.O.U. now continues to support young people and families in person. To Lynch, this is a great accomplishment.

“Y.O.U. wants to continue to deliver their program and support young people in person [and] continue to improve the quality of our programs and services,” Lynch adds. “Making sure that Y.O.U. meets young people where [they] are in terms of providing support to make sure we continue to provide great support to our families and the community.”

Y.O.U. encourages young people to join its programs and be active members in the Evanston and ETHS communities. The organization has many community partners, including Northwestern University, The McGaw YMCA and Evanston Cradle to Career.

“Through the programs that Y.O.U. offers for ETHS students, we have a number of programs from STEM programming to programming that explores the intersection of race and class,” Lynch says. “We have a number of ways in which high school students can get involved in the community. Y.O.U. has also explored setting up more of a student leadership group to help give us valuable input so that we can continue to improve our programs and services.”

FJ Theater Article

Since 1979, the Fleetwood Jourdain Theatre has told stories that show the African-American and Black experience and the stories of the African diaspora. 

Founder Gloria Bond, a Northwestern University graduate, saw an absence of Black representation in the theater world. The program strives to promote the Black experience in theater. 

Rhoze describes the program’s notable accomplishments and goals for its future.

“Community partnerships with organizations, educational institutions, religious churches, churches, synagogues in the people of the community—our partnership building is something I’m very proud of,” producing artistic director Tim Rhoze said.

In his 11th year in his role, Rhoze illustrates the program’s struggles during the pandemic.

“Like most venues, we were shut down for over a year, so it affected us in that way. We were not able to do live performances. So like many theater organizations, we shifted to virtual productions. And, so, we were doing readings and even a couple of recorded live productions that we would Zoom and put on our YouTube channel,” Rhoze says. “The theatre opened up, operating at a third capacity and requiring those who are going to watch the production to have proof of vaccination or negative test within the last 72 hours, for everyone to wear a mask and distant seating. And as things continue to grow and become safer, we will add more seats.”

“As we move forward, it’s always about involving the community in many different projects that the theater will do, but also to continue to present other professional live theater for the community,” Rhoze adds.

By encouraging young African-American members of the Evanston and ETHS communities, Rhoze details how the program involves youth members.

“There has been a steady flow of young people who want to get into theatre. And, so, we present those opportunities for the younger people. We have worked closely with ETHS in that regard. FJ Theatre has put out the information for young people to be interviewed for these internships and apprenticeships,” Rhoze says. “That’s where they have sort of collaborated with ETHS on that one. It is taking those young people interested and allowing them to expand their knowledge about theater.”

Foundation 65 Article 

Foundation 65’s mission is to “empower educators to use literacy in the arts to lead innovation and create greater educational equity within District 65.” Through a variety of grants, Foundation65 focuses on supporting educators and students with a focus on literature in the arts. 

The Foundation decided to focus its time and efforts on literacy in the arts specifically, as this focus attempts to close the performance gap between District 65’s black and brown students compared to white students. In 2015, the Foundation began working on a strategic plan focused on educational equity. Through the My65 in-person benefit and virtual fundraising events, Foundation65 has been able to support a variety of needs in the district. Strategic grants benefit the overall district, engagement grants focus on one or a couple of schools and change agent grants are given to educators who want the funding to create different innovations in the classroom. 

For instance, a project the Foundation supported with a change agent grant has been expanded across a couple of schools in the district. Starting at Walker Elementary School, the  Black Girl Magic Book Club involves third to fifth graders. The after-school program is open to all genders and all races, and, together, they read 15 books throughout the year that feature Black girls or women as protagonists. After reading the novels, students discuss the connections to our society and aim to elevate Black girls and women. The program has now sparked interest at Oakton and Lincolnwood Elementary Schools as well.

“Working with Dr. Keith Robinson and pushing the Board to really want to dig deeper in working towards educational equity [is our proudest accomplishment]” Executive Director Alecia Wartowski says. “I am proud that the board has used Foundation 65 as a vehicle to support educational equity.” 

While Foundation 65 is significantly focused on the elementary schools and middle schools in Evanston that are a part of District 65, Wartowski has been in contact with and hopes to build greater connections with the ETHS 202 Foundation in the future. She also wonders what else the organization can offer besides money. Wartowski alaborates, “How [does Foundation 65] maximize and utilize skills and resources to be an asset to the community and the district in additional ways? What is our value rather than giving money?” Currently, a focus of Foundation 65 is a curiosity workshop offered to District 65 educators, and possibly District 202 educators as well. This workshop, led by professionals, focuses on teaching and finding curiosity after COVID-19 and is a way to leave a long lasting impact.

Chessmen Club of the North Shore 

Founded over 60 years ago, the Chessmen Club of the North Shore started as an organization to show the strength and support of Black men in the community. Comprised of local police officers, barbers and other professions, Black men gathered with the common goals of providing opportunities for people of color in Evanston. 

The name Chessmen comes from the game of chess being a well-respected, global, strategic game. The symbol of the organization is the black knight chess piece because it is one of the strongest pieces on the board. 

“[We are] a visible, powerful and strategic organization in the Black community,” Chessmen Club of Evanston President Reynold Martin says. “When we think of the underserved communities, it’s going to be the Black community within Evanston as our main focus,” Martin states. “We believe education is a key to success”. 

With education opportunities and community service through food drives, the goal is to not leave others behind. 

With their annual banquet often featuring over 350 community members in attendance, the Chessmen fundraise money to support local high school students who identify as Black or Latinx. The scholarship is through UNITY, another local organization and opens during the second semester with 10-12 students receiving a variety of financial supports for college. However, the Chessmen have expanded their scholarship program to now support about 40 Black- and Latnix-identifying students in college, with recurrent scholarships and check-ins. 

The second pillar of the Chessmen is focused on community service through food drives for local families and elementary schools. Martin is proud of the work and growth from the initiative, which now serves over 400 families. Especially during COVID-19 last year, the banquet and main fundraising event was planned three days after the nationwide shut down. Martin acknowledges the fact that most of the donors were focused more on supporting the overall goals of the Chessman rather than the event itself, which helped the food donations increase when it was needed most. 

Martin’s future goals for the Chessmen are to expand their support and increase the involvement of youth in Evanston, specifically in elementary schools. “The goal is to engage with Evanston students sooner and more often,” Martin states. 

Books and Breakfast

Books and Breakfast is a before-school program that focuses on preparing children for their day of learning while helping them feel welcomed in their school community. Breakfast was not always offered in elementary schools. When Kim Hammock, Executive Director of Books and Breakfast, had children that attended Dewey Elementary School, she began talking with teachers and administration about reimagining a breakfast  program for students. 

She decided to revamp the program by “going beyond breakfast.” 

“What is the holistic, overall meaning of what children need to be prepared for school?” Hammock asked. “How can we reinvent this idea? Not just breakfast, but holistically what does every kid need to feel ready, especially students of color who may not always feel welcome?”

In 2013, the idea grew in popularity as more students started to come to Books and Breakfast, viewing it as a vital part of their school experience. 

“Our mission is to advance education equity in partnership with District 65. [We want] every child to be able to start their day ready for learning physically, emotionally and academically.” 

The program begins with brain work, meaning students have the opportunity to be matched with one-on-one tutors from the community including Northwestern students, parents and other Evanston volunteers. During brain work, kids can get help with homework or use the time to read. The second half of the morning is focused on community building with activities such as arts and crafts, as well as other games. Students are then dismissed for the day. 

During the pandemic and virtual learning, Books and Breakfast adapted an online format, focusing on building community during a time where children had fewer opportunities to connect. Hammock explains that the program practically doubled online by expanding their program to six new schools and by gaining volunteers. The organization also had a unique partnership with ETHS students online, because the high school and elementary school days began at the same time. Unusual, given the ETHS start time of 8:30 am when Books and Breakfast runs from 8 to 9 am. Hammock explores the idea of somehow continuing the connections between ETHS students and the program now that we are back in person and the school start times do not align. 


Looking into the future, Hammock shares an idea of creating a program similar to the high school’s Wildkit Academy, where the Books and Breakfast middle school students can be introduced to the high school environment, as the transition can be challenging for some. Overall, Books and Breakfast strives to become a district-wide organization whose mission is to ensure that every student feels welcome in the school environment and holistically ready for their day of learning.