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NAACP honors 9, celebrates ‘value of unity’ against racism and injustice

The NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet was full to capacity from 6 to 10 pm on Saturday, Nov. 19. Credit: Heidi Randhava

The Evanston/North Shore Branch of the NAACP honored nine local leaders at its 58th annual Freedom Fund Banquet on Saturday, Nov. 19.

Keynote speaker Dara Munson, president and chief executive officer of Family Focus, congratulated the awardees “not only for the honor you’re receiving, but for standing up and answering the call.”

The Rev. Grace Imatheiu, third from right, of First United Methodist Church, with members of the church, and master of ceremony Bob Jordan, third from left, a retired WGN news anchor. Credit: Heidi Randhava

Those receiving awards at the banquet, at the Holiday Inn and Suites in Skokie, were: Bushra Amiwala, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Amiwala Foundation, Chicago; Tim Evans and BJ Jones, Northlight Theatre, Skokie; the Rev. Grace Imatheiu, First United Methodist Church, Evanston; Krenice Roseman-Ramsey, Attorney, Department of Education, Chicago; Jasmine Sebagalla, Abolition Coalition, Skokie; Robin Rue Simmons, First Repair and Evanston Reparations, Evanston; Eric Witherspoon, retired Superintendent, District 202, Evanston; and Willie Shaw, President’s Award.

Gathering in person for the event for the first time since 2019, NAACP members and guests celebrated the collective power of individuals and organizations to advocate for racial equity and work toward ending all forms of discrimination.

Keynote speaker Munson, who was introduced by her daughter, Taylor Munson, focused on the value of unity in responding to the community’s most pressing issues, especially the need for youth advocacy.

Keynote speaker Dara Munson, right, and her mother Vernice Anthony prepare to step onto the dance floor as the evening nears its close. Credit: Heidi Randhava

In her remarks, Munson asked, “By a show of hands, how many of you have children? … If you’ve raised, mentored, taught, or served as a pseudo-parent to a child or student, raise your hand. If you’re a grandparent, an aunt, uncle, big brother, big sister, or a Big Ma, keep your hands up. … Each hand represents a child, a child that is relying on the work of your hands, not only to survive, but to thrive in an environment that, far too often, overlooks their needs, ignores their struggles, and dismisses their potential.

“Whether you use your hands to teach, train, mentor, lead, donate, or serve as an advocate – our children are counting on us to make space for them, create opportunities for them, and provide for them the pathway to their greatness. So, I ask you, if we don’t come to their aid, who will?” said Munson, a Detroit native and a former president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Detroit.

The Rev. Kenneth Cherry of Christ Temple Missionary Baptist Church leads NAACP members and guests in “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” often called the Black national anthem.

Since coming to Chicago, Munson has held many leadership positions, including CEO of Chicago Child Care Society, serving on the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership Youth Committee and the board of the International Women’s Forum.

The goal at Family Focus, Munson said, “is not only to come to the aid of children, but to protect, preserve, and restore the family. We know that when you strengthen the family, you build a foundation for that family. And when you activate resources and programs to support that family, you build communities.

“If children are indeed our future, the question is – how are the children? … The true strength of a community is determined by the well-being of its children,” said Munson.

Far too often, she said, government aid for children in crisis “is not deployed for people who look like many of us in this room.”

Special guest Alice Turner, age 102, received a standing ovation and rounds of applause when introduced by NAACP President the Rev. Michael Nabors. Credit: Heidi Randhava

Munson outlined the multifaceted approach that Family Focus uses to help families, focusing on three areas that she said are critical to a child’s well-being: delivering high quality early childhood development, education, and services; advancing pro-social youth development; and engaging and supporting families, including providing services to immigrant families and those involved with the state Department of Children and Family Services.

“We also recognize the importance of advocacy in advancing our agenda to strengthen families and communities,” said Munson. “The NAACP has consistently recognized racism across the US, demanding a response to the impact of the social determinants of health in continuing health disparities.” She highlighted the “value of unity” in a community’s response to racism and injustice. “On our own, we cannot. But together – united – definitely, we can. Our advocacy continues,” she said.

Munson cited statistics that reflect the growth of Family Focus over the decades. With 400 employees, 12 locations throughout Northeast Illinois and a $25 million budget, Family Focus is “more equipped to execute and impact towards the betterment of our families and communities,” said Munson.

Family Focus Evanston, the flagship location, was founded by Bernice Weissbourd in 1976 as the original drop-in center for parents in Evanston. Former Evanston Alderman Delores Holmes joined Weissbourd as the first center director.

“Bernice [Weissbourd] was a force, a leader, a thinker, a professor, a teacher. And a visionary. … She recognized then, as is true today, that parent support is the key to early childhood development,” said Munson. Weissbourd died at age 99 on Oct. 12 in her home in Evanston.

On July 11 of this year, the Evanston City Council allocated $3 million in American Recovery Plan Act funds for renovation and upgrades to the Family Focus center at 2010 Dewey Ave.

“My goal is for the community to have a vibrant physical space that honors the history of the former Foster School, the last predominantly Black school in Evanston and a gift to today’s children and young people that they can be proud of for generations to come, Munson said. She noted that the renovation is not solely for Family Focus, expressing gratitude for tenant partners such as McGaw YMCA, Infant Welfare Society, NAACP, Evanston Cradle to Career and Northwestern University.

“And with the renovation, it is our goal to be able to provide affordable space in a state-of-the art building to additional partners, so the vision of in-depth family support can come to fruition,” she said.

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