Hecky Powell is no stranger to trouble. As a teenager, he rebelled against his father and left home. He was arrested and did time in Cook County Jail. He went to reform school and became a teenage father. Despite his troubles—or, as he would say, because of them—he has become a lifelong advocate for young people, helping those who have made mistakes get back on track.
Powell, 67, opened the doors of Hecky’s Barbecue 33 years ago and has employed and guided more than 100 young Evanston residents and their families through difficult times. At his restaurant, he serves up red beans and rice, rib tips, sweet-potato pie, and, for his young employees, a healthy dose of tough love.
Dear Evanston met with Powell to discuss today’s troubled youth and find out how he dispenses that tough love.
DE: What is going on in Evanston today? Why are our young people resorting to violence? Why are they arming themselves?
HP: That’s a good question. I think if I could answer that and come up with the correct answer, I’d be a multimillionaire. But I think a lot of it has to do with the music that they’re listening to. When we were coming along, the music we had was about love, caring, peace, war. You know, ‘I’m black and I’m proud.’ James Brown, Civil Rights kind of stuff. That’s what we were into. Now it’s all about violence, even toward women. The music we listened to was about loving women. It’s also what they’re seeing on TV. I think that it’s a way of demonstrating that they’re tough. I think that, in fact, they’re scared.
DE: Tell me what you mean. You know a lot of young people. You’ve helped a lot of young people. What are they scared of?
HP: Well, I think they’re really scared of each other. Everybody is packing. They’re fearful for their lives. And I don’t think they know or have been taught a better way of protecting themselves.
DE: Is that really the case here in Evanston—that when you encounter young people on the street, the probability of their carrying a gun is high?
HP: I feel that a number of these kids who are carrying guns are not from our community. The ones who are from our community are fearful of the kids who are not from our community, because for the kids who are not from our community, this is their normal way of life. This is not the normal way of life for our kids. And I really feel that we have a handful of kids who are carrying guns and are really violent. I think that problem in our community could be resolved if we really want to resolve it.
DE: Expand on that and tell us how.
HP: Well, I’ll tell you this, if I was the mayor of this city, I’d have that problem resolved within six months.
DE: What would you do?
HP: Well, I wouldn’t be using a liberal approach. Evanston has gotten a little too liberal for me. Anytime something happens, what we do is we create a program to stop the violence. And we make excuses. Well, there’s no excuse. And you know you’ve got to use some tough love. I think we have all the services in place to help kids. Period. We have that. We don’t need more conversation. We need to do what we have to do if we want to get rid of gun violence. That’s it. Stop making things nicey-nicey.
DE: So we see Hecky Powell in the mayor’s office. What would he do in six months to turn things around?
HP: I would definitely let these young people know that this is not tolerated in our city, just like it’s not tolerated in Skokie. People know certain things you do not do in Skokie. And that message needs to be made right here in Evanston. We do not tolerate this. We’ll do everything to help you to get on your feet, to get you jobs. But you’re going to have to meet us halfway. I don’t think these kids are meeting us halfway.
DE: What do you demand of them?
HP: I demand that they respect each other and that they respect our community. That’s what I demand of them. And they need to understand that. They got to go.
DE: How do you tell that to somebody whose concerns are not for the community?
HP: They got to go. It’s not that hard. Life would not be easy in this community for them. They all live in apartments or houses. I would let the landlord know that they got a problem, and that problem is living in their house or in their unit. They’re not law-abiding citizens. We’re trying to work with them, but they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do. So I don’t think you need to renew their lease. And if you do, I’ll send the inspectors over. I know this sounds illegal, but they’re doing illegal things. And we have to do what we have to do if they don’t abide by the laws of our community.
Growing up in Evanston, if a kid from Chicago came into our community, we ran them out of here. This was our turf.
DE: You ran them out of here?
HP: And we didn’t use guns. But today it’s different. We have kids who have gone to the penitentiary from Evanston who have made relationships with kids in Chicago while they were in the penitentiary. And they had to join a gang while they were in the penitentiary.
Then, they stayed with that group when they came out. A lot of times they brought them into our community. One of those kids from Chicago was working for me, and he said the people in this community do not realize what they have. This here Evanston is a land of milk and honey. That’s so true because you know you got all kinds of services here, and these young people are pimping the system.
DE: Our police department knows these young people.
HP: Yes. I think we have some good police officers. But I think our police department does not have a relationship with these folks. In the past, the police officers had relationships in the community, and people would talk. And the reason they would talk is because they knew they’d be protected.
In the past, I could name the police officers, every last one of them. Now you got police officers the community does not trust. They just snitch, as they call it, but they don’t feel like they’re going to be protected. They’re just left on their own.
DE: What changed?
HP: The young people have changed. But I also think you got young police officers, and they’ve changed. They’re young, and they’re real aggressive.
DE: So maybe the police academy is training police officers to take control of the situation rather than listen?
HP: The community doesn’t trust them, and I don’t know where that comes from. I think some of this aggressiveness—they need it. Okay. But also they need to develop relationships. You’ve got to know when to be aggressive, and you’ve got to know when and how to build a good relationship with the community.
DE: What motivates you to work with our young people to get them back on track?
HP: I was off track when I was a kid. And a little helping hand is worth it. Now my deal is I believe in not giving kids something. I believe in kids earning something.
And I believe in the program that we started, the Evanston We Program. That is a program where we teach the kids about the work ethic. This is what it’s all about. And this is where kids have to meet us halfway. I think college is not made for everybody. And I think trade school is not made for everybody. But I think that in this community, we push college too much and we don’t push a good trade.
I go back to my family. We’ve been here since 1900. My father worked, had nine kids. He also bought a house without getting a mortgage, got it on a contract. He worked as a day worker in these white folks’ homes up and down the North Shore. Folks back then really had the work ethic. So if those folks could make it, what the hell is wrong with us now?
When I started this business, I had $100 in my pocket and that was it. And I eventually bought this building. But I worked. I would be here late at night mopping floors, washing dishes, doing what I had to do. My theory is if you work hard, you can get what you want. The problem we have in our community is we’re not workers like we used to be. And, like I said, this community got a little too liberal for me. They give you everything. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a form of slavery.
Nobody gave me nothing. My father taught me the work ethic. I’ve been working ever since the age of 13 because in my house, if you wanted something, my father didn’t have the money to give it to us. So you better get out there. Back then, you had a newspaper route.
DE: What motivates you to work with young people. How is it rewarding?
HP: What’s really rewarding to me is that I’ve been in this business for 33 years. Before this, I was Executive Director of a community action agency, Neighbors at Work. Before that, I was Director of the Adult Learning Center. I’ve been in Evanston all my life. All that to say, it’s rewarding for me to see kids have help and become very successful. I have one young lady who’s a pilot now. One teaches at the high school, another is driving a truck. And when they come back to me and thank me, that gives me a lot of pleasure and keeps me going.
DE: How did you turn them around?
HP: Well, it’s not so much me turning them around. It’s a team. I’ve got a hell of a team right now—including a young lady who’s Executive Director of our WE program, Nancy Baker. So it’s not just me. I’m the founder of this group, but if I didn’t have a team, it’d never happen. What’s been good is that these kids will meet you halfway. As long as they can meet you halfway, you can do something with them. I don’t care what anybody say; if a kid don’t want to be turned around, if they don’t meet you halfway, you can forget it.
DE: So that’s your criteria. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in your past, but if you won’t meet me halfway, I’m not going to work with you. How do you feel about somebody who just isn’t ready to meet you halfway? You don’t know where they will end up.
HP: I feel sad for them, but I will always be there to help them if they want help. But today I’m not really going to waste my time because, like I tell people, I got more damn time behind me than in front of me. So I ain’t wasting no time, because it doesn’t make any sense. I don’t want to sound cold about it, but I’ve done that, and I’m not there any longer in my life.
DE: Do you feel proud of the legacy you’re leaving in the changed lives of young people?
HP: I never stop and think about leaving a legacy. For President Obama, it was important that Hillary get elected so his legacy could continue, or Trump would screw it up. I never look at a legacy. I just have work to do, and God’s giving me a gift to work with young people. I can relate to young people. And whatever I leave on this planet Earth, I just hope that I was able to help somebody like I was helped.
DE: Tell us how you were helped. Your path from troubled teenager to pillar of the community was not easy.
HP: I had some brushes with the law. I served time. And that was because I got with the wrong people. I was looking for recognition, and I was looking for that recognition in the wrong place. But I got help. I’ll never forget the guy. I don’t know where he is today, but his name is Tom Roy. He was Assistant Executive Director for the United Way.
I just dropped in there one day with a friend who was getting some type of benefits or help there. And I met this guy, and I guess he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He took time with me. He helped me shape my life and turn my life around. I always wanted to give back the same way that he gave to me. But the deal was I had to meet him halfway.
DE: It all started with Tom Roy.
HP: With Tom Roy. I needed a father figure. My dad was in the house, but he had to work. I didn’t understand it at the time. I didn’t understand the reason he couldn’t make it to my basketball games and my football games was that he had to put food on that table. Other kids’ fathers were at the games. I had anger in me, and I was looking for attention.
But Tom gave me as much attention as he could, and he talked with me. I could open up to him. I mean, how in the hell was I going to open up to my dad? He had nine of us. As I got older, I could understand. He did what was important, and that was putting food on that table, putting a roof over our heads, and not leaving my mother. That was more important than coming to a football game. When I came to realize that, a lot of the anger left me.
DE: So, when you see somebody who’s messed up, do you identify with them?
HP: I can. I can. Yes, I can.
DE: Do you tell them about your past?
HP: Well, sure, if that’s something they want to hear. I’m very open to it. It’s been part of my journey. I’m not ashamed, nor am I proud of it. But it’s something that I had to go through so I can identify with the people I work with.
When kids talk to me about it, I tell them, “Look, what I’m telling you is not textbook s–t, excuse my language. This is reality. This is coming from being on those streets and knowing those streets.”
DE: Can you tell us about someone you’ve had this conversation with?
HP: There was this one kid. He was 16. He reminded me so much of myself when I was his age. He had just got out of the Illinois Youth Center [a reformatory school in St. Charles]. I could see this kid at the fork in the road. He’s one of the smartest kids I have ever met. He would call me sometimes late at night just to talk. He had a lot on his mind, and he had some anger issues also. He had gotten involved in the gangs in Chicago and didn’t know how to get out. So we had to work through those kinds of things.
But he finally got it, went back to high school, got a high school diploma. Did not want to go to college. His interest wasn’t there, but his interest was always driving a semi truck. I mean he would talk about this all the time. I would ask him, “Man, what got you to want to drive this truck?” He said, “Because I rode in one, and I just really like it. I feel powerful with the truck.” I said to him, “Why don’t you go to school for it?” Well, he didn’t know how to, and at that time I didn’t know how to either. But at least I had contacts. I had a friend who was the head of the Township and helped kids with schooling or training. So we got the money for him to get into that, and ever since then he’s been driving over the road.
DE: Do you try to talk to kids who are packing?
HP: Well, I know kids who were packing, but to tell you that I talked them out of packing, I can’t say that. I think these kids are going to pack regardless. I know from my experience they’re not going to stop.
If we—and when I say we, there are a lot of us in this community—if we could help these kids become successful, we’re going to have a very successful community. And that’s why they matter to me because then you and I will not be sitting here talking about guns and all those kinds of things.
DE: I wish we weren’t. The culture has changed.
HP: The culture has changed big time.
DE: What do you love about living in Evanston?
HP: What I really love about Evanston is its diversity. It’s a beautiful city. I think we do try to solve problems, which I really love. I love the great educational institutions we have here, from elementary school to Northwestern University. I love the downtown, I love the business. Yeah, those things I love.
DE: What don’t you love about it?
HP: I wish the people would be a little bit more honest about the diversity in this community. Certain parts of Evanston talk about diversity and how great it is, and it’s really not that way in their neighborhood. My wife and I are invited to these different parties, cocktail parties, and you look around and there we are . . .
DE: The only ones.
HP: Yeah. And it’s like they talk about the schools, how they love Evanston because of the diversity. And it’s diversity on their terms.
DE: Do you mean that it’s diversity with segregation? Diversity over there in that neighborhood?
HP: Yeah. Not in my neighborhood. The black kids are invited to their homes, and that’s good. But let’s not send the kids over there on the west side. Diversity is strong in athletics. Basketball, football, that’s when we get integration going on. We get to know each other, and then on Saturday, we have a cocktail party on the north end and there’s just certain blacks invited. I get invited.
DE: Because you’re a successful businessman.
HP: Yeah, I call it “good Negro.”
DE: Are you a religious person?
HP: I was raised a Catholic. I’ve been a Baptist. I’ve been a member of the Methodist Church. I’ve been a Hindu. I’m a member of Unity. And the philosophy I believe in is basically self-help. I believe in the power of spirituality. I believe Jesus Christ was a leader rather than a savior. I think Christ is in all of us. I am a believer of other teachers, such as Mohammad. Going through all that was part my journey. I am a very strong believer that we are here to support and help each other.
DE: Thank you, Hecky.