After graduation from ETHS in 1974, Lonnie thought he would be a football player, but “I was not fast enough, big enough or strong enough,” he says. So he got a job as a lab technician at Baxter Labs and then worked for the City of Evanston in the Department of Forestry. He also worked on the Deep Tunnel project, and at Family Focus. With a partner, he founded his own company, Community Builders.
Q: How did you become involved in social justice issues?
A: My mom was 16 when she had my sister, and 17 when she had me. I was raised by my grandparents. We went to Family Focus. My sister was also a teen mom and Mrs. Holmes [now Alderman Holmes] was there for teen parents. I got the ‘bug’ for helping people from watching the people at Family Focus. I worked at Family Focus for a total of 17 years.
Q: What other programs have you been involved in?
A: Well, I established Community Builders with a partner, Daniel Cheifetz. With his financial backing and my knowledge, we took kids off the street and taught them construction from plumbing to geothermal. I did that for 17 years. My grandfather was a bricklayer and I had worked for him over many summers as a kid. I would go to gang meetings to recruit young men. I would meet them where they were at.
Q: What are some of your thoughts about violence in Evanston and how to reduce it?
A: I think that If we really want to fix things, we can. Not all the problems we have can be solved by the police, even though I love Chief Eddington. He is the most open, honest man. But we need to use our money to empower not imprison. Violence is a byproduct of dysfunction. I think we have to employ people in order to get rid of violence. It’s an economic thing. We need to think about how to help the son when his father has been unemployed since the 80s. We in our resource-rich community have done a terrible job focusing our resources. I think it’s time for educated and diverse Evanston to look at the underbelly of its issues. And Evanston is small enough, smart enough, and wealthy enough to show the world how is should be done. I say the only thing missing is the will.
One idea I have to stop violence is to train 20 to 25 men to bring energy efficiency to the many homes in Evanston. So many homes were built prior to 1973. We should train 20 to 25 men to bring energy efficiency to these homes and bring them up to speed. It would save people on their energy bill, help our young men, help the earth and help society. There are about 90,000 homes like this. Let’s get Evanstonians to help Evanstonians.
Q: What other issues are you concerned about?
A: I think that many people brag about our school district, but so many African Americans go to the street for their education. We shouldn’t brag about our school system unless everyone’s benefiting from it. If half the population fails, you can’t brag.
I also think that Hip Hop has become a big factor in violence. Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto,” and “Make Me Wanna Holler” by Marvin Gaye were songs that taught me things, how to think and expand one’s mind. Hip Hop was on its way to teaching this generation and hijacked by corporations, which cheapened it. Now, instead of young African Americans wearing Dashikis, they wrap gold around their necks. The values have changed. Real hip hop taught people.
Q: If violence happens mostly in certain areas of Evanston, why should it be everyone’s problem?
A: Well, there’s only “X” amount of space on earth, and we’re all floating around the universe together. You can try to keep violence out of your neighborhood, but it affects all of us. My problem is your problem.
Q: Do you feel like things will change?
A: I keep fighting because if I move a micron, the next generation has a micron less to move.
–Interview by Nina Kavin