James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy

Photo courtesy of James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy.

Founded more than 30 years ago, the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy (once the Evanston Community Defender) works to provide low-income Evanston youth and their families with integrated legal and social work services.

The school-to-prison pipeline is the biggest worry of those who work at the Center for Youth Advocacy, 4th Annual Philanthropy Awards winner in the Social Justice category, and their main goal is to ensure that Evanston youth are able to move past a chapter in their life that has been limiting their success. Those who don’t complete high school are disproportionately more likely to end up in prison; 68% of males in prison do not have a high school diploma, according to SuspensionStories.com.

It’s difficult, says communications manager Kelly Austin, to help people understand the work they do when confidentiality is such an important part of their services.

Winning the Philanthropy Award will help the Center direct some visibility toward their mission and “hopefully heighten people’s sense of understanding about some of the dynamics around the school-to-prison pipeline and how it affects communities like Evanston,” Austin says.

“We are challenged in the social media world of today where everything is so image-based and storytelling has become a very powerful way of demonstrating your impact,” Austin says. “Working with the media sponsor like Make It Better is particularly valuable for us because I think it will help us get better at telling our stories while still protecting our clients’ confidentiality and privacy.”

Currently, the Center for Youth Advocacy is focused on creating more preventative programming that disrupts the school-to-prison pipeline in a proactive way. The Center is working on identifying children who have undiagnosed learning or emotional disabilities and might otherwise be at risk of falling into that pipeline if they are not successful academically.

“If we can identify those kids and help them stay in school, then that’s where we can have a huge impact,” Austin says.

Additionally, the Center is working to identify youth in elementary through high school that are struggling academically and emotionally and providing both legal and social work services to help them stay in school.

“Instead of kids becoming disconnected from school and extra-curricular activities, the center provides strength-based, skill-building programs to teach anger management and conflict resolution,” Austin says.

According to Austin, if a child is suspended from school even once, they are three times more likely not to complete school as a whole.

“So if we can avoid a single suspension, it greatly improves the chances of graduation,” Austin says. “We feel accomplished when we see our clients succeeding and for our clients, who have experienced violence, homelessness, an emotional disability, depression or mental illness, simply being able to stay in school and graduate high school is an accomplishment.”

The client-counselor connection extends long past any court date or school year. The holistic integration of legal representation and social work services create an involved relationship can span many years. The Center also works to expunge clients’ records. They even have a help desk set up at the Skokie Courthouse to serve the greater community on this front, as clearing a record often helps make individuals more employable.

“Our biggest accomplishment is when those kids are able to put a challenge behind them and move onto what other people might take for granted,” Austin says. “Young people have a unique propensity to change when given the opportunity.”

James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy By the Numbers:

  • 1,000 people served each year
  • 100 youth served through City of Evanston Diversion program
  • 90 days of out-of-school suspension avoided annually through the intervention program
  • 7/10 court-involved clients comply with terms of their probation or supervision
  • 8/10 youths improved school attendance, disciplinary records and grades

Award Sponsor: Dennis and Ann FitzSimons


This article is part of our 4th Annual Philanthropy Awards series. Find more of our winners here: