Best of Evanston

ew_suptspotlight_video2015Dr. Eric Witherspoon gets my vote for Person of the Year. He is an inspiring speaker and educational leader. He cares deeply about the students at Evanston Township High School. But the pitch perfect message he delivered over the loudspeaker the morning after the election resonated in the school’s classrooms, across the houses and apartments of Evanston, and soon went viral across the country. This short epistle is only 275 words, but together they are more riveting than all the Tweets, speeches, and position papers leading up to the election and more comforting than all the ones that followed. Read it again to be re-inspired; save it for future reference in the coming months. I suspect we are going to need it.

northwestern-universityNorthwestern University is a great corporate citizen within Evanston. It is the city’s top employer and an essential contributor and participant within the social fabric of Evanston. It offers a beautiful lakefront campus and a calendar filled with lectures and first-class musical, theatrical, athletic, and cinematic entertainment, much of it open to the public. It is the home of groundbreaking research and Sir Fraser Stoddart, one of 2016’s Nobel Prize recipients. I am a fan of the Jazz Small Ensembles and National Theatre Live at the Wirtz. Come join me.



The beautiful lakefront of Lake Michigan serves as my backyard. I love the bike path that winds around its edge and the serenity I feel whenever I pass by. The view from Northwestern looking south toward Chicago never fails to inspire me…as well as remind me of Oz, the Emerald City.



Evanston fosters a wonderful environment for small businesses and creative, artistic stores. One of my favorites is Ayla’s Originals, a shop that inspires, encourages, and provides supplies and lessons to beaders (those who bead) all over the North Shore. I originally visited Ayla’s for some assistance with jewelry repairs, but was drawn in by the friendly atmosphere and wonderful sense of community. Ayla’s offers a fantastic selection of beads from all over the world — including rare, collectible, and antique ones — as well as an array of individualized classes on techniques of jewelry-making. Take a class and see if this craft is for you. Treat yourself: do something creative every day.

We love to read in Evanston and there are many great bookstores catering to bibliophiles as well as a fantastic public library system. My favorite bookstore is Bookends & Beginnings for its fantastic selection, personalized service, great recommendations, and cozy atmosphere.  But there are others. Try Chicago Rare Book Center, tucked away on Washington Street; they specialize in children’s books, modern literature, jazz and blues, art, Chicago, the Midwest, and Americana. Comix Revolution specializes in comics and graphic novels. And if those specialties are not niche enough for your tastes, try Montagnana Books. They focus on books and collectibles about the violin family.

Happy reading, biking, and beading. As Dr. Witherspoon advises, “Let’s protect and take care of each other. Everything is going to be okay.”

Whistling Vivaldi: Listening to Dr. Claude Steele

One of the books I read as a pre-teen was Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Published in 1961, the author describes how, with the help of a doctor, he temporarily darkened the color of his skin to “pass” as a black man, and traveled throughout the segregated South keeping a journal of his experiences. The book is based upon his journal entries; a BlackLikeMe movie of the same title was produced in 1964.

I thought about this book recently, mainly because it creates empathy between the author and black men in a way that even the most liberal white person could not fathom. There is something about walking in another person’s shoes that bridges the divide, however unintentional, between sympathy, compassion and awareness to truly “getting it.”

It is with that frame of mind that I am absorbing the protests and demonstrations that took place across the country after the Staten Island, New York grand jury refused to indict the police officers responsible for choking Eric Garner to death. Layer atop this tragedy stories about black men driving who are disproportionately stopped by police for investigatory reasons (“driving while black“). Add worried comments and questions from parents of black children, especially boys, about how they drill into their sons how they need to walk, talk and be when around white people, and especially around law enforcement officers.

This is a tragedy of national proportions, and not just for black families. It affects all of us, and until all of us take responsibility for it and work for positive change, it will continue. So with hope in my heart and the need to learn, I was eager to attend the program sponsored by Family Action Network; program partners included ten local schools and not for profit groups. Although long scheduled, Dr. Steele’s presence this week was a welcome relief of good timing. A video of the entire program is available on FAN’s YouTube channel.

The Evanston Township High School auditorium, packed to near capacity with approximately twelve hundred people, included students, teachers, parents and concerned townspeople. All eagerly waited to hear Claude Steele, Ph.D., current Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the groundbreaking work, Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.Whistling_Vivaldi_-_both_covers


Dr. Steele divided the lecture into three sections: identification of the problem; an explanation of why stereotypes are a threat; suggestions and remedies for going forward. He was promoting the book, but more importantly he was promoting his life’s work of research and experience upon which the book is based. The problem Dr. Steele found, almost by accident, was that minority students, whether they were African-American college students or college women (of any race) studying advanced math, received lower grades compared to their white male counterparts even if their SAT scores at the time of admission were identical. Further, the same problem could be demonstrated in nearly all situations where any minority group was under-represented.

Once Dr. Steele’s research identified the tendency for students to underperform if their abilities are negatively stereotyped, his team sought to understand why this occurred. They determined that in situations where a negative stereotype looms, there is so much anxiety regarding how the qualified–but still minority–student feels about the situation that performance declines. The expectations of society were affecting the interpretation of personal experience. This was the stereotype threat. Past success did not protect the students regardless of how well qualified they were, and caring about performing well in an area where “your” group is seen negatively by “society” only increased the pressure and contributed to the under-performance. And because the situation was so sensitive, often times it was not discussed (avoidance), thereby making it worse.

Dr. Steele presented several video clips showing examples of how contextual expectations affected performance. One clip was from the movie 8 Mile; another was a segment from excerpts from Jane Elliott’s lesson in discrimination commonly referred to as the “Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed Test.” Dr. Steele pointed out the social cues that reinforce discrimination and how a teacher’s instructions can make all the difference–both positively and negatively. Although a teacher could never get away with conducting an experiment like the Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed Test today, the lessons it teaches are still relevant today and just as controversial as they were in 1968.

Fortunately, further research demonstrated the effectiveness of remedies to fix and improve the situations and change the outcomes. Each of these behaviors and changes can “lift” the stereotypes.

  • Be aware the impact of instructions and how they affect academic performance.
  • Learn how to change the interpretation of events so they are less personalized.
  • Practice identifying how the other person might feel.
  • Create new habits (the 10,000 hour rule, or practice makes perfect) and maintain those habits to make changes in ability.
  • Identify role models for guidance.
  • Know how to recognize the signs and tendencies of the stereotypes communicated and structure the world at hand to compensate for it.
  • Develop a vocabulary and concepts to discuss these difficult issues and not hide from them.
  • Recognize the role of context within the domain.

It was a fascinating evening. There was so much good will in the room, so much feeling of ‘we must do better’ the sentiment seemed palpable. I think most people left the auditorium feeling optimistic. With guidance and awareness, we can all be the change.