Tracey Wallace tells it like it is.
“I’ll never run for office, because sometimes I get in trouble,” says the recent founder of Black Men Against Violence. “I don’t say what people want to hear. I say what’s on my mind.”
Lately, Wallace has a lot on his mind that Evanston residents — and beyond — need to hear. I spoke to Wallace this weekend, when he told me how the shooting death of 19-year-old Justin Murray spurred him into action.
“The shooting triggered something in me,” Wallace says. “I went from rage to fear.”
Starting on Facebook, Wallace formed a group called Black Men Against Violence. He and others have held several meetings, and now he’s trying to put some of the group’s ideas into practice to end what he describes as a string of black-on-black violence in Evanston. His target? Black parents and kids.
“The school systems aren’t failing our kids: parents are failing to give kids what they need,” says Wallace. “We turn our kids over and expect the schools to take care of everything.”
“But here’s the thing. I’ve never missed a school conference [for my kids]. The disparity of black men at conferences, from kindergarten through high school is [a problem]," he says. "They need to have a vested interest in their kids’ education. It’s their job as parents, and we have to figure that piece out.”
Below, I've summarized the first part of my conversation with Tracey Wallace. Check back on Friday for the second part, when Wallace talks about the specifics of what his group plans to do.
Determined To Make A Difference
The night Justin Murray was killed, Wallace’s son, Max, a freshman at Evanston Township High School, called his father for a ride home from school.
“It was 6:13 p.m. when Max called,” Wallace says, but neither he nor his wife were available to pick him up their son at that time. Just two minutes later, a half-block from the high school.
“We live two and a half blocks from the school,” Wallace says, his voice trailing off.
Wallace knew Murray from holiday events and the ETHS Jr. Wildkits Football program, for which Wallace is a coach and assistant director of community relations.
“There was a whole lot of emotion,” he says. "I knew right then I at least have to try. We know this is a part of life, but there’s gotta be a solution, and the approaches we’ve taken so far haven’t worked. I’ve gone to rallies. Marched. Held hands. Attended prayer vigils…but then we go away.”
And Wallace says it’s time to stay.
“Our forefathers stayed and attacked problems,” Wallace says. His intention is to attack the violence in Evanston in the way he knows best: from a business perspective.
“If your business was failing, you wouldn’t hold up signs,” he adds.
A Core Leadership Group
Wallace has formed a board of directors and assembled a group of black, male leaders from different generations and stations in life and created this community facebook page called Black Men Against Violence, which is open to everyone.
“It’s been a powerful group,” Wallace says, referring to their initial meetings. “We’re all hurting. Black men are taught to internalize, but it’s been cathartic to talk, to form an agenda, to form actionable items, and to bond as men.” With a smile in his voice, he adds, “Until now, we’ve tended to talk about three things: cars, sports and women.”
Asked why he formed a group rather than taking another action, Wallace said he just did what he knew how to do. “I really didn’t think about it beyond asking myself, ‘How would I approach this problem, being a black man?’ I also take the professional approach. I’m the director of business services for a staffing firm, so I analyze things and I try to build a better mousetrap. The problem we have is the death of young men who never get to be real men and productive members of society.”
“If We Continue to Allow This, Black Men Will Become Extinct”
Wallace notes the contrast between a community meeting held after 14-year-old Dajae Coleman was shot in September, and recent meetings held following the shooting deaths of Justin Murray on Nov. 29 and Javar Bamberg on Dec. 12.
He recalls seeing 300 to 400 people at the meeting following Coleman’s death, the majority of them white.
“I made a comment there — jaded and cynical as some might say — that a month from now you wouldn’t be able to get ten percent of this crowd together. “Then, there were 30-50 people in the room [talking about] Justin, and for Javar Bamberg there were about 30-40 people.”
Describing himself as a news junkie, Wallace expresses anger that Murray’s murder wasn’t covered by the broader media the way earlier homicides in Evanston were. “Either we’re desensitized,” he says, “or we’re becoming that way.”
He stresses that Evanston residents cannot start to accept violence as a fact of life.
“A very dear friend of mine who’s white and Jewish said to me, ‘You gotta stop saying black men,’” Wallace says. “But if we continue to allow this, black men will become extinct.”
During a town hall meeting on Thursday, Dec. 12, hosted by Peace Pioneers for Evanston, ETHS Director of Safety and former deputy police chief Sam Pettineo reminded the group that nearly 32 years before Justin Murray’s murder, Keith Smith, a black ETHS student, was killed in front of Foster Center (now Fleetwood-Jourdain). Wallace says it was the first “black-on-black” murder in Evanston that he knew of. Pettineo reminded the group that hundreds gathered for a town hall meeting back then to stop the violence.
Since then, Wallace says, “Nothing has changed. The black people have missed that. We preach. People move on. We all do. But somebody has to stay.” Wallace says his newly formed group plans to be there from, as he describes it, “conception to college.”
Check back on Friday to hear some of the actions Wallace plans for Black Men Against Violence.