Blog | July 27, 2023

"Education is Freedom"

Caring adults were key to Illinois police chief’s learning & development

Glance around the office of Evanston Police Chief Schenita Stewart and there’s no mistaking what’s most important to her. In her locker is a black-and-white picture she’s brought with her from job to job, the late 19th-century image of a great-great grandmother who started life as a slave in South Carolina before emancipation. Elsewhere, along the Chief’s walls, are more recent photos of family members from whom she and her twin sister learned a great deal while growing up.

“I never want to take for granted the journey to be in this office, or the sacrifices that others before me had to make,” the Fight Crime: Invest in Kids member shares, noting that relatives such as her grandfather and mother always impressed upon her the significance of becoming and remaining a learner in life. “It didn’t matter that we weren’t wealthy, it didn’t matter that I had family members in the criminal justice system. ‘Education is freedom,’ my grandfather always said, and he got it from his mother.”

Chief Stewart — a descendant of ancestors who had fled the American south after a 1916 lynching — assumed her post last October, becoming the first Black woman to permanently lead the Evanston force. To her new position, she brought more than two dozen years of law enforcement experience, ranging from assignments in the Cook County probation system to the Lincolnwood and East Dundee police departments, each of which she served as deputy chief. Having grown up in Evanston, Stewart brought to the chief’s position some additional and invaluable local perspective.

A conversation with Chief Stewart, filled with frequent references to the relatives who helped put her on a path to success in life, underscores an important finding of decades-long studies about early childhood development: The presence of at least one caring adult can greatly improve kids’ resilience and chances of positive life outcomes. When it comes to the caring adults she’s known, none is more important than her Bahamian-born mother.

“She came here with nothing, but made sure her family had everything,” working multiple jobs even with the pressures of being a single mom. “She stayed on us about staying in sports, doing our homework.” The lessons unfolded in deed as well as in word.

As junior high school wound-down one year, then-student Schenita brought home a sub-par report card. “Mom bought-up a lot of books, and the whole summer was summer school at home. She was pretty much the teacher, the principal, the dean” — all while still maintaining her work, Stewart recalls. “She told my friends, ‘She’s not playing today.’” Not surprisingly, over time, Schenita’s grades bounced back.

Hard work and commitment to the task at hand are lessons Chief Stewart has carried with her ever since. Thus, it’s not surprising she recently became involved in Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

“As a chief, I don’t think that all I do is enforce the law,” Stewart said. She believes her position calls upon her to play a broader and more encouraging role in her community. “I walk the neighborhoods, I’m accessible … I want kids, young adults, to know they can talk to me.” In addition, the Chief wants to ensure that high-quality supports — including prenatal-to-3 services, preK, child care, and afterschool programs — are in place to provide the help that children and families need. All these priorities are important in weaving a durable community fabric benefitting crime prevention and public safety, she insists.

“We’re never gonna do this with just the police, just the social services. It’s got to be a full-court press … so, you’ve got to (reach kids) younger and younger.”

Evanston Police Chief Schenita Stewart (pictured with a photo of her mother)

I never want to take for granted the journey to be in this office.

Evanston Police Chief Schenita Stewart (pictured with a photo of her with her mother)

Chief Stewart holds criminal justice degrees from Chicago State and Illinois State universities, and is a graduate of the Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command and Executive Management Program. She twice was honored as Lincolnwood’s Police Officer of the Year, and is a member of both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, where she serves on the Rethinking Responses to Common Calls for Service Committee. She also belongs to the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the Police Executive Research Forum.

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