Evanston Interviews: Mary Adams Trujillo, Ph.D.

This interview is part of the Project LRN: Evanston Interviews series, which will be featured in the new book Say It Forward compiled and edited by Voice of Witness. It was recorded August 27, 2014, and is presented here in full.

Dr. Mary Trujillo’s family lived in Evanston for over four generations; however, at the time of this interview, she was beginning a transition to nearby Skokie. Mary was an active volunteer and advocate in Evanston for many years working on behalf of social and racial justice. A board member of the Grandmother Park initiative, Dr. Trujillo and her colleagues successfully worked to establish a “tot lot” in Evanston’s 2nd ward for neighborhood children. In addition, she is a Professor in the Communication Arts department at North Park University, where she co-chairs the Conflict Transformation major and works with students to transform violent environments.

Listen now or read an edited interview excerpt, below:


Mary Trujillo: I can remember when my sense of safety really, really was challenged, and that was in 1999. We went to church with the Birdsongs, so I knew Ricky Birdsong, and I know his family. And I remember after that, feeling like: wait—he was in a good neighborhood, some person out of the blue spots him and shoots him. And so I literally, after that, [became] very mindful. For example the 4th of July thing down on the beach… going to the fireworks and thinking: Any person at any time could just start shooting. It could happen. So that is something that I have actively carried around with me. I’m not real secure in those kinds of environments. And it’s not so much that I feel particularly as a woman vulnerable, I really do feel like it’s more race-based.  I’m really aware and mindful of situations where, as a woman, I’m vulnerable. That I’m clear about. And maybe those two sort of reinforce each other.

Interviewer: The lack of safety for women, is that clearer than the lack of safety in terms of race?

MT: I think so. I think so, yeah.

Int: Like, we know those dangers a little bit better, and it’s something that’s more a part of the social consciousness. Whereas race… we still don’t talk about what that violence means.

MT: Yeah. And that’s part of the significance of this Ferguson episode for, I think, many African-Americans, this sense of: You could just be doing what you do. Just doing what you do. And that could be it. And this doesn’t matter that you have your hands raised, saying “I’m cooperating with you.” It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. There is an open season on black life. It really feels like that.

Int: So this connects to Evanston and its diversity. Evanston prides itself on being diverse, and so one of the things that I’m really curious about is… especially for residents… how do you feel about that reputation and that perception? How does that connect with or contrast with your experience?

MT: I think we have access to diversity, and many people have multiple cross-racial, cross-cultural relationships. I think that’s (kind of at a very superficial level) that’s a norm. That’s an expectation. I think we do better than many communities with having situations where people can have those kinds of relationships. And it does not have to go any deeper than that.

So that’s kind of the downside: that people don’t have to go any deeper. The opportunities are there for meaningful relationships, but you don’t really have to. And my observation is, those areas that are uncomfortable, people don’t do them, black and white. It’s too hard. Those personal relationships stop or – and I’ll use the word – “fail,” and “fail” may be an overstatement, when those structural considerations  emerge. So I can be friends with you, and we can go and have coffee and we can talk and relate on that level. But when we have to confront the fact that the experience at Evanston High School is very different for black students, for any number of reasons, than it is for white students, there’s not a need, there’s not a requirement, for the more privileged party to deal with that. They don’t have to.

Int: Right. They can easily hear that in the conversation and then go home and just put it away.

MT: Yeah. And we can still be friends, we can still have coffee, and we can say that this is the level that we’re going to be friends, and this is how it’s going to be. So again, the opportunities are there, and people take advantage of them or not. Mostly – to go deeper, mostly not, is my experience. Because it’s too hard. And I’ve heard black people say that; I’ve heard white people say that. It’s too hard.

Int: What do you think they mean when they say that?

MT: Again, confronting the structural realities is hard. Looking at ourselves deeply and our own perceived flaws or the ways that we enable situations of racism or power, that’s hard. Who wants to feel bad?


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