—By Doria Johnson

Tiffany Rice
Tiffany Rice. Photo by Evanston Photographic Studio

“She’s always thinking” is how Michael Rice, father of Evanston mother and activist, Tiffany Rice, describes his daughter. Rice’s ascension into activism came at a heavy cost: The September, 2012 gun-down of her son, Dajae Coleman, a 14-year old honor roll student leader that shook the community—the reverberations rippled the globe and will be felt for generations. Rice’s mission to create a legacy for her son so youth can make better choices, and help the community can move toward remembrance and healing, has kept her busy and in the public eye.

Folks who meet Rice are immediately captivated by her ability to precisely articulate the cultural issues that created a society where youths of color are choosing violence to settle minor disputes, and the gun culture that predates their access to weapons. For Rice, the ultimate goal is to restore the safety quotient for our youth to do the same fun activities that we all enjoyed as young Evanstonians.

Tiff has been put in this place not by her own choosing, but can do some things

Using her painful experiences, Rice spearheaded a foundation where she can change the cultural priorities of young people, and acknowledge youth who shift their lives toward more positive endeavors. Because of her work, Rice is becoming an in-demand speaker, stemming from a long legacy of African American mother activists in Evanston, and beyond. Business owner and philanthropist, Hecky Powell, recently recognized Rice’s commitment with the Work Ethic through his Forrest E. Powell Foundation, the same award her grandfather James E. Cox won several years ago.

“I applaud her efforts. Tiff has been put in this place not by her own choosing, but can do some things— she’s been anointed. She’s caring, smart, articulate, strong and a good leader for a cause like this.” said Powell, “She’s on a journey to affect the world she lives in—to make it a better place. She is a visionary, brave, no ego, sweet and won’t let anything get in her way.”

Affectionately called “Tiff” by friends and family, Rice sees many issues confronting today’s youth. She believes some of the violence among some young people of color can be attributed to a shift in contemporary shared ethics—many unrecognizable to older folks. For this group, participating in criminal and violent activities are not necessarily shunned upon and, in fact, often earn ‘status’ for men, in particular. Rice also says that some women see violent criminals, gang members and drug dealers as attractive because they bring needed resources to their families and communities (food, clothing, money). As a result, negative behaviors are not automatically ostracized.

It’s important to note here that in poorer communities worldwide, especially colonized people who live within earshot of wealth, folks participate in ‘alternative’ economies because they are essentially locked out of the mainstream commercial engines that require formalized education and training stemming from good schools and equitable access to resources.

For those of us who grew up in Evanston, especially during the construction and growth of a proud Black community with historic rates of home and business ownership, we are surprised by the seeming breakdown in the social order. With a bad economy, lack of neighborhood school for many students of color, parents working long hours or alternatively not at all, the cocoon that has protected the affluent suburbs from traditional ‘inner city’ problems have encroached upon Evanston.

Tiffany believes that young folks can’t make good decisions when angry because their brains are not fully developed.  She wants to encourage healthy lifestyles through nutrition and exercise for youth and their families. Rice wants to help by changing the perceptions of ‘success’ models in our society, especially among vulnerable young people—with gender central to her efforts.

Rice wants to see an incremental change in our culture that begins with women. Women, she argues, are more influential than men, especially among youth, because they set a standard that men will have to rise to. If young women change what they perceive as ‘acceptable’ then the behaviors of young men will surely follow. The only way to achieve this, according to Rice, is through constant intergenerational conversations and reshaping the value system of our young people, without the constant stifling that often occurs when adults assume they understand the culture.

“I had another conversation just a couple of months ago with a mom from Chicago — actually, Evanston, Illinois — whose son had been killed in a random shooting. And she said, you know, I hate it when people tell me that my son was shot because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was in the right place . . . He wasn’t in the wrong place. He was exactly where he was supposed to be.” —President Obama speaking on April 3rd about Evanston mother Tiffany Rice

Dona Winbush, the First Lady and Tiffany Rice
Dona Winbush, the First Lady and Tiffany Rice

The attention Rice received has been overwhelming. United States congresspersons and senators over the past year have invited survivors of gun violence to attend President Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address. Rice’s son was first overlooked, but Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s office quickly took corrective action through a letter writing and call-in campaign. Rice eventually met First Lady Michelle Obama, shared the story of her son, Dajae and passed along his final essay and photograph. Rice and her father were later invited to hear the presidential address on gun violence in Hyde Park, where the President Obama told Rice he was “aware of her attendance at the White House, and that Michelle had given him Dajae’s essay.”

Since then, Rice has met the family of Emmett Till, who was also 14-years old when he was murdered; she has been asked to speak at numerous events, his tragedy was addressed by Russell Simmons and LeBron James. The Chicago Sun-Times produced a short documentary on her activism, she has started a foundation, planned a community-wide weekend of remembrance this coming September, and her father says she is extremely motivated to “change the world and our culture.”

For Rice, the ultimate goal is to restore the safety quotient for our youth

Dajae memorial on Church Street
Dajae memorial on Church Street

Dajae Coleman’s murder drew national attention because he was a wonderful, exemplary student who was without any sort of blemishes on his life. His family has lived in the Fifth Ward for as long as I can remember, and shared the same block as my family on Foster Street in a home her great grandfather built. The Forest E. Powell Foundation, the Evanston community, her family and the President and First Lady of the United States recognize the heartbreak of young Dajae Coleman’s murder, the persistence of his mother Tiffany Rice, and her growing voice as an activist speaking for grieving mothers across this nation who are losing their children to a uniquely American form of violence.

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