Community Organizer Amber Evans Remembered for Strength, Empathy, Activism
As a normal week marches forward for some, a community is in pain.
The body of Amber Evans, known widely as a community organizer and youth advocate, was discovered by the Columbus Police Dive team in the Scioto River on Saturday, March 23. She’d been missing for nearly two months, since her car was found near the river on January 28.
The Columbus Division of Police have yet to make a ruling on cause of death, asserting that the investigation is ongoing while they await more information from the Franklin County Coroner’s Office.
In the weeks following Evans’ disappearance, though, speculation has encircled the investigation. News organizations locally and nationally picked up the story, fueling theories about law enforcement’s motives in delaying a search of the river, and the potential involvement of Evans’ boyfriend of 10 years, Mark Condo. The two had broken up the day Evans went missing, and Condo says the initial characterization of their break-up by police as a “domestic dispute” has confused the public.
Condo says the night before she disappeared, he and Evans went out to dinner at Roosters, where she used to work part time. During the meal, Evans said she felt that she wanted to break up. Condo says the two had taken time apart several times throughout their relationship to make sure they were still doing what they wanted to do, “and we always came out the other side stronger.” He recommended that they sleep on it and then decide how they feel.
The next day, the couple went to their respective jobs and reconvened at the end of the workday. At that point, Evans said she hadn’t changed her mind, and left to go for a drive. An hour later, Condo, several of Evans’ friends, and Evans’ mother Tonya Fischer all received the same text that read, “I love you and I’m sorry.”
The police were called, and Evans’ friends and family commenced a search party. Condo, who shared his love for hiking with Evans, said she would likely be either at Franklin Park or the Scioto Mile. He says Evans had a particular spot just past the Spring Street bridge where she liked to meditate. It has a view of the entire city. Sure enough, that’s where her car was found.
He and the community rallied around Evans that day, screaming her name through the night in the harsh winter weather. Due to stress and lack of sleep, it took him over a day to calm down enough to check his email, he says, which is when he discovered an email from Evans that was sent to him and their roommate Stacey Little. It contained a Google Document with an “invitation to edit,” something Evans, as an organizer, often did. In the document, which was shared with CU, Evans shared a long-harbored intent to harm herself.
“I knew about her thoughts and feelings and never expected she would go that direction with it,” Condo says. “We all say things. I certainly say things sometimes, like, ‘This life is tough,’ and I definitely have those thoughts of ‘What’s the point?’ sometimes.”
As Little and other organizers have pointed out as the search for Evans dragged on, the work that she was involved in is work that can weigh a person down.
“I think part of being an organizer is that, you have to cope with it all, deal with a lot of things that involve death, you know what I’m saying?” Little says, adding that at home, she and Evans would commiserate together in their experience as black women and as organizers. “We talked about all of it. Just being black women, you walk around with anxiety all the time. And once you start to be aware, as James Baldwin said, you walk around in a rage all the time, because you see a lot of stuff that the average person may not notice.”
Though those closest to Evans never knew her to be officially diagnosed with any kind of mental illness, she had a long list of coping mechanisms for depression and anxiety, such as going for walks outside, meditating, practicing yoga and martial arts, and binge watching her favorite Netflix shows.
“Depression or anxiety doesn’t have a framework,” Little says. “As petite as she was she walks around with 6’ 9” energy, and I think it ate at her a little bit having to be so many things for so many different people.”
At 28 years old, Evans had a Bachelor’s in Journalism and a Master’s in Library Science. She’d been a librarian, a tutor, and an English teacher in France. In 2014, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Evans came back stateside and began her organizing work as a volunteer with the People’s Justice Project (PJP), later going full time. While involved with PJP, she started organizing with the Juvenile Justice Coalition (JJC) to work with youth involved in the criminal justice system. She became executive director of that organization in January, a transition Condo knew Evans struggled with.
“I knew she wasn’t always happy with her job, but she felt in a lot of ways she couldn’t just quit,” Condo says. “If she quit to pursue her own dream and focus on her own life, when what she does is so those kids can have that same ability to have their own dreams, she’d be totally betraying everything she worked for.”
Evans was challenged with balancing her own career aspirations, her love for France, and her interest in teaching English as a second language with what she saw as a duty to be an organizer.
“Organizing, for Amber, is like a calling,” Condo says. “It’s not even a job. It’s more than a calling, it’s a duty. It’s a duty for her to do this, sometimes to her own detriment.”
Anything she put her mind to, Evans would do, and easily, says Condo, a sentiment shared by Laja Blackwell, a young teen that Evans mentored through JJC.
Blackwell struggled through her childhood to cope with anger management, and for a long time, she said she didn’t really care about life; little things could make her suicidal. She wasn’t going to school and had a habit of spending all of her money on marijuana. Evans became a natural mentor for her, could get her to step out of her anger and focus on the happier aspects of life. She got Blackwell to go back to school and recommended her for jobs to do in her spare time.
“No matter how many yeses or how many noes you get in a day, or how much disrespect you get, it’s always something that’s going to pick you up. Amber was that thing to pick me up,” Blackwell says. “‘Life’s not always about sadness and depression,’ [she’d say] She made me look at myself a lot. ‘You’re not ready to kill yourself.’ And she was like, that person, she the one that knocked the wind into me.”
Blackwell says Evans had the tendency to give of herself to everyone, to the point that she had to confront her about it.
“You’re 1,000 percent,” she recalls saying. “You’re breaking down so many percents, 50 to this person, 50 to that person, and now you down to the negatives, and it’s like you taking loans of yourself and giving them away.”
Those who were closest to Evans described her similarly — empathetic, strong, a mediator, a mentor and diffuser of arguments, traits her mother says she inherited from her father and used to mitigate familial disputes as well.
Fischer remembers a spat between siblings that Evans successfully ended in laughter.
“Any tension, anything about to break off with the boys or girls, [she’d say] ‘This ain’t about to be that. We’re family,’ and then she’d do some kind of silly dance or something like that. ‘Ya’ll want the brush?’ She used to act like a grandma with the brush. ‘I got the brush,’ and then bring her shoulders up to her ears, and that would bring us all to laughter, and we’d forget about what we thought was so serious, the argument that we had, and she’d go, ‘Mom, see, things are not that serious in life.’”
In the weeks she went missing, hundreds in the Columbus community and beyond have shared the ways in which they were impacted by Evans. They’ll meet for a vigil on Wednesday, March 27, beginning with a community gathering at St. Philips Church (166 Woodland Ave.) at 3 p.m. From there, there will be a drive to the Scioto River to start the vigil at 5:15 p.m. A dinner will be held back at St. Philips after the vigil, at 7 p.m.
If you or a loved one needs help, please call or text* the Suicide Prevention Hotline: (614)-221-5445. *Text Line available Monday through Friday 12 to 10 p.m. Visit adamhfranklin.org/find-help/suicide-prevention for more information.