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Search for Amber Evans Renews Focus on Mental Health for Community Organizers

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Search for Amber Evans Renews Focus on Mental Health for Community OrganizersAll photos by Katie Forbes.
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In a small office in a long hallway — what its frequenters call the Movement Hallway — in a big building in Olde Towne East, there’s a community holding space, a unique community of organizers and fighters for liberation.

One of theirs is missing. 

Amber Evans, a tiny human with a powerful voice, a friend to many, a comrade in struggle to others, is lost. It’s been 10 days since her car was found near the Scioto Mile, and her absence has mobilized her peers to do what they do best: organize.

In the first three days after Evans’ mother Tonya Fischer found her daughter’s car, more than 100 people came out to help search for her in the extreme weather that hit Columbus in the last week of January. They had more civilians than police officers, says Geno Tucker, Organizing Director for the Juvenile Justice Coalition, of which Evans is also a member.

“The intent of her work, how dedicated she really is, was shown by how many came out,” Tucker says. “We went hard for three days searching in the cold, below-zero weather, snow, ice. It was traumatizing for some, because we didn’t know what to expect.”

Even more came out to St. John’s United Church of Christ, and later to 400 W. Rich to show support for Evans and her family. Two-hundred souls passed in and out as Evans’ mother showed a montage of her daughter, and Pastor Jason Ridley offered his own remarks. 

But as numbers in the search parties dwindled, and as Evans’ peers were resigned to waiting on the Columbus Division of Police for more information, the support headquarters moved to a smaller space — a place anyone familiar with Evans’ work would recognize: the JJC office, at 700 Bryden Road in Olde Towne. 

The location of JJC is just a walk down the Movement Hallway from People’s Justice Project (PJP), another organization with which Evans is involved. Her work with JJC and PJP puts her in direct contact with children and families who’ve experienced trauma, from police brutality, to neighborhood violence, to deaths of close family members. 

JJC is a statewide coalition that works with youth who are at risk of involvement or are already involved in the juvenile court system. And, along with mobilizing around Issue 1 and mass incarceration, PJP have done actions at City Hall to protest the deaths of Henry Green, 23, and Tyre King, 13, at the hands of Columbus police officers.

“PJP, JJC and VOU [Voices of the Unheard, part of JJC] — we do a lot of firsthand, we’ll be the first ones on the ground, first ones dealing with the families, and there’s a lot of direct contact with the people affected,” says Tucker, who came into the organization after his nephew Henry Green was fatally shot by an undercover Columbus police officer in 2016. “It’s a hard job to have. You take a lot of people’s pain with you, and that’s hard to separate when you’re at home, or you hear the stories, or you just went out there and pled or cried or yelled at City Council, marched all day long. It’s hard to just go home and turn it off.”

Aramis Malachi-Ture Sundiata, co-founder of PJP and longtime associate of Evans, says you never really come to terms with the kind of work you do as an organizer. You can become numb to it, but it’s not easy. And when it’s one of your own that you’re organizing around, a “comrade,” as Sundiata puts it, it’s different. It’s like another level above friendship, because as comrades you’re organizing people to fight for a “higher moral position,” he says. You cry together, occupy police stations together, strategize together, break bread together. Losing a comrade is a different hurt, but it’s common, he says. 

The last time Sundiata mobilized for a comrade was in 2016, when Marshawn McCarrel, another local activist with the Black Lives Matter movement, died by suicide on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse. That act led movements like BLM to examine the toll that organizing takes on a person’s mental health.

“You lose people in this shit. It’s intense. Seriously,” Sundiata says. “I learned this from one of my mentors a long time ago. So you see the first one, second one, third one — at some point you have a timeline. Two weeks of this, six months to rebuild, and you’re prepping your people who haven’t gone through this before. ‘Be cool, baby, it’s going to be all right, you lose people in the struggle.’”

How do you come to terms with that?

“You don’t come to terms with it. You’re at war.”

Helen Stewart, another community organizer and friend of Evans, says people in her line of work are notoriously bad at self-care, because as black and brown organizers, they’re subjected to the same conditions they’re fighting against.

“A lot of us don’t have money for a counselor or therapist. A lot of us don’t have insurance,” Stewart says. “So we still have to figure out a way to support each other and care for each other when we know we lack those resources ourselves.”

And then there’s the guilt. Guilt for taking time from helping others to dedicate to self-care, and guilt that results from the fight for justice itself, because “when you don’t get it, you feel like you’ve done something wrong,” she says. The result is a community of organizers dealing with unaddressed mental health issues, which Stewart said she knew Evans struggled with.

“I had just had a meeting with her the other day at 5:30, on the 28th [the day Evans went missing], on how to allocate resources and the best way of delivering resources to the youth and their families, and it was a great meeting,” says Tucker, “so we all were just trying to figure out, ‘What the hell? If she needed a goddamn break, why didn’t she just tell me and leave?’”

Part of what’s going down at the JJC office is a reassessment of how organizers care for themselves and each other. Erin Upchurch, a social worker and Executive Director for Kaleidoscope Youth Center, has used her network to pull together 40 members of the clergy, other spiritual leaders, social workers, counselors and trauma specialists to support people coping with Evans’ disappearance. Along with a hotline people can call, counselors from Netcare and the Columbus CARE Coalition are on-site at the JJC office Monday through Friday this week to help people in person.

Other non-specialists have offered what little they can for comfort, like hot meals for lunch and dinner, supplies for artistic distraction or expression, and community yoga classes and basketball games.

“What I love about this community — there are ripples and waves of support,” Upchurch says. “And when you’ve got a bunch of organizers, too, it’s just happening without effort. There’s work, but the effort isn’t there to get it done.”

Beyond the initial support for friends and family of Evans, Upchurch says the community needs to have the bigger conversation about mental health stigma among the organizing community and in communities of color in general.

“Get outside of the narrative about being strong and redefining what strong looks like, and not glorifying this enduring of pain, enduring of being tired, enduring of everything,” she says. “There’s a lot of conversations about what’s next, because we’re forever changed regardless of what happens, and we need to build something that can hold.”

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