Directors’ Showcase: Jonathan Samuels Advocates for Local Youth

From a very early age, Jon Samuels witnessed his family’s commitment to the community.

“My parents never pushed politics but they were passionate through their work in the medical and mental health fields as well as their broader commitment to the community. They strongly believe in fairness and justice for everyone. That had a big impact on me.”

Samuels was a keen observer of electoral politics in high school and college, specifically the 1992 and 1996 Presidential campaigns. However, his true political awakening came when he took his first full-time campaign job in 1997 after meeting then congressional candidate Jan Schakowsky. At the time, Samuels was a program director with the McGaw YMCA where he was organizing expanded programming for the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy. He was part of a team that mentored a group of 5th-12th-grade students in leadership development activities and planned community service projects. The first student-led project was to march against gun violence.

“I was proud of the students for taking on such an important issue, but I expected a small crowd when we went to ETHS to kick off the march.”

“The students clearly tapped into something important to Evanston because nearly a thousand people showed up. The Evanston Police Department had to shut down Lake Street to traffic as we marched to a planned rally in Fountain Square.”

Samuels says he went to that march following the lead of his students. For him, it was a life changing event, as it was during that march that Jan Schakowsky introduced herself to Samuels and convinced him to go back to her campaign headquarters to meet her team. Reflecting on that day, Samuels said: “I had no idea that Jan would have such a profound impact on the trajectory of my life and career.  I will always count her as a member of my family.”

“It took about 3 seconds for me to realize that this person was so extraordinary that I had to recruit him to work on my campaign for Congress.” That’s when Congresswoman Schakowsky says she “kidnapped” Jon Samuels, grabbed his arm and brought him to her campaign office in the Rotary Building. She recaps that was one of the smartest moves of her life!

Samuels’ interest only grew when he moved to Washington D.C. in 1999 to work for Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky during her first four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

“Jon then worked for me for eight years, and his skill, dedication, and effectiveness were apparent to all – eventually landing him in the White House serving as an invaluable Assistant to President Barack Obama. I was in the room when the President gave a big heartfelt farewell to Jon, extolling his virtues and accomplishments.”

Congresswoman Schakowsky said she was bursting with “motherly” pride and still is after 20 years. “For me, to meet Jon Samuels was to love him.”
Having been introduced to the Moran Center by current board member Adam Chiss, Samuels says, “It is an incredible honor to serve as a Board Member. I have been so thoroughly impressed with the staff, their commitment to youth in our community and their hard work and talent. It is humbling to serve alongside the other distinguished members of the board.”

Chiss feels just as humbled by Samuels and his commitment to service, “When considering prospective candidates to nominate to the Moran Center’s Board of Directors, I thought how lucky we’d be if we could successfully recruit Jon, knowing what a doer he is; knowing his passion for working towards progressive, inclusive public policies; knowing his talents in working with a range of diverse personalities and harnessing different viewpoints; and knowing he was moving back to his hometown of Evanston after nearly two decades in D.C. and was looking to get involved in a meaningful, impactful way.”     

Samuels believes that President Obama framed the importance of the Moran Center’s mission and the services it provides, as well as the need to reform our criminal justice system, best when he said:

“Justice is not only the absence of oppression-it is the presence of opportunity. Justice is making sure that every young person knows that they are special and their lives matter. Justice is living up to the common creed that I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s keeper. Justice and redemption go hand in hand.”

When asked what Samuels hoped that youth would gain in their involvement with Moran Center programs and services, Samuels shared thoughtfully, “This work is not just about the individuals it serves. Although helping young at-risk Evanston youth meet their potential is reason enough to support the Moran Center, our entire community benefits when we are able to help create better outcomes for our youth. I hope we are able to carry that message to an increasingly broader audience so that even more young people in Evanston (and beyond) and the broader community can benefit even more from the great work done by the Moran Center. The Moran Center is able to make an enormous impact with a relatively small amount of resources and the model is one that should be adopted elsewhere.”