NDICA and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority are partnering to provide youth programming, vocational training, record expungement, and workforce development services in the Cook South Suburban region of Illinois. These services are being provided using revenue from adult-use cannabis sales in Illinois as part of the Restore, Reinvest, and Renew (R3) Program
We are delighted to introduce Kelly Evans, the new executive director of NDICA Illinois, who will lead this effort. Kelly has master’s degree in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree in English from Knox College. She also currently serves as Vice President Entrepreneurship and Community Economic Development at YWCA Metropolitan Chicago.
Kelly has been working in community development most of her career. She owned Hire Learning, a company dedicated to connecting 18-24 year olds with prospective employers. She pivoted into the cannabis sector, not as an ambassador of cannabis per se, but as a community organizer focused on community integration to help support those who were negatively impacted by the War on Drugs. She joined Cresco Labs in the role of Director of Community Integration in March 2019 after serving as Chief of Staff to state senator Toi Hutchinson, who was instrumental in helping cannabis legislation pass in Illinois. Ms. Hutchinson is now Adviser to the Governor of Illinois on Cannabis Control.
“I didn’t go to Cresco to get into cannabis,” she said. “I felt a strong pull to this burgeoning industry because it was so clear how people of color had been criminalized. They were being locked out because of their backgrounds and criminal records and that’s not just ironic, it’s blatantly hypocritical. Unpacking all of this is a lot to wrap your head around,” she explained.
Because of her unique combination of skills in both a legislative arena and also community outreach, Kelly is uniquely positioned to navigate the minefield of issues and help facilitate interactions between individuals and communities to help address issues of social inequity and social injustice.
“We simply can’t talk about the cannabis industry without talking about criminal justice reform,” she explained. “They are intimately integrated.”
Kelly has several goals as executive director of NDICA Illinois. She wants to work closely with black community leaders to help reduce the taboo around cannabis. Part of the conversation is to help educate people about how stereotypes were built over years and years of deliberate misinformation to marginalize people of color and breaking down barriers of misunderstanding.
“There’s a big population of baby boomers who are having ailments that could be helped with cannabis, but the black community has also bought into years of propaganda that cannabis is an awful substance,” she explained. “It’s important to shift paradigms and to embrace the industry as a whole as an economic engine for growth in marginalized communities as well. If you can sell gym shoes, you can sell a vape pen. We have to help undo 2-3 generations of propaganda. The cannabis industry is in one way a path to reparations of sorts.”
Kelly is already hitting the ground running in Illinois. She is working with community partners in Park Forest to help find ways to mutually support each other. One of the most exciting projects on the horizon is rolling out a STEM program for Chicago Heights, a community that has struggled through years of disinvestment. The goal is to work with every student in the school to help develop science, technology, engineering and math programming. According to Kelly, “Through the R3 grant, we will be able to really improve service delivery in South Suburban area and make a substantial difference immediately.”