issue Spring 2023

Avalon Park Memories: Accepting Changes In and Out of the Classroom

By Sarah S. Garber, PhD
Dr. Garber outside Evanston Township High School in spring 2023.

I was born in Chicago and raised on the South Side in a neighborhood called Marynook (83rd and Kenwood). The neighborhood was full of young families, resulting in a sort of extended “village” feel. A wonderful thing for a kid. We roamed the neighborhood, going in and out of our friends’ houses for snacks and games, our mothers calling each other to find out where we were.

Although I didn’t know it then, there was a lot of turmoil going on at the time regarding neighborhood integration (for reference, watch the WBBM News Special: “Decision at 83rd Street,” 1962). My family and many of our family friends were involved in and on the front lines of the discussions that addressed a changing urban landscape. My parents and their friends believed in and lived integration and access to education and safe, healthy places to live. We kids soaked it in. I grew up believing that everyone deserved access to good education and a safe place to live, regardless of color. Diversity, for me, was a given, not the exception. 

Class photos from Avalon Park Elementary School, a Chicago Public School, tell the tale of how fast our neighborhood was changing. In kindergarten (1964), the photo shows 19 white students and 12 Black students (I am not in the photo, I must have been absent that day). The demographic shifts in 1965, first grade, to nine white students and 24 Black students, and then in 1967 to four white students and 30 Black students. 

In the summer of 1967, my family joined the move out to the suburbs. We moved to Evanston, Illinois. Evanston was chosen because it was one of the communities at the forefront of integration. The actions and policies put into place by Evanston District 

65 Superintendent Gregory C. Coffin made national headlines. Superintendent Coffin strongly believed in the educational, community and social advantages of diversity. Both white and Black students were being bused from their home districts to other schools. One of these students came home with me for lunch every day. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember how pretty and well-dressed she was.

I remained in the Evanston public school system through high school, graduating from Evanston Township High School in 1976. The school system was known then and now for its diversity. Fast-forward to August of 2021 — I was asked to help organize an online discussion on growing up in Evanston and issues of race for alums of my high school class. More than forty ’76ers joined that initial “What Made Me Evanston” discussion, and the discussion is still ongoing.

So what made me who I am now? The diverse communities on the South Side of Chicago and in Evanston, openness to discourse, acceptance of opinions other than one’s own, the social turmoil of the time and, of course, my family. These were all part of the environment I grew up in. I accepted this as normal.

Once I left Evanston as a young adult and began to experience other places, environments and communities, I learned how rare my early experiences were. My career path led to becoming an academic research scientist with a PhD in biochemistry and biophysics — a field where there still aren’t many women or much diversity. It never occurred to me that I, as a woman, could not be a successful scientist. It is perhaps not surprising then, that providing opportunities and increasing diversity in science and health care is a theme running through my career and my life. 

Dr. Sarah S. Garber is the director of Interprofessional Studies for the College of Pharmacy and a professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences in the College of Pharmacy, Interprofessional Healthcare Studies in the College of Health Professions, and Physiology and Biophysics in the Chicago Medical School and School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.