Alderwoman Stephanie Coleman; Village Trustee Miguel A. Jones; Alderwoman Maria Hadden; Alderman … [+] DeAndre Tillman; Illinois State Senator Robert Peters; Alderwoman Cicely Fleming; Alderman Matt Martin Quinton R. Arthur The focus on racial injustice and inequality in America has elevated the importance of local politics. Whether it is police reform, access to jobs and
The focus on racial injustice and inequality in America has elevated the importance of local politics. Whether it is police reform, access to jobs and housing, community development, or education, local elected officials play a pivotal role in the social and economic advancement of everyday people. In recognition of this, a new generation of local Black elected officials in Illinois, the state where President Barack Obama started his political career, are using policy to combat the many ways systemic racism manifests itself.
Illinois State Senator Robert Peters of the 13th District currently serves in the former State Senate seat of President Barack Obama. His commitment to advocacy stems from his own life story and personal experiences as a Black man. Senator Peters was born deaf, which resulted in him developing a speech impediment. He wasn’t able to fully hear until the age of 8, and fully speak until the age of 12. His mother, who gave birth to him in a community hospital, suffered from drug and alcohol addiction, which led to Senator Peters being adopted.
The intersection of substance abuse and the criminal justice system spurred Senator Peters’ advocacy for criminal justice reform and redefining the narrative around public safety. “I would organize around things that were core to me. I think a lot about the justice system. I believe that public safety isn’t just about mass incarceration. I think we have tied the idea of public safety to policing, jails, and prison. But public safety is actually bigger than that, and plays a role in my organizing and my role as a State Senator in Illinois.”
Alderwoman Stephanie Coleman, who also represents several communities in South Side, Chicago as the 16th Ward Alderwoman, credits her commitment to advocacy and service to her family’s long legacy of serving as public servants in the Englewood community. Her father is one of the oldest pastors in the 16th Ward and her mother, who is now a bishop, was elected as a Chicago alderwoman when Alderwoman Coleman was 3. Born and raised in Englewood, she prides herself in being a product of Chicago Public Schools. As the youngest woman of color to be elected to Chicago’s City Council, Alderwoman Coleman believes that her deep roots in the Englewood community fueled her desire to run for office. “I was born and raised in Englewood. So many different leaders of the community raised me; I’m known as ‘the daughter of Englewood’ because Englewood raised me. Now is the time; I am ready to serve; I am ready to serve the 16th Ward of the City of Chicago.”
Also inspired to run for office because of his family’s legacy of serving as local elected officials, Alderman DeAndre Tillman currently represents Calumet City’s 3rd Ward. Alderman Tillman always had a desire to be a leader in his community. He attributes the development of his leadership skills to his college experience when he was a member of the Eta Tau chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the first historically Black fraternity. After learning more about policy as a law student at DePaul Law School, Alderman Tillman moved back to Calumet City and ran for local office.
Village Trustee Miguel A. Jones of Maywood, Illinois knew early on that he was going to move back to his hometown of Maywood shortly after graduating from college. “As a child, I always thought I would move back to Maywood because that was always home for me. I moved back because I wanted to give back to my community for making me the man I am today. I saw moving back as an opportunity to pay it forward and be like the residents, teachers, and coaches that contributed to my personal and professional growth.” In college Trustee Jones was also a member of the Eta Tau chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Leveraging the network of his fraternity, Trustee Jones sought guidance from his fraternity brother Alderman Tillman when he decided to run for local office.
The decision to run for local office in her hometown was a very clear one for Alderwoman Cicely Fleming, the 9th Ward Alderwoman in Evanston, Illinois. Alderwoman Fleming was born and raised in Evanston and her family has lived in Evanston for six generations. She describes Evanston as a diverse city but still fairly segregated. Alderwoman Fleming is the first Black alderperson elected outside of Evanston’s historically red-lined African American wards. Her campaign focused on the importance of racial equity, which she found to be a term many residents in her community weren’t familiar with. “During my campaign in 2017, equity as a term was a little bit new on the scene, so there was a lot of explaining to people – why race, why equity, why not diversity and inclusion, why not more of an “All Lives Matter” campaign.”
The City of Chicago’s 49th Ward recently elected its first Black alderperson – Alderwoman Maria Hadden. She is also the ward’s second alderwoman. She believes that many people within her ward were excited about a Black woman representing them. “I’m a woman of color, I’m a Black woman, I’m a queer person, – and the community that I live in and that I serve prides itself for its racial, ethnic and cultural diversity.” Alderwoman Hadden notes, however, that her being a diverse candidate also led to her being tokenized. “There is definitely some tokenization. Being the Black lesbian was really exciting to a lot of folks in a way that in some ways made me uncomfortable. Like hey, I’m also a person; I’m Maria, and I am not going to be your magical savior here because I’m a Black lesbian.”
47th Ward Chicago Alderman Matt Martin is also his ward’s first Black Alderperson. Alderman Martin’s desire to seek local office stemmed from his desire to increase the informal interactions amongst residents. “I saw how the Alderperson’s office can play a critical role in creating and maintaining community structures that provide a space for people to come together to voice their opposition to something or come together in support of something, or come together just to meet one another.”
Prior to becoming an alderman, Alderman Martin worked in the Illinois Attorney General’s Office during which time he helped draft the consent decree that spearheaded police reform within the City of Chicago. Alderman Martin, who now serves on the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, attributes his passion for police reform to his experience in the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. “Doing that work I really came to appreciate the ways in which the problems that we have in our public safety system, which at the city level includes the Chicago Police Department, the Police Board, the Law Department, those problems are structural in nature. It is not something that one person can solve or new leadership in any one of those places alone; it’s more pervasive than that.”
In efforts to combat the structural racial issues within the criminal justice system, Senator Peters worked with his colleagues in the Illinois General Assembly on a criminal justice reform omnibus bill. This bill included measures that would make Illinois the first state in the United States to eliminate cash bail, an effort Senator Peters started advocating for as a community organizer. Senator Peters sees this legislation as a necessary step in redefining the narrative around public safety. “I believe that what it means to have real public safety is to have a roof over your head; a community where you know a neighbor who would open their door if you were in a time of need. It means that you have food on your table; it means you have a good school, a good job. When you think of the safest communities, you don’t think about its police force, you think about all the wonderful things you get to have in life that seem so basic and should be normal and have been taken away from us.”
Alderwoman Coleman seeks to bring that type of real public safety to her community through economic development. “Everybody wants economic development. We all want to revitalize our communities. However, we also need to stabilize the existing housing stock, the existing abandoned building, the existing vacant lots. We need to stabilize and invest in what we already have.” Alderwoman Coleman notes that development, unfortunately, can lead to the displacement of local residents, which causes concern amongst her constituents. “Our communities are afraid when they hear the word gentrification; it scares them when they hear that they are getting a Whole Foods grocery store.”
Predominantly Black communities like Alderman Tillman’s district experienced the mass exodus of Black residents during the 2008 housing crisis which led to many foreclosed properties in Calumet City. In response, Alderman Tillman, who is also a real estate attorney, prioritized addressing the issue of vacant lots in Calumet City. In partnership with the Cook County Land Bank Authority, a unit in Cook County, Illinois’ government that acquires, holds, and transfers interest in real property throughout Cook County to promote redevelopment and reuse of vacant, abandoned, foreclosed, or tax-delinquent properties, Calumet City developed a policy to get the vacant lots back on the property tax roll.
Advocating for better housing policy is a priority for Alderwoman Hadden. As a lead sponsor of the Chicago Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, Alderwoman Hadden worked with her colleagues on City Council to reform the City’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance by requiring residential developments that receive city financial assistance or involve city-owned land to provide a percentage of units at affordable prices. Alderwoman Hadden’s input into this ordinance was informed by the experiences of the residents within her ward. She believes it is critical to work with her fellow residents when crafting policy that impacts them. “It’s not just about giving people a voice, but also having to continually build the trust and relationships with people to let them know that ‘I’m not just asking you what you think, just to know what you think.’ I’m going to ask you what you think, and then I’m going to work to meet the need that you are telling me.”
After listening to the experiences of residents within his community surrounding race and inclusion, Trustee Jones authored and advocated for the Maywood & River Forest Twin Village Covenant, a covenant that focuses on addressing racial issues and building a stronger relationship between Maywood and River Forest, its predominately white neighboring community. “The Maywood & River Forest Twin Village Covenant is my response as a local leader to where we are as a country as it pertains to the mistreatment experienced by minorities, especially Black people. This is a time where all Americans must break down such a national issue and address it at the micro-level enabling our local and county responses, especially neighboring communities who do not look like each other.”
Addressing racial issues by viewing policy with a racial lens is a priority for Alderwoman Fleming. She believes that every aspect of government must have a racial lens because every decision will have racial implications. “The Evanston city budget is about $389 million; we have a staff of 900 people; almost every facet of a person’s life here in Evanston is impacted by the city government. That’s why I wanted to make sure that with every decision that was made, we thought about racial equity. Doing so would change how we budget, our fees and fines structure, our policing, who has access to streets and sanitation, and where we send our snow-plows first, it would really change everything.” Alderwoman Fleming notes that though it may be challenging at times, she is committed to being the member of the City Council that is always stressing the importance of having a racial lens for every decision the Council makes. “I am unapologetically committed to race being in the forefront, because if we do not start dissecting things, we will, in my opinion, end up being where we have always been. While it is a very tough space to be in, I’ve become more comfortable being the person who always speaks about race and being thought of as the angry Black woman. I have a lot of hope for my community, it’s a small town and I think it’s a great town, but we still have some work to do”
Being unapologetic when focusing on racial equity is central to how Alderwoman Hadden governs as an elected official. She believes that using a racial lens is critical at every decision point and needs to be a priority. “We need to model the things that we want to be different. That is reflected in everything, from the placement of my office to the staff that I hired, making sure that I was prioritize hiring Black people on my staff even though we are not a majority Black community.” Alderwoman Hadden wants the City of Chicago to focus on increasing Black representation in public office. A recently launched program in Chicago called Black Bench Chicago is addressing this need by developing Black community leaders who can create and carry out a plan that delivers Black Chicagoans resources and solutions to social justice and other challenges in Chicago’s Black community.
The increase of Black representation in the public offices of Calumet City has made Alderman Tillman hopeful for the future of his city. For the first time in the city’s history, the majority of the people on Calumet City’s Aldermanic Board are Black. Alderman Tillman wants to see that type of progress within other areas of government, like public safety. “Right now my city is 80% Black, but when you look at the racial makeup of the jobs within the police and fire department, it is not even close to matching the racial makeup of the community… we are working on how we can shift policy to make those numbers match.”
Shifting policies that are bred from systemic racism is one of Alderman Martin’s primary focuses. “We know that the City of Chicago has a sad history of issues like redlining, blockbusting, and racially restrictive covenants.” He believes that it is important for policy decisions to be informed by the City’s history of structural racism.
Trustee Jones believes that combatting the impact of structural racism must be the top priority for all policymakers. “We need to push a Black agenda that creates a safe community by creating more employment opportunities, investing more resources into our schools, and not hauling all of our resources into the criminal justice system. This is how we can off-set systemic racism.”
The need for more investment and resources is one of the most pressing issues for Alderwoman Coleman. She has seen how the lack of investment trickles down to some of the most basic resources like access to quality food. “Many of the children in my ward, when they go to school, that meal that they receive at school is oftentimes the only quality meal that they receive that day. Our children are literally hungry which makes it harder for them to perform at the same level as children who live in neighborhoods that provide them with access to quality food. I know children in my ward, that when they leave school, they go to the corner store to get Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and juice and that’s their dinner. Addressing this issue is my ‘why’ for being in this office. We need quality grocery stores in our communities and our gas stations should not be a major provider of hot food to our children; food that is oftentimes located behind the register right near the cigarettes. That is not good food, it is hard for children to concentrate and focus when they live in a food desert.”
Senator Peters believes that Black people having a seat at decision-making tables is the first and necessary step to achieving racial justice and getting access to critical resources and services. “As a Black man I don’t care about being invited to someone else’s table, I want to know whether you are working with Black people to say that the table is going to look this way. I want to make sure that we are all going to be fed at this table, it’s going to represent each and every one of us in our diversity, and that you know that we as Black people are not a monolith, we are diverse and beautiful people, and you will know that because you didn’t just pick one of us out to sit here.” Senator Peters argues that solely bringing Black people into rooms of political power is not enough to achieve racial justice. “We have had enough of the visualization of racial justice; it is time for us to materially benefit and have the power that we deserve as a people. It’s not enough for us to say that we need to be at the table, the question we need to ask ourselves is, are we setting the table?”
While Black people did not have a seat at the table of power at the founding of this country, Black people are still pulling up their chairs to the nation’s tables of political power regardless of whether room at the table has been made for them. Having Black leaders in these political positions will enable the voices of the communities they represent to not only be heard but also to lead the conversation. For this reason, the representation of Black elected officials on every level of government is necessary if our nation wants its laws and policies to reflect the ideals established at its founding.