State Senator Kimberly Lightford (4th) and State Representative La Shawn Ford (8th) co-hosted a town hall meeting last Saturday ahead of what will be the first legislative session helmed by a Republican governor in more than a decade.
A diverse, multi-generational crowd from throughout the city gathered inside the ornate auditorium of the Austin Town Hall building at 5610 W. Lake Street.
The purpose of the meeting, Ford said, was to mobilize a grassroots contingent of voters and community stakeholders that he, Lightford and the General Assembly's other African American members could leverage in pushing through their agenda for this year. However, many among the roughly 100 attendees either didn't know that agenda existed or couldn't bring themselves to trust it.
The confusion made for a rather tense three hours or so, with the two lawmakers forced to defend the record of the 30-member Illinois Legislative Black Caucus—a record Lightford said often goes "unspoken, unsaid [and] unappreciated" by the very block of voters whose interests it illuminates.
"No one wants us to seal [criminal] records, but us," Lightford said, referencing the Caucus. "No one wants us to provide Medicaid but us. No one wants weatherization programs to help with our houses, but us. No one wants to help out seniors, but us. So when you think about the Black Caucus and ask us what is our agenda—I'll tell you," she said.
Lightford emphasized that, on many of the aforementioned measures, Caucus members have an uphill fight. She said it took six years to push through a program that required trade unions throughout the state to be more inclusive of African American laborers – even with two Democratic governors in office.
"We fight….to keep seniors on Medicaid in the black community," Lightford continued. "We've been fighting to make sure our young people, our kids, have access to dental work. We fight to make sure that the Department of Human Services is funded so our people have TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] and Link. These are not small things! We're making sure people eat."
It's a fight that doesn't appear to be getting any easier with Governor-elect Bruce Rauner taking over the reigns, Ford noted.
"The new governor believes in business [and] he believes in probably cutting social service programs," he said.
However, interspersed throughout Lightford's litany of legislative priorities were heckles and indignant outcries.
"You aren't doing anything!" screamed one older woman in the audience.
"That's an excuse!" said one tall, slender African American man who has the physique of someone who works with his hands.
Abu Bakr Nurruddin, 72, is a college-educated military veteran and an aspiring entrepreneur who described himself as "anti-incumbent".
"The simplest way I can put it is what a business law professor once told me," said Nurruddin, an Orthodox Muslim. "He said, 'If party A and party B conspire to your detriment, that's illegal in America. So, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, black elected officials, white elected officials—they've all conspired to the detriment of the black community."
"Our economic and political situation is inexcusable," he said. "How is it in a world full of money, in the United States of America, a segment of us is poor? It's inexcusable. Somebody has to be conspiring to our detriment."
But when asked whether or not it was fair to dismiss wholesale the work of an elected official based on these systemic realities, Nurruddin pivoted to discussing change that was a lot more feasible and less abstract, despite what appeared to be his vaunting personal ambition.
"I'm looking to go into business and create jobs for people in my community," said Nurruddin, who wants to create an advertising empire. "I want to create a business that will help create millions of jobs. There has to be a segment of us who is going to look out for our community."
The kind of comprehensive change Ford had in mind, however, was less in the mold of Jay-Z and more in the mold of Dr. King.
"In order to get things done and get things passed, there's got to be a movement," he said, referencing King's Poor People's Campaign and the modern Civil Rights Movement as examples.
"You know [those movements] wouldn't have happened if people didn't come together. Look at the immigration movement happening now; or marriage equality. Those…became law because people got together and made it happen."
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