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Election 2015 Wed Jun 25 2014

Community Organizer Amara Enyia is Taking on Rahm Emanuel to Make a Point


I took the Green Line out to Garfield Park to meet Amara Enyia at one of her favorite spots, Inspiration Kitchens. The restaurant, located right by the Garfield Park Conservatory, provides jobs and training to homeless individuals. Enyia explained to me that the menu (which looked delicious) is kept affordable so that residents of the neighborhood can actually afford to eat there. As we chatted in this sunny space over lemonade and iced tea, Enyia explained her vision for the city to me.

Enyia is sick of status quo in Chicago politics -- in which resources are focused on the wealthy and many communities are left in poverty--and she has decided to do something about it. Earlier this month, she held a rally to launch her candidacy as a progressive alternative to Chicago's current mayor, Rahm Emanuel.

The business model for Inspiration Kitchens is right in line with Enyia's view of how the city should function -- a local business that lifts up community members, uses local and sustainable ingredients, and provides a positive space for the neighborhood.

Enyia, 31 years old, is a resident of West Garfield Park. She has a law degree and a PhD in education policy from University of Illinois. Her parents were Nigerian immigrants, and she has worked as a community organizer on the city's South and West sides. Enyia is clearly passionate, intelligent, and devoted to creating change.

As a young woman of color and a first generation American, Enyia's multifaceted identity is one that many young Chicagoans could relate to. But Enyia has never held or run for political office; her experience in politics is limited to a fellowship in the Daley administration. This raises the question of whether she can run a competent campaign, let alone the third largest city in the country.

Emanuel's leadership has continued the trajectory for city politics practiced by the Daleys, in which communities are marginalized and many feel disengaged from the democratic process. The city administration is disconnected from the majority of the community. This is where Enyia wishes to step in.

"I think the most important thing is to unify the city. I think in our campaign the message is a unifying message. It's one of inclusion and it's one that values every aspect of this city," she argued."[My campaign] sees every community as valuable, every neighborhood as valuable, every individual as valuable and worthy of investment."

At the same time as she wants to change policy, Enyia is running to show the people of the city that they can become engaged in politics. If a young woman can run for mayor out of the blue, she hopes it will demonstrate that anyone who wants to can become involved in politics and have an impact in their own way.

In a comment that may reveal she is running to make a statement rather than to win, Enyia disclosed, "I'm not so concerned with the outcome in terms of win or lose. It's just doing what I need to do, because I've seen a vision of what can happen if we all felt that way, if we all believed that we can actually change things."

With an advanced degree in education policy, it follows that Chicago's public schools are a central focus of Enyia's political platform. She supports fully funding neighborhood schools and creating an elected school board.

When I asked her about the school closings, Enyia pointed out that we often think about the issue backwards. The Emanuel administration argued that the city had to close schools on the South and West sides due to population decline. Yet, as she explained, it is likely that families left because the schools were not fully supported in the first place.

"We weren't even investing in those areas, so what incentive did we give people to stay in those areas of the city?" she asked.

Addressing Chicago's violence seems to be another priority for the candidate. Rather than solely ramping up policing or legislating gun control, Enyia wants to employ restorative justice techniques that get to the root causes of cyclical violence. She thinks that violence stems from a dearth of investment in the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the city. Thus, in her view, programs fighting poverty and lack of resources must be central to combating violence.

"If we really want to see a reduction in violence it requires us to get to the root of the violence issue," she explained. "And a lot of the violence issue stems from conditions of poverty. You know, it sends several messages to people who live there about the value of their lives. And so when people are dehumanized, it's easier for them to dehumanize others. And when you dehumanize others it's easy for you to kill them. It's just that simple."

Enyia believes "budgets are moral documents," and wants to change the city budget to reflect her principles. She supports a financial transaction tax on derivatives and commodities trading, which she views as the only tax capable of raising billions of dollars to balance the city budget. She also supports closing corporate tax loopholes. When asked about an incremental income tax for Illinois, Enyia did not express a position.

In terms of where she would focus resources, the candidate wants to increase funding for workforce development, mental health services, and extracurricular programming for youth. She would invest more seed funding for small businesses that advance their own communities.

Enyia is confident that she could prevent more privatization in the future. However, she is not sure if she would be able roll back any of the privatization already in place, including fighting the parking meter deal.

Enyia's positions could potentially garner a lot of support. But not many people know about her candidacy yet, let alone her stances on the issues. As veteran politico Dick Simpson put it, "I don't know anything about her candidacy, which is one of the problems."

Currently, Enyia is not even registering in the polls. Yet when I asked her about her plan to raise awareness around her campaign, she did not offer many specifics. She has a general plan of getting out into the community, but did not explain how she could raise her profile enough to take a stab at Emanuel. And on her campaign site, the events calendar is almost blank.

A volunteer on the campaign confided, "While I admire her, the campaign is incredibly disorganized. They do not pay anyone, and it is being run entirely by volunteers who are not well versed in campaign politics. Basically, it's the Keystone Cops."

Enyia declined to disclose how much money her campaign has raised so far. But the Chicago Reader reported that she only had $650 in the bank as of the end of May.

Her lack of concern for raising money or name recognition did lead me to question whether she is running more to make a statement than actually win.

Dick Simpson, former alderman and University of Illinois at Chicago professor, certainly does not believe Enyia has a chance. "These kinds of campaigns usually get less than five percent of the vote," he opined. He suggested that in order to have a shot, "she would either have to find some substantial financial backers who could help her raise the money, or some substantial political organization to build a campaign around." So far no signs of either have appeared.

On the other hand, as Reader columnist Ben Joravsky put it, "Think of it this way--any vote for her is, at the very least, a vote for a runoff." If Emanuel gets less than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff election.

Enyia's campaign just launched on June 2 and she is starting off in obscurity, so it's not surprising that she is still an unknown quantity. These next few months will reveal whether she has what it takes. But so far, her campaign has not provided any proof that it is a serious contender.

At Enyia's campaign launch, cries of her slogan rang out: "One city. Our city. One Chicago. Our Chicago." Our city has arguably never had the kind of collective consciousness she talks about. Enyia is seeking to unite Chicago in a fight for equality for all residents. No matter how unrealistic this may be, no matter that Dr. King himself could not prevail against segregation in Chicago. And no matter how little she succeeds, her effort to take on seemingly insurmountable obstacles should be applauded.

During our interview Enyia stressed that, "We have to change the narrative. And I think this election will change the narrative." Whatever the outcome of the election, I sincerely hope she can succeed at that.

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susanbruck / June 26, 2014 4:08 PM

Thanks for introducing us to this candidate. I look forward to seeing how her candidacy progresses.

mrbillcoach / July 2, 2014 11:10 AM

My issue is not really about winning now, but winning eventually. In the past all the candidates running against the Daley's and other have been just Somebody. The time is now to build a coalition to gain prominence. Harold was able to do this, but he was an established and brilliant politician. Ms. Enyia (It should be Doctor but that may not be electable) needs a different strategy.
What if we, the interested, found out how we could be part of creating the ultimate victory? I know I'm going to try.

Steven P / July 16, 2014 10:58 AM

I am looking for this young woman to really energize the young and nonregistered voters to come out and vote. Their voices have been silent for too long. Instead of always saying how unfair things are the stand up for yourselves and let your voices be heard by casting a vote in next years election.

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