To understand why Amara Enyia is running for mayor of Chicago, you have to understand Chicago a little first: Chicago is one city made up of about 75 neighborhoods, and within those there are neighborhoods-within-neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods reflect the city’s vast diversity: Pilsen is a historically Mexican neighborhood, and is home to the National Museum of Mexican Art and the International Latino Cultural Center; Humboldt Park is historically Puerto Rican; Uptown, Garfield Park, Austin, Kenwood, Pullman, and Bronzeville are just a few of the historic African-American neighborhoods; Albany Park has a huge Korean population; Andersonville is historically Swedish while Lincoln Square is historically German; we have a Polish Corridor, a Ukranian Village, Greektown, Chinatown, Little India, and Little Italy. Lakeview is our GLBT hub, Wicker Park was gentrified 20 years ago and is where musicians, artists, artisans and hipster hang out. Within the metropolitan area, we have one of the largest Jewish populations.
It’s this diversity, and the vast accompanying range of experiences you can have in Chicago, that Enyia is running for. She’s 31 years old, she has no big campaign donors, she comes from a background as a community organizer and a municipal consultant who helps neighborhoods invest in small businesses and bolster their economies rather than coming from the Chicago political machine, and she’s running against incumbent mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. By all quantifiable standards, in other words, her campaign is a long shot.
“It’s not the folly of youth,” she told me over lunch at Garfield Park’s Inspiration Kitchens, a favorite spot of hers that, appropriately, serves as both a restaurant and a community organization training people in poverty to work in the food industry. “I know I would do a good job, that’s why I’m running. I didn’t grow up wanting to be in politics, but that’s the kind of people we need to run — people who aren’t in it for power or glory or money.”
It’s not just Enyia who perceives Emanuel and other Chicago politicians as in-it-for-power by a long shot. Well beyond the widely-publicized 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, there’s been the NATO protests, an extremely vocal Occupy contingent that has since split into smaller activist pursuits like Food Not Bombs, and protests over the last two years surrounding the closure of health clinics, community centers, and 50 of Chicago’s public schools. And then, Amara said, there’s this: “We had 16 percent voter turnout in the primary election in March. People have no faith in their government anymore.”
“Rahm wants to turn Chicago into a ‘city of lights,’ but he can’t even keep the street lights on in the neighborhoods,” Enyia told me, referring to a new contest the Mayor has drawn up to attract tourists. “I live here in Garfield Park, and the lights on my block have been out for what — a few months now?”
That’s the sentiment at the heart of her campaign: the municipal government should be serving the people who live in the city, not tourists. “We can’t just hope that if we attract enough tourists to the Loop, the money will, maybe, in 200 years, trickle down to the neighborhoods,” she said. When I asked her what the ideal Chicago would look like in her mind, after the application of good policy, she replied, “It would be a Chicago where you could go anywhere, work anywhere, and live anywhere, and expect to have the same high-quality, safe experience no matter where you were. Chicago’s neighborhoods are diverse and unique, and I want to help them to preserve that while giving them the resources they need.”
What’s most impressive about Amara — and there’s plenty to be impressed by, not least of all her oft-cited fluency in five languages, love of Ironman competitions and endurance sports, and the fact that she holds a PhD in education policy as well as a law degree — is her sheer sense of practicality. She believes in the government serving the people not least of all because a well-served community won’t experience the massive exodus Chicago has gone through in the last decade — and, after all, the more taxpayers a city retains, the more taxes the city collects. And then, the less it has to rely on tactics like privatizing its public transit system and its street parking, or installing red light cameras – tactics that have been shown to disproportionately affect people living in poor neighborhoods, and encourage the flow of Chicago’s tax base out of the city.
That practicality extends into her policy ideas, for example a restorative justice program that would help divert young, non-violent offenders from initial contact with the prison system by treating them as victims of trauma who need to be rehabilitated. And, of course, the city’s longest-running, deepest, most famous problem is its schools. Last year’s sweeping closures — conducted without consulting the communities affected (and, notably, it affected 25% of all majority African American schools in the city) or the CTU — did nothing to help the problem. Amara’s solution? Support teachers instead of denigrating them and calling them lazy, support school programming, stop creating two classes of education by closing public schools and opening charter schools, and institute an elected school board that’s accountable to Chicagoans rather than to the mayor.
I’m not going to pretend that I feel unbiased about Amara Enyia. Beyond the fact that she’s thinking about real people who have real problems that the city of Chicago could help them to solve (or that the city is causing, and in that case they could get out of the way), she’s likeable — she’s been to Critical Mass, she told me I should get around to listening to A Tribe Called Quest. As lunch was ending, I told her I was running my first 5k the following morning, and when I posted a picture from it on Facebook the next day she commented that the next thing to work toward is a marathon. She said to me, “Nothing’s impossible.” She doesn’t just believe that for herself; she believes that for everyone else too. Nothing’s impossible. We need more leadership like that.