A Conversation with Sophia King
Sophia King was appointed alderman of Chicago’s Fourth Ward, following William Burns’s departure to work at Airbnb. King founded The It’s Time Organization (TITO) to prevent gun violence, was president of Harriet’s Daughters, which worked to promote job creation in the African American community, and is currently a member of the progressive caucus. She is backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, as well as former president Obama, who endorsed King in one of his first acts after leaving office. King spoke with the Gate ahead of the special election to be held on February 28.
The Gate: You’ve spoken out against gun violence here in Chicago, and even co-founded an organization to prevent it. What are you planning to do to continue the fight against gun violence?
Sophia King: I've been saying that we have got to take a comprehensive approach to gun violence, so I've been trying to do that in the short nine to ten months I've been alderman. But really, the goal is to approach the issue directly and then to look at some systemic issues that have gotten us to this point: the lack of jobs in under-resourced communities. There is a direct correlation between poverty and crime.
We've got to approach the issue of jobs and wealth creation and families, and so I am going to continue—as I’ve done—to look at development opportunities that will bring jobs into the community. So whether it's the Target that's been in the community or the Binny's that's coming on 47th or Mariano's or Whole Foods or what have you, I'm sitting down with the developers and putting a plan into place that includes hiring local workers but really focusing on living wages so our communities—working families—can do what they need to what they need to for their families, which can take away from them raising them and from the streets raising their kids.
We also have to look at youth engagement and afterschool programming, what I consider co-curricular programming. Those most needy schools are the ones that don't have co-curricular programming, and those youth aren't engaged, and again, it's another opportunity for the streets to raise the kids when they could be doing something more productive. That’s what I mean by comprehensive.
I obviously can advocate on behalf of some of these things, but we've got to change some other structures: some within the police department—people want police presence, that's all I've heard. They want to see police presence, but they also want good policing, and those shouldn't be mutually exclusive. We’ve got to look at training and make sure we are more than adequately training our new officers, as well as those who have been in that position for some time, and we also have to look at the diversity of the applicant pool in making sure that we've got true diversity in the academy so that that diversity can reflect throughout the city.
We also have to look at some of the laws, how we adjudicate some of these cases. It's a shame that you've got repeat gun offenders who can bond themselves out and that people who are in jail for nonviolent crime for months and years. And that creates a cycle of poverty where you're in jail for a few days and you lose your job and you have a record and you come out and you can't find a job.
The comprehensive approach would be taking a look at everything that directly and indirectly impacts the issue of safety and putting our resources toward that. That's our number one concern in the city right now. If that's what constituents tell me as I knock on doors, then we've got to put our resources toward that.
Gate: With this comprehensive approach, how exactly would you advocate for different policies within Chicago Public Schools (CPS) or what would you want to do in your next term?
King: I've started to do this already, and we're seeing it come together pretty well, but we have to create programming that's sustainable. So I'm working with neighborhood schools—the elementary schools—on forming a co-curricular program which will include swimming, chess, and soccer after school for about six or seven neighborhood schools in the Fourth Ward. The reality is that they cannot afford that programming by themselves, so we're doing it collaboratively and bringing in private dollars now. But it has to be sustainable, so it has to be something we budget for, and these are long-term fixes. If we can get kids engaged from 8 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m., again it's less opportunity for them to go into other nefarious opportunities that are out there. I’m also working toward making sure that neighborhood schools have the proper resources that they need.
We've got to build those schools so that they're viable options for everybody that lives in the community, and then you'll start to see more accountability as more community members become engaged in their schools. And if they're not engaged in the schools, then the advocacy obviously is less, so we've got to create these strong neighborhood schools to create strong communities, and I think that spurs economic development. And as an educator, I kind of understand some of those details more intimately.
I know when I go back to visit my schools, I talk to my coaches. Those are the people who were the biggest role models for me. I loved my teachers too, but the reality is that after school, I just had a different relationship with those people, and I think that we've got to take that opportunity in having another adult role model in these young people's lives and what that impact can have on them.
Gate: Do you think neighborhood schools and CPS as a whole are going to be really negatively affected by our new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos? How do you think that will affect your plan to better neighborhood schools?
King: Our neighborhood schools have already been adversely affected by Rauner governorship, and I don't suspect our new secretary of education is going to help us to that end, so it will be even more crucial for us to make sure that the resources that we have locally are used prudently, and that's why I go back to this issue of safety. If it is our number one concern, we have to shore up our neighborhood schools, we have to shore up strong co-curricular activities. I don't know what the new secretary of education is going to bring. I don't have much hope that her emphasis will be on strong neighborhood schools, and that we will see an influx of federal dollars because of that, and so I think we have to plan for that.
Gate: Moving away from actual policy, Mayor Emanuel appointed you but you joined the progressive caucus. Has this affected your relationship with him?
King: As far as I know, it hasn’t. I didn't get his blessing for that, and those are individual decisions that I've made—we still have a working relationship, which every alderman has to have with the mayor. It's my job to advocate to the best of my ability on behalf of the Fourth Ward's residents, and to let him know what our needs are and what our resources are, and that's what I feel should be the crux of our relationship. Though, to that end, I'm still advocating on behalf of resources, and it's only been ten months, and I can tell you all the resources in this short period of time that I've brought to the ward, and I will continue to do that.
The mayor represents the entire city, so for the most part, his agenda should also be to bring resources to the ward; but sometimes his priorities and the Fourth Ward's priorities may not be aligned. So then it's even more important that you have a strong advocate and I think that's what I am. The mayor is one person; he's a human being, and I approach him in that way. This whole concept of him having some undue influence on me is actually a false premise—he's appointed one other alderman, and that alderman votes probably against him more than most. I'm sure their relationship is fine—you have to do what's in the best interest of your ward, and he's got to do what he thinks is in the best interest of this city. I think I've shown I'll do what's in the best interest of the ward, and I have no fear of Rahm Emanuel. I'm very confident in my independent thinking and decision-making.
Gate: Rahm Emanuel isn't the most popular figure in the ward. Do you think the fact that he did appoint you will play a large role in voters' perceptions of the campaign?
King: I know he's not very popular. You know, it's all relative. I think that has been people's biggest apprehension of me. I think once people know me and know what I've been doing and understand my history not only in the last ten months but in the past thirty years, then that begins to break down that apprehension. And so that's been just what I've been doing, but I do speak a lot louder than what I say, and whether it's then bringing back much-needed bus services in the community—just from listening to the seniors, they can't make it to church on Sundays—I found that out, I sat down with the CTA and said, “Look, we've got to have services for our seniors. These are our most prized residents. They put in a lot of work, and have paved a lot of paths for us, and we need to take care of them.”
That's the type of advocacy that I'll continue to show. And not only that: resources that are brought to public schools, neighborhood schools are ready, the program that brought CPS Safe Passage workers to the summer for the first time. I will continue to think innovatively to make sure our community has the resources that it needs.
Gate: Is there anything else you would like voters to know before voting?
King: I definitely want them to know that I've been a strong voice in the community—a quiet voice—but very strong over the last thirty years. Really advocating on behalf of what's best for the community didn't just start with this aldermanic race. My organization, Harriet’s Daughters, was bringing to the attention of the mayor the disparities that existed in contracting in the city long before this, and that they have made changes based on that.
I've been a very strong voice, and I don't want people to get caught up in the rhetoric and get lost kind of in those weeds while this election is going on. There's no data to back that up, so people can just say whatever they want to say, but if you really look at the objective facts, I have been the only person who has been out there against a number of things that the mayor has done in the past—when our police stations merged, for example. As a regular resident, I was protesting that, and it wasn't a good thing for the Fourth Ward. I've been protesting the disparities in contracting at the city before, and that's the reason I thought I wasn't going to be appointed. If you look at my fundraising, it started well before I was even appointed because I was planning on running. People can talk about how much money I've raised, but the strategy started very early, and so, you know, I think there's a lot of rhetoric, but there's not a lot of substance behind it. But I do understand people's hesitation because people are hesitant about politics anyway. I was that way—I never considered myself a politician.
The biggest thing is for people to do some true due diligence. You're asking good questions; a lot of reporters haven't—they haven't really asked—if you really look, I've never ever given money to the mayor. I have given money to a lot of political people, and so I have no history of this kind of loyalty that they suggest that because I was appointed to something, that I'll have, and again, it's a false premise, but I certainly know it comes from this hesitancy and leeriness of elected officials, so I certainly get it.
But there's a lot of good people out there, and I'd like to count myself as one of those. Being alderman is a very hard job. It is 24/7, and I certainly didn't do this for the recognition or for the money. I did it to try to help my community, and I'm going to put that first and foremost; otherwise it's not worth it for me, personally. And I would never compromise who I am for any individual, including the mayor, and he knows that. We've had that conversation, and while I appreciate him appointing me, I also know and believe that was because I was the best candidate. And when I talk to the committee that recommended me, that's what they say: that I was heads and—you know—way above everybody else, and my reason for wanting to do this. So I just want people to give me a chance to continue to do that, and they'll see for themselves, and I do think there's a lot of noise.
There's a lot of people—there's a lot of seniors who support me, there's a lot of community organizations—pastors, churches—who support me, people who are very respected in the community, not just—obviously I have two presidents supporting me: the president of Cook County Board, president of the United States, but those people in the community who are out knocking doors and calling their friends—that support means the world to me. That would be the thing I want people to know: that I have a lot of support from the community, the seniors, church leaders, people who are really respected at a grassroots level in the community, and I want those that don’t know me to give me a chance to show that I will be a strong advocate of the community and the Fourth Ward.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
The image featured in this article has been taken from the Friends of Sophia King website. The original image can be found here.