Rising Political Star Dr. Amara Enyia: Community Development, Funding Equity, and Human Trafficking

 /  May 7, 2018, 11:52 p.m.


Dr. Amara Enyia is a  public policy expert, activist, and consultant serving small and mid-sized cities in the Chicago/Northwest Indiana area. She challenged Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in the 2015 mayoral election, running to put her years of municipal experience in economic and community development, education policy, gun violence and public safety reform, promoting access to affordable housing, and human capital development in service of the people of the city of Chicago. The aspiring mayor sat down with The Gate to discuss her civic leadership ideals, her blueprint for equitable public policy initiatives in the areas of rent control, gun violence, and community development projects such as the Obama Presidential Center, and the ethics underlying any credible push to eliminate human trafficking and clean water insecurity within the city of Chicago, and around the world.

The Gate: The lack of community development in poorer communities is a significant barrier to economic mobility, but many poor citizens are themselves less likely to be politically mobilized, either through voting, canvassing, petitioning, protesting, or coalition building to fight for these initiatives. How should civic leaders encourage civic participation amongst those who may be disaffected by the civic process, or skeptical of the efficacy of political engagement?

Enyia: I think we start by meeting people where they are. A lot of times in challenged communities, the issue is that people are living day to day and trying to survive. Sometimes for organizer, and many people who are politically active, there’s the question of “Why won’t they get involved?” or “Why won’t they vote?” or “Why won’t they show up at city council meetings?” The reality is that they have so many other things that they’re dealing with on a day to day basis—the normal daily routine of getting themselves to work, getting their kids to school, and finding a job—those sorts of realities make it more difficult to have the ability, or the luxury, to turn your attention to civic engagement.

The key is to meet people where they are with the issues that they care about. Sometimes those issues might not be the issues that organizers think are most important, but people in communities know what they need. If you engage them and talk to them, they’ll articulate what they need, and then it’s the responsibility of the advocates or organizers to say “Here’s how we can create the conditions to empower you to advocate for yourselves, and get the resources that you are pushing for. That’s the responsibility of those of us who do this community work.

Gate: You mentioned listening to community members to hear them articulate the issues that they find most salient. Could you provide of an example of a time you did that?

Enyia: One example comes from the neighborhood where I live. There are a high percentage of individuals who have criminal records in their backgrounds. A lot of people who have been in the criminal justice system come back into the community, so there will be times when I’m going in and out of my house, and some of the gentlemen I know who live on my block who I have spoken with will approach me and ask about jobs. They’d ask about job availability, whether or not I have a lead on jobs—one of the things that they talked about is that their records were preventing them from getting access to a job. So this leads me to start thinking about, what, from a policy or legislative standpoint, would help to address the fact that this record has become a barrier to employment. Around that time there was the “Ban the Box” legislation, which basically makes it illegal for companies to ask job applicants about their criminal record as a precursor to employment.

For me the issue was about connecting the “Ban the Box” legislation to what I was hearing in normal day to day life in my neighborhood, and letting these individuals know, whenever we talked, that there’s this legislation that’s happening, that will help to make sure that your background doesn’t become an obstacle for the rest of your life. In the meantime, here are some resources for attorneys that I know, and friends that I know who do expungements. I’d then push them to those resources, while the legislative process works itself out.

And then they’d talk to each other, and then we can organize and advocate as a collective. That’s an example of what it means to meet people where they are, for them to articulate what they need, and for me to be able to support them to the extent that they’re empowered to do for themselves.

Gate: You’ve once run for mayor of Chicago in the 2015 Municipal elections. What qualities are essential for an effective mayor in a city as large as Chicago?

Enyia: The most essential qualities for an effective mayor, really for an effective leader, is understanding servant leadership, that it’s a role of service to the city, and that the interests of the public are where our allegiance should be. Leadership is not just the person who’s out-front, the person who’s visible; leadership is about being able to articulate a vision, and that vision galvanizing people to actualize that vision. You first have to start with a vision for what the city is, and then a blueprint for how we create that vision, that outlines how we build the city that we believe we deserve.

It’s also about understanding relationships, understanding people, and valuing people. If you don’t understand and value citizens, then how can you lead them? Those are essential qualities. The goal is not self-service; it shouldn’t be about the person, it should be about how I use whatever gifts, talents, and skills that I have to manifest a vision that has been articulated. And then it’s about who is best positioned to help us actualize that vision. That’s actually how mayors are supposed to be selected, in an ideal world. Now we know that the reality is often different, but we know that without a vision, without the understanding of the importance of relationships, without the commitment to service first and foremost, we won’t have the kind of leadership that we truly deserve.

Gate: Gerrymandering is a political tactic in which legislative districts are drawn specifically to maximize the advantage of a political party over its opponents. Is this unethical practice a symptom or a cause of political partisanship in America?

Enyia: Gerrymandering is a product of hyper-partisanship. I was part of a group a few years ago that was pushing for fair maps, and the whole idea is that the people choose their representatives, rather than the representatives choosing the people. Under the system we have now, elected officials have an opportunity to choose their constituencies, when really, if we’re talking about fairness, objectivity, and accurate representation, it should be the other way around. In a state like Illinois, between the Republican and Democratic parties, we have lost sight of representing people, and now instead there is allegiance to the party. What gets lost in that is what the people want and need.

I think that those questions are not necessarily being asked, because its focused on, how do we make sure that we maintain our position, but at the point at which you become ineffective, what good are you to the people that you serve, if your interest is in remaining an incumbent and representing the party. And so, we’re at a critical point where we need a constitutional amendment on this gerrymandering question, but while it’s a question that’s been in play for many years, we haven’t moved in that direction.

Gate: Where do you see the most potential for innovation within Chicago’s public schools?

Enyia: There is potential for innovation, but we first have to get the nuts and bolts right. A couple of areas where I think we need to focus our attention concern the inequitable nature of our public school system. The fact that you can go to a school in one neighborhood, then go to a school in another and have a completely different educational experience is striking and wrong. Chicago is one city, and so any and every family should be able to send their child to any school and get a good quality education. So the disparity of funding is a huge problem, I think we need to do an equity analysis within the Chicago public schools to figure out how funding is allocated.

Take schools that have lost resources—everything from teachers, counselors, extracurricular programs—why is it okay for some families to accept that kind of sub-standard education, but if you go to more affluent areas in the city, they have access to the arts, technology, books, all of the things that you’re supposed to have.

Quite frankly, that to me is wrong. I think we have created a stratified system with the selective enrollment process that basically pits families against each other; almost from the birth of your child you have to start thinking about which high school you are going to make sure they get into, and that’s not right. You should be able to go to any high school and get a high quality education, and that’s not the case right now.

I also think that you need to look at equity in terms of capital expenditures, and ask “Where are those new schools being built?”, “What communities are getting new schools?”, “What is being done concerning other schools that are not getting the resources that they need?”

The example that comes to mind is the closing of a Level 1+ high performing, predominantly black school in South Loop, being closed and turned into a high school for, what is arguably wealthier whiter families from the South Loop who wanted a high school, but they’re getting one at the expense of closing a high performing black elementary school.

If you go up to the Northwest Side in the Dunning community, there’s Steinmetz College Prep which has been struggling. A predominantly Latino school, though it has many demographics represented, and now CPS is proposing to build a new high school in that area that would probably be predominantly white, instead of investing resources in Steinmetz so that those parents can have access to a high quality educational experience for their kids.

So if we’re not thinking about and looking heavily at how resources are allocated, and who gets access to those resources within CPS, you’ll miss the fact that we have one school district that will guarantee you starkly different educational experiences depending on who you are and where you live. That’s not right. We have to address that, and then we can innovate, and make sure that all of our kids are reaching their potential with the best and most innovative practices possible.

Gate: Should cities like Chicago fight to maintain their status as sanctuary cities, even at the risk of repercussions from hostile federal or state government actors?

Enyia: I think that we have to make this a sanctuary city for the residents of the city. What does it mean to be a sanctuary city? What does it mean for Chicago to be a sanctuary city if there’s a fear of getting shot in your neighborhood? What does it mean for Chicago to be a sanctuary city if I can’t get access to a grocery store in my neighborhood? What does it mean for Chicago to be a sanctuary city if the schools in my neighborhood are closed?

I think we have to ask ourselves, are we a sanctuary city for anybody, because that leads us to start thinking about what we need to do to make sure that we are. If we are, then yes, we position ourselves as a place that families want to be documented or undocumented, because at least they have the basics necessary for a high quality life. If we cannot do that, then to me it seems disingenuous to be positioning ourselves against Trump, and calling ourselves a sanctuary city, when it’s not a sanctuary city for folks who already live here.

That’s the question that I would ask, first and foremost, and if we’re going to be a sanctuary city, let’s actually be a sanctuary city for all.

Gate: The Obama Foundation has been pressured by activists to consider problems of job creation, population displacement, and property value for the residents of the Jackson Park area throughout the development of the Obama Presidential Center. What are the most important issues for grassroots activists to understand and consider when demanding change from a project as large as this one?

Enyia: So the key is accountability, the key is in understanding that the history of Chicago is a history of development that has driven displacement. It is a history of plans for transformation that means plans to push out certain populations who never return. The history of Chicago is a history that means benefits for some and not for others. What those who are part of the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) coalition are pushing for the Obama Presidential Center to really think about is, “How do we make sure that you are held accountable for the things that you say will result from the Presidential Center being in our community?”

Many times and in many areas in the city, development projects will come in and residents will be promised the stars—many jobs, access to the venue, etc—but then by the time the development project is complete and these promises have not been delivered upon, everyone sort of walks away and says, “Well, it’s a little bit late.”

What the CBA coalition is doing is actually being proactive, something we should be encouraging, and getting in front of this to say “It’s not that we don’t want the Obama Presidential Center, we do! We believe that it could be a huge benefit, but we need to make sure that we maximize that benefit to the community, and to Chicago. We need to maximize the positive impact that it can have, and that means that we cannot turn a blind eye or fail to recognize the patterns of displacement which have occurred in other similar projects that have come to the city.”

And there is a track record for that! There is a blueprint for that. When the United Center was being built on the West Side, there were community benefits agreements about housing in the surrounding area. That’s very real and very tangible—so this isn’t something that has never been done before, or that is new. It’s just that we have to operate with intention to make sure that a project of this size, that can have the potential impact that it could have, is done in a very thoughtful way, and in a way that intentionally mitigates the potential impact that it could have on the surrounding communities.

Gate: Do you think that a policy like rent control could factor into that?

Enyia: Rent control deals largely with affordable housing, and is a discussion that is happening across the city, due to concerns about the city becoming less affordable for families. Rent control is one tool in the toolbox that is being pushed forward as a way to preserve affordability, especially as developments occur. In the case of the Obama Presidential center, the value of homes in the area will increase, that’s the reality—once the developer comes in, it drives up property values. What that means is that landlords can take advantage of this and charge higher rents—if the demand is there, then the market allows for higher rents to be charged. The theory is that residents who have been there for years will not be able to afford their homes, and forced to move somewhere else. That’s why rent control is being put on the table.

I always say that rent control is one tool, but we have to look at the earning potential—the earning capacity—of residents. If we do not make sure that folks who are living in those areas have the necessary skill sets to obtain jobs that pay higher wages, we’ll always have this affordability problem.

We can’t have one conversation around housing, without another conversation about investing in people and investing in human capital, so that they can earn the kinds of salaries that will allow them to stay in their areas.

Gate: You’re argued that in order to better prevent tragedies from occurring, solutions for gun violence must address the root cause of the underlying conditions that precipitate shootings. How might a municipality like Chicago empower communities to curb gun violence, and improve upon past policy proposals?

Enyia: I think that gun violence is a symptom of several public policy failings, and so the way that you reduce gun violence is to address all of those failings. We don’t always look at it that way; we often see gun violence as a policing issue. And so, when solutions are discussed, the proposed solutions are always investments in police infrastructure. I argue that reducing gun violence means investing in human capital.

That for me means that we make sure that public health issues are mitigated. For example, the exposure of Chicago families to lead in their water—77 percent of homes in the city have levels of lead that are beyond any acceptable limit. We know that lead is a neurotoxin, and that there are psycho-social impacts to lead consumption that affect behavior, especially in children.

Things like aggressive behavior and compulsive behavior could be a biological issue that is a result of exposure to those public health hazards—same as lead in the home. So instead of seeing children in those areas for example in the Austin community as more violent, or more prone to violence, we acknowledge that in their homes the incidence of lead exposure is significantly higher than homes in Lakeview, or homes on the Northwest Side.

So, to address it, we have to make sure that we’re not cutting the budget for lead abatement, and that we invest in getting rid of lead in those homes. The city has to invest in water infrastructure, to make sure that we’re removing those lead pipes that were once mandated by law (not pushing the burden unto home owners), and that we’re not exposing our population to lead. Same thing with food access, without proper nutrition, children will grow with nutrient deficiencies that affect brain development, and behavior. We simply cannot ignore that, and must make sure that every community has access to high quality food, whether grocery store or otherwise.

Another thing that people don’t really talk about is investments in social workers in schools. When you cut the budget in schools for nurses and social workers, you have children who are living in volatile environments, and they don’t have the capacity to process through traumatic experiences themselves. So what do they need? They need access to a therapist or counselors who can help them process their PTSD, or develop skills like conflict resolution to teach them how to diffuse tense situations, rather than escalate them. These are all skills that people need to learn, so that if they’re on the street, the first step to resolve a conflict isn’t getting a gun, its finding ways to diffuse potentially volatile circumstances.

These skills are largely absent, that’s why you see so many of these shootings occurring. If we’re going to reduce gun violence, you have to address the mentality of the person who will go to get a gun to shoot someone. If you don’t address the mentality, then all you’re going to focus on is the criminal justice system, and police locking them up. Once we’re gotten to that point, we’re already lost the battle. The city has to make sure that we’re addressing all of those root causes, so that we don’t even have people who have that mentality.

That, quite frankly, makes the job of police easier, because now we’re not expecting police to be social workers, to be baby sitters, to be counselors, because that’s not their job. We have to do our job so that they can do their job.

Gate: Low funding can be a sizeable obstacle to social change. How could the mayor of a cash strapped city balance a commitment to economic growth, with a desire to meaningfully tackle structural problems?

Enyia: First it means being willing to actually tackle those structural problems, especially as it relates to the city’s finances. This entails recognizing the challenges of needing revenue, but also recognizing that this is city whose leaders have engaged in financial practices that have been detrimental for decades, and that leads to some harsh realities that we have to face.

The city’s strategy with regards to its finances thus far has basically been to borrow, and kick the can down the road. We had a major property tax increase a few years ago, which was followed by another one, and even now we haven’t completely plugged our budget shortfall. We’re essentially borrowing several billion dollars, and that’s not a solution to our fiscal crisis, because you’re borrowing at unsustainable rates—the number I’ll throw out is that right now the debt burden for the city is the equivalent of $7,500 per person in the city, about $31.5 billion. We’re essentially saddling our children, and their children, and their children with the debt that we’re incurring today. So we’re not actually solving our financial problems. We first have to be honest about that.

The other thing that we have to do is be much more responsible with the revenue that we have. That means reassessing the TIF (Tax Increment Financing) program. Right now it operates similarly to a slush fund for the mayor, where there was supposed to be TIF reform, but if he is the one appointing those positions, then how can we ensure that objective reforms are enacted that ensure that taxpayers are getting the most for the money that they’re paying. These are taxpayer dollars, our dollars that are being used, so TIF reform is essential.

I also think that we need a municipal bank. Right now we pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fees to traditional financial institutions through JP Morgan Chase, etc., on everything from bad bank deals to interest rates on infrastructure projects that typically can run 40-50 percent over the cost of a project. So if a project is $100 million, you’re paying 50 percent on top of that, just in interest paid to these traditional banks. If we had our own public bank whose only goal was economic development, we don’t have that interest that we have to pay. All of the money re-circulates back into our economy. The city itself could issue low interest loans for homeowners, small business loans for entrepreneurs, etc. So you’re creating a stronger economy because we have our own financial institutions whose only allegiance is not to shareholders, but to taxpayers, because taxpayer funds would capitalize it.

These are the sorts of innovative ideas that could be transformed to create a growth economy. We’ve lost, so many residents in the city, if you’re looking at black residents we’re lost 250,000 over the last fifty years. The reason why that matters is because that’s our tax base. If you have 250,000 fewer people that means fewer people paying taxes and tickets across the board. So we have to shore up our population, and that means creating the kind of quality of life such that people believe that they can get what they need: access to a good school, safe communities, and a job. If we don’t do those things, we have to ask “What reasons do people have to stay in Chicago?”

If we attract people back to the city, we’ll see higher revenues. If we implement innovative ideas like a public bank we’ll see more money circulating into our economy. If we employ cooperative economic models and unique business models that create a stronger and more diverse business community, we’ll see even more tax revenues that we can use to sustain the city.

Gate: Chicago is currently the number three city in the world for human trafficking, a multi-billion dollar global enterprise involving the sale of men, women, and children into coerced labor and sex work. What mistakes should Chicago civic leaders avoid when contending with this crisis of modern day slavery?

Enyia: Well, the first step is to acknowledge it. I would say that a lot of folks have no idea that Chicago is ranked so high in the world for human trafficking. One of the challenges to concerns Chicago’s role as a transportation hub for the United States. It’s a major “go-to” destination with significant airplane access, railway access, etc. Fortunately for our economy and for the standing of the city, being a transportation hub is a huge deal, but unfortunately it also attracts that human trafficking element.

The first step is that we have to be aware that this is a major issue in the city of Chicago. The second step is to start to identify and target those industries and entities that benefit from human trafficking—it wouldn’t be an issue if there weren’t any. We have to target them aggressively and deliberately—that means institutions, such as companies that might be employing people who are being trafficked, are investigated. How do we make sure that we can tell who is being trafficked and who is not? How do we create safety for women and children in particular who have been brought here and are being trafficked? Maybe their passports have been taken, maybe they thought that they were coming here to work, and then found out when they got here that they were being trafficked.

We have to protect the safety of those individuals, and create a strategy to get them the help and the resources that they need, and we have to hold the bad actors accountable. So any company that is found to engage in this behavior, any entity that creates fake IDs and records for people, any entity that manipulates them, we have to hold them accountable in a very public way, so that we can address this issue. Otherwise, it becomes this huge thing that people aren’t talking about, simply because they’re not aware that it’s happening on this scale in Chicago.

Gate: The water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa is drawing international attention as climate scientists warn that prolonged water droughts will force more city governments to ration water in the future. How should cities like Cape Town understand the problems of climate change in relation to public health, safety, and security?

Enyia: I will say that access to water is one of the biggest things that I care about; it’s even relevant to Chicago. As a matter of infrastructure it is vital to our future, our survival, and our economy. The biggest warning I would make is that water cannot, and should not ever be privatized. Once it becomes a privatized asset, those who are connected to power and money get access, and everyone else does not, and that is what is happening in Cape Town.

At the point at which everyone is rationing water and it becomes a privatized asset, those who have the most resources can get access to it, but if you’re poor, live in a challenged community, and don’t have access to the corridors of power, what do you do? These people find that they’re in dire conditions, struggling to get access to water.

The lesson there is that we see water for the valuable asset that it is. It is a public good. It is vital to the health, safety, and economy of any city. We in Chicago are uniquely positioned because we have access to Lake Michigan, one of the largest freshwater resources in the world.

It can be tempting to privatize it because you have a new private company that wants to take it and do whatever they want, and offers to pay the city a certain amount of money for it, but once we sell it, we do a disservice to the public, because the allegiance is no longer to the public, it’s to the bottom line, and to the shareholders.

I think in South Africa, what has to happen is that there is a commitment to water as a public good, meaning that everyone has a right to it, and everyone can have access to it. It should not be a good that is bought and sold to the highest bidder, which is what I see happening there. So what we need to do is start looking at what’s happening in South Africa right now, so that we can learn the salient lessons, and start crafting policy proactively to avoid getting into that sort of crisis.

Gate: Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have historically been accused of turning the fight for human rights into a business, and disregarding the specific concerns of local communities while engaging in humanitarian development projects in foreign countries. What is the ideal role of American NGOs abroad?

Enyia: I would say for every NGO, the job should be about empowering local populations. If you’re not there to build capacity for local populations to do for themselves, then I question your role in any space. Historically, there have been NGOs that have very noble causes and have done some great things, but to me, the key to any NGO should be capacity building in the local environment so that, at some point, the NGO is no longer needed there. If that’s not what they’re working toward, there’s a problem.

I question an entity that wants to operate in perpetuity, because that means that you’re not there to help a people—you’re simply there to continue your role. No matter where in the world the NGO. is operating from, that’s a dubious manner of operating. We’ve seen it happen many times where NGOs go in and the people become dependent, liberation is about people being empowered, and so we need to create the conditions for people to do that. Once that’s done, then you can move on somewhere else—that should be the model.

Unfortunately it doesn’t happen enough that way, but that’s what I would push and continue to advocate for. It’s important to hold NGOs accountable to do what they say they were going to do, and to make sure that they are not becoming bad actors. This is particularly salient in vulnerable parts of the world, where people have so many needs and can be more susceptible to being used, mistreated, or acted upon in ways that are truly detrimental to their wellbeing.

The featured image is licensed under the Creative Commons; the original can be found here.

Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola

Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a rising fourth year in the University of Chicago studying Political Science. He has served as an Intern in the Office of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, as a Complaint Counselor for the ACLU of Missouri, and as an Investigations Intern for the Law Office of The Cook County Public Defender. All of these experiences have taught him that everybody deserves an advocate, and that being cynical is overrated.


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