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Interview: Illinois State Rep. Kam Buckner (26th District)

What communities do you serve?

I represent what I believe is the most socioeconomically diverse district in Illinois, from the lakefront to South Chicago to South Shore. It includes Kenwood, Hyde Park, Washington Park, Bronzeville, the South Loop, downtown, River North, Streeterville, and the Gold Coast. And the University of Chicago. This forces me to be very intentional, since I have such a varied constituency. That’s good, because I have to listen to all of the voices in the room.

It's also led me to have a feeling of consternation. In some communities on the south side, people have a 60-year life expectancy. In Streeterville, they have a life expectancy in the high to mid-80s. That’s a big deal, and tells a tale of two cities, of haves and have-nots. And where resources are denied.

Can you tell us a little about how you got into politics?

I’ve been interested in government and politics from a young age. I was two or three years old when Harold Washington died, but I remember my parents and grandparents stricken from grief. They way they operated when he passed, I thought he was an uncle.

I began to work on campaigns in high school and college. I was in Washington, D.C., and took a job with Senator Durbin on Capital Hill. Later, I went to law school at DePaul, and after that took a job as a senior advisor to Mayor Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans in 2010. I did work that I loved, but I got homesick. I am a lifelong south sider, but ended up taking a job with the Cubs in their front office, working on an outward-facing renovation project. After that, I took job at an organization called World Support Chicago with leftover money from the Olympic bid. It was a tool to help kids in under resourced communities, and I was executive director for five years.

In 2018, there was an open seat for the state legislature, and I ran for it.

What is your view on education in the community?

The way that we’ve treated education is indicative of how we have left a lot of communities behind. There are ways to give more resources, time, and energy to the public education system. I had a conversation with someone recently about putting more resources into schools that need the most. “How are you going to pay for that?,” he asked. Whenever we talk about locking people up, it’s a foregone conclusion that funds will be there. We need to be that matter-of-fact for education. Putting funds into schools for our children, there should be no shortage of funds.

We are not just asking our young people to compete with kid from the suburbs, but from around the world. Our world is only getting more global.

We have to look at the property tax system – it’s extremely flawed. The school districts that need the most and are below the poverty line, based on demographic issues, need to get the money they deserve.

What can we do to improve the housing situation in South Shore?

We have to listen to people in places like South Shore and Woodlawn. I live in Bronzeville. We know it’s been increasingly difficult for legacy families to live in these places. We have the most laissez-faire housing policy that I’ve seen. Folks who built our communities have to be able to stay there. This is a state, city, county, and federal issue.

We have to make sure that lending is aligned – and that banks give the same trust and faith to people in communities who need it the most. We cannot reward institutions who refuse to do business in our neighborhood. Redlining is not a thing of the past – we have to call it what it is.

What can be done to improve public safety in the community?

Everything is interconnected – housing, healthcare delivery, education, job development. I believe being tough on crime means putting money into schools. We need to create a community where we don’t just have health care but wellness.

We have to put money back into our communities for violence prevention. We have to be mindful that if we don’t handle the price, we will handle the costs.

In May of 2020, I was stopped because I looked ‘suspicious’ and had a mask on. I want to have a conversation about biases, structural racism, and things that flow from it. There has been a complicated relationship between the community and law enforcement. But I understand both sides. I am the son of a law enforcement officer and had many family members in the police department and county sheriff’s department. There is a way to thread the needle and create community policing.

How do you see the Obama Presidential Center impacting the community?

The Obama Presidential Center is absolutely a fantastic development for the city of Chicago and neighborhoods like South Shore, Woodlawn, Jackson Park, and other communities. Opportunities are going to flow from that - jobs, job creation, development, new programming. It can be a model. What we know with big developments, is there can be displacement of folks who have been there for a while. We have to make sure that those of us in the footprint or shadows of the OPC have some very defined community benefits – and that we are not putting people in a worse spot because the Center is there.

How do you see yourself engaging with community groups in South Shore?

Community groups like The NNA are the lifeblood of the work we do. They are the eyes and ears and mouth of these movements. I lean on them immensely to provide me with context and understanding – to keep me focused and not siloed in the state capital. These organizations have an obligation to speak the truth and keep people in positions like mine accountable. I can’t overstate how important that is the tapestry of public service.

Moving forward in Illinois, we have to put a premium on civility, solutions-based governing, and practical processes. Just to get stuff done.

Yes, many of our communities have been starved of resources and money we need. I call it benign neglect. We have to reverse that effect.


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