The invitation-only event was billed as “Melanin Empowered! A Celebration In Honor of Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot.”
The room at the Hyatt Regency McCormick was filled with some of the most powerful black women in Chicago’s corporate, civic and political circles. The event, the brainchild of Kimberly McCullough-Starks, president/CEO of Platinum Public Strategies, LLC, was part of a series initiated last year to celebrate #BlackGirlMagic, so to speak.
Lightfoot entered the room to loud applause, took her seat in preparation for a fireside chat with TV personality and lawyer Star Jones, one time co-host of “The View.”
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx rose to the stage to welcome Lightfoot.
“I’m so grateful to be amongst the sisterhood, so that we can be honest,” Foxx said.
Lightfoot listened intently to speakers, visibly relaxed as she chatted with attendees, including several alderwomen. Taking the stage, she spoke candidly and comfortably with Jones for a half hour, on issues that put her squarely at the center of the sisterhood.
On her upbringing: “My parents were both born poor, and attained working class status by working multiple jobs, making great sacrifices. Their expectations for me and my siblings were that we were going to do better than they were ever able to achieve, because we were going to work harder, take advantage of educational and other opportunities.”
On why she chose law: “Coming out of that stress of worrying about money, I wanted to be able to have a job where I could take care of myself, and wasn’t worrying about my next meal.”
On working at Mayer Brown: “I have to say this narrative where I was villainized for being a corporate lawyer was offensive and ridiculous, particularly because you want people like me to be in those firms and to be successful. I look across this room and there are plenty of women who have a similar experience. It’s hard to be in BigLaw. I mean, really hard. It is a daily grind. You know, when I left Mayer Brown, I was the only black equity partner. That’s what makes it so difficult.”
On being a woman in corporate America: “Yes, the doors of corporate America have been opened, but it opened up to me in an institution that is still structured around men. So we get to walk through the door, but you’re walking through the door of an institution that still doesn’t get that we are the primary caretaker to our children, that we have a different sensibility about work and what that means, because we are mothers, because we are the primary drivers of everything that happens in our family life.”
On being black in corporate America: “Add on to that, that you’re black, or a woman of color. Those are hard lives every single day. And to uphold your dignity, to fight for and get access to clients, to lead the pitch teams, all those things — I see the heads nodding — that’s not an easy task. It’s draining. And in corporate America, particularly law firms, it is ‘Eat what you kill’ every single day. There’s never a time when you get to say, ‘Well done. Take a little victory lap.’ It doesn’t happen.”
On beleaguered South and West side communities: “People take a cue from what we as black people do, what we value, and what we prioritize. You know as a little kid, I used to read Essence and Ebony and Jet magazines. I’ve seen the vastness of the black community. People who have been going to college for generations, people with money, people of influence, were unheard of from where I come from. And so what I would say to the people in this room and anybody else who’s listening: If we don’t take care of our people and our neighborhoods, and our communities, how can we expect other people to do that?”
On her message to the black community: “I have had the luxury of traveling all over this city, to be in lots of different communities, and one thing that jumps out at you is whether it’s the Bosnian community on the North Side, Jewish communities of all stripes, particularly the Orthodox community, the South Asian community, on and on and on; there is a sense of ownership. And they have created a network of infrastructure to support people, in particular those who are most challenged. Whether it’s seniors or young people, there is an infrastructure in a lot of those communities.
“There’s a reason why, for example, Little Village is the second largest economic driver in Chicago — because they value community and they’re not leaving anything on the table. So hear me when I say: ‘Black folks, we need to step up.’ I’m going to do my part as the mayor, because that’s what the city absolutely has an obligation to do. But I can only do it and we will only be successful, if the people of wealth, and let me be more specific, if black folks of wealth step up and put skin in the game.”