Rahm Emanuel saw opportunities where others saw only obstacles — including on the West Side

The notion that the Emanuel administration overlooked historically disadvantaged communities in Chicago is, to borrow a phrase from President-elect Joe Biden, pure malarkey.

SHARE Rahm Emanuel saw opportunities where others saw only obstacles — including on the West Side
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Workers assemble LED lights at a factory in North Lawndale.

Provided photo

Two years ago, my African American family-owned business partnered with the Chicago Department of Transportation to manufacture streetlights for the largest LED conversion program in the country.

Thanks to that partnership, previously chronically unemployed and ex-offenders now have jobs assembling LED lights at a factory we were able to bring to North Lawndale. Chicago residents are now earning above minimum wage, healthcare and retirement benefits. Chicago taxpayers are saving more than $100 million in electricity costs over ten years. The city is reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

The seeds we planted in Lawndale two years ago still are bearing fruit.

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Next month we will open an expanded factory for 100 employees as phase one of our new $20 million investment in the community. Additionally, the city will receive tens of thousands of dollars in tax revenue over the next 20 years from property that has not been on the tax roles for more than that time.

As someone who runs a business that has had a location on the West Side for nearly 20 years, and has been actively engaged in economic development in under-resourced communities in Chicago for years, I find it ironic when out-of-towners who could not find our neighborhood on a map cast aspersions at someone who has actually done the work of bringing jobs and economic opportunities to communities of color in our city.

The notion that the Emanuel administration overlooked historically disadvantaged communities in Chicago is, to borrow a phrase from President-elect Joe Biden, pure malarkey.

I founded my company, an electric power equipment manufacturer and distributor, in honor of my father, William Edward Davis. I was able to expand my business in 2018 thanks to the Emanuel administration’s innovation and inclusivity.

If you know the history of Chicago, you know that when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought his northern campaign to our city, he chose to call Lawndale home. When the neighborhood burned in the riots in the wake of King’s assassination in 1968, it took decades to rebuild.

It was a combination of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s executive order requiring the city to hire a diverse workforce in contracting, and his embarking on the Chicago Smart Lighting Project, that gave us the opportunity to be part of Lawndale’s future. With the mayor’s encouragement, we were able to expand upon our offender re-entry program, hiring ex-offenders as part of the project.

Working with Emanuel on the LED conversion program, I truly got to know him as a person, not a caricature. He understood that diversity and inclusion was not a zero sum game; when the West Side prospers, we all prosper. He took a personal interest in my success as an entrepreneur and my growing family, and we bonded over a shared passion for mentoring young people in disadvantaged communities. I also got to witness up close the determination and drive of a leader who saw opportunities where others saw only obstacles. Every time someone said it couldn’t be done, he found a path to make the impossible possible.

Not only did Emanuel center diversity, equity and inclusion in his policymaking, he personally understood my aspirations as a small business owner and my dreams for my children as a father. Thanks to our partnership with the city’s Department of Transportation, we will continue to be part of driving inclusive economic growth, and meeting the challenge of climate change, all on Chicago’s West Side.

A factory owned by an African American family, in a neighborhood that has suffered from generations of poverty, blight and neglect, will stand as a beacon in Lawndale because Mayor Emanuel worked shoulder to shoulder with us to make that dream a reality.

Stephen L. Davis is founder and chairman of the Will Group.

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