Amara Enyia, candidate for mayor
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The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent mayoral candidates a list of questions to find out their views on a range of issues facing the city. Amara Enyia submitted the following responses Dec. 23 (the Sun-Times does not edit candidate responses):
Who is Amara Enyia?
Her political/civic background: I’ve built a reputation translating complex public policy to a form that is easily understood and used by the public to arm people with the information they need to make the best decisions for their lives. I’ve consulted with residents, education organizations, elected officials and community groups advocating on a myriad of issues including: education equity, public finance, environmental policy, economic development, and community development. I am a public policy expert on city and state policy as well as international affairs/foreign policy with expertise in Central Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.
I founded the Institute for Cooperative Economics and Economic Innovation, a social lab whose primary purpose is to educate, assist, and advocate for the expansion of cooperative economic models and other innovative economic development concepts that would diversify Chicago’s economic eco-system such as worker-owned cooperatives, housing cooperatives, community land trusts, sharing economy platforms, and financial institutions and products that support these enterprises.
I co-authored the book “Chicago Isn’t Broke: Funding the City We Deserve” which proposes fiscally responsible revenue-generating proposals for the City as well as ways to eliminate corruption and waste in city government. I am a staunch advocate for transparency in city government and equity as a matter of policy. My goal is to help communities – especially challenged communities – unlock their civic imagination so they are empowered to create the solutions that address the city’s most pressing issues. I have worked in city government, managed a municipality, run non-profits, and worked at the grassroots level where I’ve always served as a bridge-builder and advocate.
I am a regular radio contributor on WVON 1690 AM where I provide commentary on local, national and international policy and politics. I am also a regular co-host on Aqui Estamos Spanish language radio where I discuss immigration and international affairs. I am a regular contributor to CUSP magazine and columnist for several print publications.
- Public Policy Consultant
- Founder, Institute for Cooperative Economics and Economic Innovation
- Executive Director, Austin Chamber of Commerce
- Policy Director, Chicago Principals and Administrators Association
- Senior Advisor, Blue 1647 – Innovation Technology Hub
- Executive Director, Austin Coming Together
- Policy Director, Manufacturing Renaissance (formerly Center for Labor and Community Research)
- Public Policy Analyst, City of Chicago Office of the Mayor
Her occupation: Public Policy Consultant
Her education: I received Bachelor’s degrees in Broadcast Journalism, Political Science, and News Editorial with concentrations in History and Philosophy from the University of Illinois.
I also received a Juris Doctor, focusing on International Affairs and Environmental Policy, from the University of Illinois College of Law.
I hold a Master’s degree in Education, and received a PhD in Educational Policy Studies, where I specialized in education equity issues, and legal remedies for school districts dealing with equity issues.
I am fluent in Igbo, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.
Campaign website: amaraenyia.com
Chicago is on the hook for $42 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, which works out to $35,000 for every household. Those pensions, in the language of the Illinois Constitution, “shall not be diminished or impaired.” Should the state Constitution be amended to allow a reduction in pension benefits for current city employees or retirees? How about reducing pension benefits for new employees? Please explain.
Amara Enyia: No. There should be no conversations about reducing pension benefits for new employees without a solid revenue strategy built in through diversifying and growing the city’s economy. There should also be no conversation about diminishing pension benefits without addressing existing waste due to our relationship with private financial institutions, the exorbitant cost of corruption, and refusal to reform the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program.
Of the following often proposed sources of new revenue for Chicago, which of the following do you favor, and why?
- A Chicago casino
- Legalized and taxed recreational marijuana
- A LaSalle Street tax
- A commuter tax
- A property tax increase
- A municipal sales tax increase
- A real estate transfer tax increase
- Video gambling
Amara Enyia: Utilizing legalized marijuana as a revenue source should not take place without addressing how marijuana was used to pipeline individuals into the criminal justice system. Now that it’s legal, what will be done for those populations that have been harmed? I support creating a pathway for individuals harmed by its status when it was illegal, so they can participate in the business now that it is. We also need to revisit economic barriers that preclude most people from industry participation. To the extent the marijuana tax revenue strategy is employed, proceeds would be steered toward entrepreneurial enrichment, violence prevention enrichment programming, as well as other neighborhood reinvestment initiatives for which the city is badly in need of revenue.
A significant number of Chicago residents, particularly low income workers, commute to work in the suburbs because they can’t find jobs in the city. A Chicago commuter tax would cause suburb municipalities to respond with their own commuter tax. The tax would have a disparate impact on those harmed by the city’s failure to create a vibrant economy for all its residents. Enacting a commuter tax must take into consideration that suburban commuters contribute to Chicago’s economy as well.
I fully support increasing the amount and expanding the use the real estate transfer tax to include economic development uses and instituting a collaborative holistic model that tethers homelessness mitigation, substance abuse counseling, mental health services and veteran’s services to this revenue source. We should also explore the levying a municipal sales tax on consumer services, as a majority of the city’s economy is derived from the sales of services.
What other sources of new revenue do you favor or oppose?
Amara Enyia: I oppose fine, fee, and forfeiture revenue generation mechanisms (tickets), on the backs of those least able to afford it, without amnesties, and progressive reforms based on ability to pay instead of a flat rate that has a regressive impact on low income populations. I am also opposed to this mechanism without an equity distribution analysis on how, where and to whom tickets are distributed.
I support the following revenue-generating mechanisms:
- A public bank.
- Expanding the small business sector.
- Neighborhood investment (parks, schools, employment) in a way that minimizes population loss: as population declines, the city’s sales and property tax base decreases.
- Minimizing police misconduct payouts and using the resources to invest in other initiatives.
- Minimizing expenses paid to private financial institutions and recirculate those resources to fund infrastructure, expand the small business sector, and expand access to home loans.
- Collective ownership in the form of worker-owned and land trust cooperatives that increase resident income.
The City of Chicago has entered into a federally monitored consent decree to overhaul the training and practices of the Chicago Police Department. Civil libertarians say it is long overdue, but others say it is unnecessary and could make it tougher for the police to do their job. What’s your view?
Amara Enyia: I was part of several efforts citywide connected to the DOJ’s report, where they sought community input on what should happen and an understanding of the conditions related to police reforms. The consent decree is vitally necessary as we have proven time and time again, and evidenced by the $1.7B penalties related to police misconduct cases that we cannot rely on the police department, on its own, to implement the reforms that communities have been demanding for decades. So it is necessary to have another layer of accountability to oversee police department conduct and an enhanced model of police training that continues to modernize and take into account type, consistency, and frequency. It’s also why it’s important that we continue to push back when the president and the attorney general deem the consent decree unnecessary.
What should Chicago do to reduce the number of illegal guns?
Amara Enyia: Sentencing length – both anecdotally, and according to research- does little to deter gun possession and gun violence. I’ve had conversations with young men who have stated that they would rather take the risk of being picked up by law enforcement for carrying a gun for safety reasons, than risk being without protection in dangerous neighborhoods. The refusal to acknowledge that reality only ensures that our policies as it relates to illegal guns will continue to be reactionary and less than effective.
Efforts to curb illegal gun possession would garner more significant impact if they focused on licensing gun shops and addressing loopholes that create easy access to guns. We also must direct efforts toward identifying where the illegal guns that flood communities are coming from.
Gun access precedes gun possession. Laws that focus on sentencing without focusing on illegal access, entry points, and the flows of guns will not be effective in curbing their availability.
Comprehensive community based approaches are more effective than limited interventions. The over-arching question should center on how the City of Chicago will counter gun violence through actual investments in communities that address economic distress, housing instability, lack of access to healthcare, and lack of quality education. These interventions could be spurred by specific allocations of resources to the entities on the frontline doing this work. Scaling up working models must be a priority.
In addition to your thoughts on how to stem the problem of illegal guns, what else should the next mayor of Chicago do to reduce the rate of violent crime in our city?
Amara Enyia: Violence reduction demands that we enforce the police consent decree and stricter requirements for gun ownership, including but not limited to: license registration, training, and record of purchase; mandatory background checks for private sales; restriction of multiple purchases; banning military rifle purchases; eliminating “conceal and carry”; barring at-risk citizens from buying firearms; adopting technological protocols to minimize violence; and eliminating legal immunity for gun manufacturers. We must expand funding for violence prevention enrichment programming through community based and driven youth employment, mentorship and reentry programming. We must expand restorative justice models of community engagement. We must restore funding to sustainable block clubs. We must establish an administrative bridge between the Chicago Police department and the Department of Public Health specific to de-escalation protocols during law enforcement encounters with the mental disability population. We must support and ignite economic growth in ALL neighborhoods, while putting a stop to policies that cost taxpayers way more to get far less.
The way violence is addressed is through investment in human capital and community resources.
What is the appropriate role of charter schools within the Chicago Public Schools system?
Amara Enyia: Privatization shifts the various duties of government from the public sector to private, for-profit entities. Rather than private sector on-ramps that use public resources to generate profit (to the detriment of predominantly underserved children of color) charter schools are most appropriate for piloting and evaluating education innovation approaches that increase education quality.
The charter school model of education is a product of privatizing what was previously a government-provided public good. In poor communities of color, the provision of charters is based on the faulty notion that expensive public-sector bureaucracy and unqualified union-protected personnel are to blame for underperforming schools and students. And what started out as cost-saving, performance enhancing pilots unencumbered by governmental standards, rules and policies, have morphed into scantly-monitored education models of operation where corporate profit and shareholder returns on investment take priority over resource availability, academic performance, and future preparedness of students of color to remain competitive.
Chicago Public Schools seemingly favors pulling the plug on public education as we know it in favor of a “school reform” system. This new system prioritizes public money being put into private pockets over one that adequately prepares predominantly poor, Black and Brown kids to compete for 21st century top tier employment and job creation opportunities. This approach to public education gives up on first-class, top-tier education for all children while allocating contracts in the form of charter school designations.
With few exceptions, the reliance on charter school education, as a standard (rather than experimental) education model, submits to a two-tiered, millennial remix version of “separate and unequal”: except this time, class bias is baked into it as much as racial bias.
Should the Chicago Board of Education be solely appointed by the mayor, as is now the case? Or should Chicago switch to an elected school board or some hybrid? Please explain.
Amara Enyia: A significant number of citizens have expressed support for a fully elected school board. Trusting that people know what they need should lead our decision-making. Simply being elected is not a panacea. But what people are looking for is accountability. And as it stands, with an appointed school board, there is minimal evidence of accountability to children who attend Chicago Public Schools. An elected school board is also about responsiveness and residents wanting to have input in what is happening in the schools where they are sending their children. So I definitely support an elected school board.
What else would you do as mayor to improve the quality of public school education?
Amara Enyia: There are 2 fundamental issues: 1) the lack of value applied to Black and Brown students based on their race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background; and 2) A charter school system that created a profit motive that supersedes educational quality.
I worked with and experienced Chicago schools closings on the west side where residents were promised the option of crafting a school plan. Following more than a year of collaborative planning w/community members, students, and parents, we were told our school was going to be closed. That experience was endemic to the destabilization, disinvestment and dysfunction of Chicago Public Schools (CPS). It’s not about achievement or performance. It’s about the lack of value applied to Black and Brown children in Chicago.
Also, CPS is not in the business of education. There’s a profit motive that undergirds our educational system. We have seen this motive in the proliferation of charter schools. Prima facie, any child should be able to walk into any school and get a good education. There is no secret to what works because we know what is happening in quality schools. However, a profit motive demands allegiance to school profit rather than student performance. CPS went on a “privatizing education” binge and the emphasis shifted from providing the best education to making sure we could make certain numbers in order to receive more money. This education privatization strategy cannibalized neighborhood schools due to a student based budgeting model that pits schools against each other. And whoever has the biggest marketing budget wins the students and the resources.
As mayor, I would improve the quality of public school education in ways including but not limited to:
- Eliminating the racial and economic stratification of public education access and quality;
- Reforming the education funding model while doing away with student based budgeting;
- Implementing a fully elected school board;
- Demanding a charter school moratorium;
- Increasing support for local school councils; and
- Restoring mental, social, and behavioral services.
Chicago, by ordinance, is an official “welcoming city.” This means the Chicago police are generally prohibited from detaining undocumented immigrants on behalf of federal immigration authorities. What’s your position on this policy? What more — or less — should be done with respect to undocumented immigrants who live in Chicago?
Amara Enyia: The Chicago Welcoming City Ordinance includes four exceptions to the general rule to not arrest or hold anyone based solely on an ICE warrant or hold request. These exceptions involve individuals with prior felony convictions, pending felony charges, open warrants, or listing in the city’s gang database. I support removing the exceptions. ICE’s policy related to arrest and detainment is rooted in xenophobia and has an adverse and draconian impact on people of color. It’s institutional bigotry disguised as a race-neutral matter of national security, of which our campaign vehemently condemns.
The Chicago gang database has 195,000 Chicagoans who have been “tagged” as gang members. Individuals tagged in the database often suffer harsh consequences, including loss of job opportunities, harsher sentencing, and, for immigrants, detention and deportation. Almost 100% of individuals listed in Chicago’s gang database are Black and Latinx. The Office of Inspector General’s independent investigation into the database confirmed advocate concerns about it being used as a tool to criminalize communities of color, with zero accountability, due process, or oversight. As such, I support abolishing the database. Policies long on maligning people of color at a rate of 100%, and short on accountability, due process, and oversight add insult to the injury past administrations have incurred on Chicago’s households and communities of color.
I come from an immigrant family, so this issue is especially relevant to me. The city is not a sanctuary if we can’t be safe in our neighborhoods, access the type of healthcare necessary, or get a quality education (because the school system is cutting services). The city is not a sanctuary if policing morphs into a form of draconian xenophobic abuse in communities of color. We need to think more broadly about what “sanctuary” means, as the city hasn’t done a very good job at insuring “sanctuary” for anyone at this point. So making this city a sanctuary for everyone requires new ideas that actually move us forward.
We must ensure Chicago is an equity, fairness, and opportunity sanctuary for ALL residents; Ensure training, protections, and protocols are in place to serve undocumented immigrants and protect them from harassment and deportation; and enforce asylum mechanisms for undocumented immigrants.
What are the top three environmental concerns facing the next mayor of Chicago?
- Restore the City of Chicago’s Department of Environment
- Apply an equity lens and zoning mechanisms to reduce public health hazards in a way that underserved neighborhoods aren’t disproportionately impacted.
- Penalize polluting firms.
Chicago is famously a city of neighborhoods, which is part of its charm, but also in some ways a weakness. It can make it hard to build bridges across racial, ethnic and social lines. What would you do to build those bridges?
Amara Enyia: Our campaign is about imagining a city where equity is a matter of policy, where integrity is not a figment of our imagination, and where we can actually trust the leadership that is responsive to and amplifies the voices of its people. This is the crux of our platform. That is the foundation of all of the work that I do.
We must do this now because we have a school system where address, income and race determine the quality of education received; where we talk about an economy that’s inclusive, yet we resist innovate economic strategies that move communities forward. What does it mean to have a growth economy, if someone can’t get a job? What does it mean to talk about fiscal solvency in the city, if people can’t even afford to stay in their homes? They’re priced out, pushed out, displaced because of gentrification, and a development attitude that favors profit over people.
Imagine a city committed to ALL people being able to participate and thrive. The foundation of our campaign is based on the premise of imagining a city that actually reflects our values; Where we can talk about what a cooperative economy looks like: How do “worker cooperatives” diversify our economic environment? How does it build wealth that can keep people in their homes and communities? Where we talk about entrepreneurs being able to open up their businesses with resources that don’t have to rely on redlining from traditional banks. What does it look like to have a public bank in the City of Chicago, whose only responsibility is to make sure the city’s economy is strong instead of generating profits for shareholders?
What does it look like having an education system that does not use school boundaries to perpetuate segregation? What does like to have a school system that isn’t the ”Hunger Games” , where as soon as your child is born, parents are trying to get them into a selective enrollment school by the time they’re two years old? What does it look like for teachers being able to teach, and actually enjoy the art of teaching as opposed to oppressive policies that drain their joy and passion?
We see a city that’s been stifled by what’s realistic; Stifled by the fear of doing things as we’ve always done them; Stifled by the formulas that everybody thinks they have; that have only worked for very few.
As a city, we have a chance to move away from a status quo that has not worked for far too many. This is our moment to determine if we have the boldness to move forward, led by a collaboration of ALL 77 communities
A Chicago political status quo that exploits community difference for the benefit of a few, and capitalizes on division builds and maintains neighborhood walls. A new established order of unencumbered access, collaboration, equity, inclusion, and collective ownership builds and expands community bridges.
What past or present Chicago mayor would you model yourself after or take inspiration from? Please explain.
Amara Enyia: Former mayor Harold Washington convinced the unheard, the marginalized and the ignored of what’s possible. Equity was matter of philosophy as he expanded the voting base to include, connect with, and provide resources for disenfranchised residents. He personified transparency and inclusion in the face of a vehemently opposing status quo. He strived to abolish the politically racist approach to monolithic control (that catered exclusively to white working class ethnics and affluence) by building and expanding a modern system of community collaboration, ownership, and “bottoms-up” participation that provided the most to the largest segment of the population, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, and neighborhood.
Mayor Washington humanized and actualized public policy in a way that resonated with formerly disregarded sectors of the populace and addressed socioeconomic needs to the extent that quality of life was enhanced in a more substantive way. His administration epitomized gender and racial diversity before it was a common and ostensibly accepted practice.
Mayor Washington’s personal experience with oppression and poverty informed his sensitivity toward and compassion for grappling with the many issues facing the City of Chicago, in a way that prioritized compassion for all people over irresponsibly punitive measures that produced failing outcomes, where under-resourced communities remained unstable and the relatively affluent few receiving the largesse of the city’s resources prospered.
Other than “Boss” (because everybody says “Boss”) what’s the best book ever written about Chicago, non-fiction or fiction. There are no wrong answers, of course, so we hope you’ll have some fun.
Amara Enyia: It’s a 3-way tie:
- The Devil In The White City, by Erik Larson
- The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
- The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition – Revised Edition -Edited by Paul M. Green and Melvin G. Holli
Also running for mayor: