If you ride the 79th street bus, heading west from the Red Line, you pass empty lots, run-down strip malls and boarded-up Pentecostal churches that have seen more worshipful days.
But then you get to a small oasis of activity–a Walgreens, a Chase bank, a beauty salon and a steady hum of foot traffic despite the cold.
This is where the state senator for the 16th Senate District of Illinois has her office–near a busy cross-section surrounded by foreclosures and poverty.
The difference of only a few blocks between blight and bustle shows the change that Sen. Jacqueline Collins hopes to see in her district.
Born in rural Mississippi, she moved to Chicago as a young child and grew up in the Englewood/Auburn Gresham area, the community she now represents. She was a journalist, worked on political campaigns and graduated with two masters degrees from Harvard before she ran for Illinois Senate.
This year will mark her 10th of representing the 16th District. We recently sat down with Collins to talk about her past, present and hopes for the future.
Tell me something about yourself that people don’t know, but is relevant to your work as a legislator.
Before I went to Harvard I went to Spertus [Center for Jewish Learning & Culture] to trace the origins of social justice, and the origins of social justice comes out of the Torah. One of the lessons that I use all the time is that faith in God demands that you be politically engaged.
What do you wish that you had known about Springfield, and how decisions are made there, when you were a journalist?
First of all, the major media don’t know who the minority legislators are unless they commit something criminal, like LaShawn Ford or Donne E. Trotter, but they have also done substantive stuff since they’ve been in the legislature. It’s a cultural bias reporters bring to the profession, because you don’t leave your perceptions or stereotypes behind when you walk into a newsroom.
(Editor’s note: State Rep. LaShawn Ford was indicted for bank fraud and in a separate case, state Sen. Donne Trotter was charged with trying to bring a gun onto an airplane. Both men have pleaded not guilty.)
You’ve been representing the 16th District since 2003. What are the changes you’ve seen?
Foreclosures, home values, unemployment. When I went in, this community was on a trajectory of rising from the ashes, that is why you see this major development along 79th Street. We were really on an upward tilt and then the bottom fell out. It’s been hard to get business to relocate here because of the home foreclosures and the schools failing.
In the coming legislative session, what are your top three priorities and what are their main obstacles?
My main concern as chair of the Financial Institutions committee is predatory lending, mortgage fraud and foreclosures, so that is where I try to exert some policy change to remedy those issues. The pushback comes from, of course, the industry, which has a lot of power and influence in Springfield. Another concern of mine going forward, based on the Tribune series is going to be truancy. Child sexual assault is definitely going to be a priority for me as well as felony-sealing.
What is some of the legislation from other legislators that concerns you?
I’m concerned about the budget and what happened in relation to the Department of Human Services, where they are cutting and restricting certain programs. Keeping Tamms [Correctional Center] open — I voted no against those bills. Keeping prisons open and closing schools, there is something wrong with that, right? I don’t believe in giving those tax credits to corporations that hold the state hostage, like the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. To me those are corporate welfare, those are entitlements but they are never painted as entitlements.
(The CME has said the state tax breaks awarded to CME were necessary to keep the company competitive and “solidify Chicago’s place as the risk management capital of the world.”)
How do you think President Barack Obama’s policies have impacted low-income communities in Chicago?
The communications machine of the Obama administration did a poor job in communicating actually what he had achieved. I hope going forward he feels he has won the election so it is time for him to tell the Republicans that this is my line in the sand I’m not crossing it. But Obama has never been a progressive. He has always been a center politician. We, as the public, projected our own hopes and dreams on him. The responsibility is not on Obama as much as it is on us, the voting public, to agitate like the gays did, like the Hispanics did, so instead of the black community complaining, we need to hit the streets, we need to lobby, we need to raise our voices.
Tags: 16th District, Auburn-Gresham, Barack Obama, CME, Donne Trotter, Education, Englewood, foreclosure, journalism, LaShawn Ford, MArtin Luther King Jr., pensions, Sen. Jacqueline Collins, Springfield, unemployment, Yana Kunichoff