Ahead of Election Day, Chicago youth took center stage at a youth-led town hall and mayoral forum hosted by violence prevention group GoodKids MadCity (GKMC), alongside Kuumba Lynx, The Brave Youth Leaders, and Chicago Freedom School.
Five of the nine candidates attended the event, held at Northwestern University’s law school campus on the Near North Side, to discuss issues affecting the youngest Chicagoans. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, U.S. Rep Jesus “Chuy” García, businessman Willie Wilson and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas did not attend.
It was the first youth-led mayoral forum of this election. For organizer and GoodKids MadCity activist Miracle Boyd, it’s been long overdue. “It’s the first of many,” Boyd said after the event. “I’m so grateful for everybody that showed up… for the candidates who didn’t show up, shame on you. You didn’t get my vote.”
Boyd, who moderated the event, has been organizing independently and with GKMC since 2016. Among many reasons, the catalyst for her activism was the threat of school closures in Englewood during former mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s time in office.
She has first-hand experience with many of the concerns raised during the townhall, and has continually vocalized qualms with current Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s leadership these past four years.
Ald. Sophia King, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, state Rep. Kam Buckner, Ald. Roderick Sawyer and activist Ja’Mal Green were all in attendance at Wednesday’s forum.
State Rep. Kam Buckner immediately addressed the absences in his opening statement.
“I ask you once more to look at who is not here, and remind you that if they are not here for you tonight, they probably will not be here for you for the next four years,” Buckner said.
The forum took off with a discussion of the Peace Book Ordinance, a proposal coined by GoodKids MadCity that calls for diverting two percent of the Chicago Police Department’s budget to fund youth programs in South and West Side neighborhoods.
All attending candidates said they supported the ordinance before fielding questions from the audience about specific issues affecting Chicago’s youth.
Candidates first heard testimonials from families and victims of gun violence. Among them was GoodKids MadCity adult mentor Camiella Williams.
“I’m standing here knowing fifty people at thirty-five-years-old to be murdered in this city,” Williams said. “We are traumatized, and we did not get the help that we need.”
Williams is also part of the Roots to Wings pilot program, an organization consisting of those who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence that helps survivors with financial and trauma support. Roots to Wings became a family for Nicholas Hearn after he lost his brother, cousin and several friends in Chicago.
“It was bizarre for me to lose them,” Hearn said during the townhall. “I lost them in a short period of time, and after that, I really didn’t know how to process life. I didn’t know how to go about going back to work, caring about going back to work, or feeling like life was really stable anymore.”
Hearn said the stability he found with Roots to Wings helped him get his life back on track after so much loss. “They became a home to me,” Hearn said. “I appreciate the opportunity to have a second chance to look at life in a different view, because they spoke life into me.”
Several others affected by gun violence, some as young as fifteen years old, spoke to the candidates about their experiences.
In response, the candidates shared their plans to reallocate funds back into communities to keep Chicago safer.
“When we look at the gap that exists in our current safety net and social structure, we have literally pulled money out of the programs that kept people safe, kept our young people involved and given our young people a holistic education and experience,” Buckner said.
Buckner, Sawyer, Johnson and Green all advocated for investment into youth organizations over further investment into the CPD.
“You will never hear me talk about increasing the police budget,” said Green. “We will only talk about doing things that work. That’s investing in young people. That’s investing into safe spaces.”
For Sawyer, that means investing in creative outlets for young people.
“My son, for example, who’s a hip hop artist, has a very difficult time trying to find venues to throw events,” he said. “I remember as a young adult, we had outlets. We had many, many outlets and things to do. And you all don’t.”
King expressed support for afterschool programs and violence intervention initiatives, but also backed policing as a solution to gun violence.
“I’ll probably get some boos here, but I do believe that police are part of our community and part of the solution as well,” King said. “It’s a good job. We have to get people who look like all of you in those jobs as well so that they can really serve and protect our community.”
King was later asked by activist and former candidate for Congress Kina Collins to elaborate on her public safety platform, which included using drones during police pursuits. Collins called the proposal “very dangerous” to the Black community.
“Instead of chasing people, you can engage a chase where you don’t put residents or anybody in harm’s way by activating the drone,” King said in defense of her platform.
Collins also called on Buckner to clarify his position on community policing, following the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. Nichols was beaten by five Memphis police officers following a traffic stop. He was hospitalized in critical condition and died three days later. He was a father, beloved community member and avid skateboarder.
Buckner said the answer to public safety is never just police.
“More cops is not the answer,” he said. “At some point, more just becomes more. It doesn’t become better.”
Accountability was a consistent concern brought up by members of the audience in Wednesday’s forum. Johnson encouraged the young people in the room to keep putting pressure on the city’s elected officials, especially if the Peace Book Ordinance does not get passed by Chicago’s new mayor.
“The accountability mechanism, it does work both ways—you’ve got to keep organizing,” Johnson said. “There are things that we have to do, because it is a matter of life and death.”
Despite lively participation from the crowd at Wednesday’s forum, many of the audience members are not old enough to vote. Events like this townhall show that regardless, young people influence the ballot in other ways through activism and their participation in youth groups throughout the city. Brave Youth Leaders member Nia Sears, seventeen, thinks it’s time to give young people more of a voice.
“[Miracle] was talking at a press conference on Monday about how she wanted to lower the voting age to sixteen,” Sears said. “I really do feel like they should take that into consideration, because if we’re able to drive and hold a state ID, why aren’t we able to vote?”
Sears said she hasn’t done much research on the candidates since she can’t vote, but was most impressed by Kam Buckner’s forum performance.
“I got the vibe that he was sympathizing with the audience,” Sears said.
Fellow Brave Youth Leaders member Jayrieo Kizer, eighteen, agreed, noting that Buckner made rounds speaking to audience members after the forum, and was the last to leave the auditorium. But Jayrieo’s sister, Gabriel, also eighteen, wasn’t excited by any of the candidates.
“Absolutely not [impressed],” Gabriel said. “I honestly don’t think that they said anything very impressive. I think they were just saying anything that people wanted to hear.”
Sears joked that some of the candidates’ responses made them come across as “automated.”
Gabriel did concede that Buckner connected with the audience better than the other four candidates in attendance, however.
“Like he said, we have to go to school, we have to deal with the outside world, where we don’t have no mental health support, nothing,” Gabriel said. “That’s very important that he actually connects with us to understand what type of struggle and pain we have to go through on an everyday basis.”
Above all, Gabriel was disheartened by the candidates that didn’t make an appearance at all.
“It just shows that they have little respect for the youth,” Gabriel said.
During the forum, Green verbally sparred with another youth activist, Catlyn Savado, fifteen, over a Twitter altercation.
Savado responded to a photo of Green passing out donations to community members, calling it “performative.” Green responded in a now-deleted tweet defending his work as an activist. At the forum, Savado confronted Green, demanding an apology for the candidate’s need to defend himself. Green claimed that he does not have sole access to his Twitter page.
“I took it as an attack from another campaign,” Green said. “But you have autonomy, and I apologize if you feel disrespected.”
“He felt the need to defend himself, but still bicker at a youth town hall with other youth in the room,” Boyd said.
It’s Boyd’s first opportunity to vote in a mayoral election. She said she hopes the forum inspired other young people to get out to the polls. For the first youth-led forum of the election, Boyd was pleased with the turnout and participation from the audience.
“We had a lot of youth come out,” Boyd said. “We had a lot of adults helping our youth push those rebuttals and getting those candidates to answer those hard questions… I’m so grateful for that.”
Denzel Johnson, a Get out to Vote fellow at Chicago Votes, hopes this isn’t the last time the city’s youth gets this chance.
“This needs to be something that continues to happen,” Johnson said. “Continue to give the youth the opportunity to lead the conversation and be able to ask those really tough questions.”
With no candidate getting over fifty percent of the total vote, Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson, the top two vote-getters on Tuesday, will head to a runoff election on April 4. Vallas finished with thirty-four percent of the vote, and Johnson finished with just over twenty percent.
Erik Uebelacker is a graduate student at DePaul University. This is his first time writing for The Weekly