Interview Issue 2018 | Politics

Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo

A family legacy of activism guides mayoral candidate Amara Enyia’s vision of social justice in the city

Senhyo

Between her first mayoral run in 2014 and now, Dr. Amara Enyia hasn’t slowed down in her efforts to effect change in Chicago. She co-authored the book Chicago Is Not Broke and founded the Institute for Cooperative Economics and Economic Innovation, a social lab focusing on educating and assisting in the expansion of innovative economic models. On Tuesday, Enyia will launch her second mayoral bid at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport. The thirty-five-year-old, running with the slogan “all people, all voices, one city,” draws on a legacy of activism stretching back to her great-grandmother’s village in Nigeria.

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I spent most of my growing up years divided between University Park—a suburb of Chicago where my father was a professor at Governors State University—and the North Side of Chicago: Uptown, Rogers Park, and Edgewater neighborhoods. We lived in the suburbs for my parents’ work, but our community, all of our activities, were on the North Side, which is where the African immigrant community had settled when they came to [Chicago]. So that was where we did all of our events, all of our meetings, all of our gatherings, everything happened there. So we were literally driving back and forth on an almost daily basis to the North Side. I learned traditional Igbo dancing down in the Equator Club. We would showcase what we had learned to the community in the Equator Club. It was right under the Wilson and Broadway Red Line stop. I remember hearing the Red Line all the time there. We had our meetings there. We had events there. All of the organizations that were support networks for the African community had their birthday parties, wedding receptions there.

I have five siblings. Six kids, that’s a lot of kids. I remember we had this red Volvo station wagon. My brothers would be in the front seat and my sisters, mainly my twin and I, we would literally sit in the back in the trunk part of the Volvo. We played outside a lot. My parents, they let us roam, they just let us play. My sister and I would sneak into the woods—even thinking about it now, I can’t believe what we did, but—we would sneak into the woods on these adventures and find like big ponds. We didn’t know how to swim at the time, but we would be scheming on how to find a boat to put on the pond so that we could sail to the other side. We had really strong imaginations. My childhood is one of togetherness with my siblings, where we had to take care of each other. My parents were very strong about us looking after each other, taking care of each other, supporting each other. And so a lot of what we did, we did together.

One thing that’s interesting, we all have a cartoon character that is who we are. The X-Men had always been one of my favorites growing up because I always understood the subtext. This isn’t just about these cartoon characters and mutants, this is an allegory for life, for discrimination, and for othering people because of their differences. And so we just pulled from those characters, and for me it was Storm, since I was probably five years old. She’s the mistress of the elements. She’s powerful. She was African, which, even at that young age, really resonated with me. She had a lot of power but she had to temper it because of how strong she was. She was a leader on the X-Men. Even now my nieces know that I’m Storm. So we keep the tradition going.

During my youth, the values that were most strongly impressed upon myself and all my siblings was really, again, it was about family, it was about culture and cultural preservation and knowing who we are and our identity and being very strongly rooted in who we are, especially as Igbo people, and understanding our history and how we’re situated in the universe.

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The Igbo people are the epitome of democratic. It is probably one of the most pure forms of democracy on the planet. The Igbo are very much about egalitarianism. So we typically did not have kings. The notion of hierarchy was not naturally a part of our world view. We were very much about community and about discussion. There wasn’t this… patriarchal notion; it was about balance. Men have a role in society and women have a role in society and together they create harmony. Everything about Igbo culture is about balance and harmony, harmony with nature, harmony with each other. There’s a saying that in English translates essentially to let the kite and the bird share the same branch. You can do your thing. I can do my thing. And together we can live in harmony. When there are conflicts, things are resolved through discussion. So we talked about democracy and everyone having a voice that’s epitomized in Igbo culture.

Growing up, the notion of culture and identity was a huge value for us. Also, just the notion of what it means to be a servant. Justice was also a big factor. Our parents were very active in the Nigerian community and in the African community generally. And they always were very intentional about social justice issues and speaking out about things that were wrong. They’re very much challengers of the status quo.

In the 1990s, my dad was the president of the Nigerian National Alliance here in Chicago. At that time in Nigeria, we still had a dictator, General Sani Abacha. And so they knew—because most of our family was still in Nigeria—that there were all kinds of injustices happening under that regime, people disappearing, people being killed, et cetera. My parents had been organizing for a while here in Chicago, but also around the country. They were part of national organizations that were trying to draw attention to corruption and human rights abuses in Nigeria. It came to a head when in 1995, General Abacha had executed nine individuals. They called them dissidents, but they were artists that have been very critical of the government. At the time, a lot of environmental and human rights abuses were taking place in the South South region, where the oil is in the country. So I remember my dad writing the blueprint for Nigeria’s democracy. And so I—I was maybe 13 at the time—had to type it up for him. So I’m reading through what he had written and it was all about what democracy truly is and what it means and what governance looks like and integrity in government looks like. He used that document to organize not just here but in Germany and the UK, in Switzerland, to draw attention to the human rights abuses, to the executions that were taking place in Nigeria.

So we’re seeing this, we’re seeing the press conferences, we’re seeing the meetings. We would hear them on the phone, on international calls well into the night, talking, arguing, lobbying. That was the environment that we grew up under. We’re seeing activism firsthand and what it means to put in the work, not just to talk about an issue, but to put in the work on issues and to organize. And so we just adopted a lot of those values.

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I was doing a lot of organizing when I was an undergrad at U of I. I was doing a lot of activism, a lot of organizing on everything from police misconduct to education to issues on campus. And to me it was always just this question of who is making these decisions? Who is creating this policy? What are they thinking? Are they thinking? And it became very clear that I wanted to be in a space where the decisions are being made, where the policy is being made. And so it was around that time—when I was coming out of undergrad and as I was going into law school—that government was an option for me and I was interested in getting results. Federal government wasn’t really attractive at that time, not even state government. But I remember telling my brother a long time ago, we were just sort of joking around and I was like, you know, if I get in government, the only thing I can see myself doing is being the mayor because it was just the immediacy of being able to affect change at a large scale.

When I came back to Chicago, it’s like, well, what better place to really learn who is making these decisions in the systems that govern people’s lives than by working in government. And so that’s when I went to work in City Hall, during the Daley administration. And it was the vantage point that was necessary for me to get the kind of deep understanding of the departments and how decisions are being made and who gets to make those decisions and how those decisions are connected with community, or if they are connected with community.

I think the challenge with Chicago is that the status quo is so entrenched that there is almost a resistance to new ideas, in part because of where those ideas come from. The other part is because there’s such a commitment to doing things the Chicago way, the way they’ve always been. It’s a very limiting philosophy that I think has prevented Chicago from being a national leader and even a world leader in innovation across the board in terms of how we govern and in terms of what our city looks like. There’s a need to sort of remove the shackles of how we’ve always done it from the city’s culture so that we can truly become great.

The first time I ran for mayor in 2014, organizing to overthrow this mayor and to usher in a vision of a city that works for its residents, of a city that can be greater than what we’re experiencing, that made sense to me because I had that legacy of activism. I knew both of my parents fought in Nigeria’s Civil War. It was revealed to me later, when I was considering my second mayoral run, that my great-grandmother was organizing against the British empire.

Nigeria was colonized by the British. In the early 1900s, the British empire was making inroads and part of what they were doing was imposing unfair taxes and their system of governance, which was directly opposed to our system of how we governed ourselves. And so in 1929, in my great-grandmother’s village, the British were attempting to tax the villagers and were trying to tax women. Women have always worked. They always have participated in the economy. And so this tax was being imposed on the women. As the story goes, the tax collector came to my great-grandmother’s village attempting to collect this tax. And she basically told him off and said that’s not happening, and then what she did is she started to organize the other women in the village and then that spread to other villages until it became what is known as the Women’s War. And it turned out to be a sustained organized action against the British Empire. It was one of the largest of its kind that had happened on the continent, ever. And it started in that tiny village in South East Nigeria, [Oloko], which is my dad’s village. And it was sustained, so much so that the British actually changed whatever taxes they were trying to impose, they reversed them. It changed how they approach the governance in our area.

That story always resonates with me, especially when you think about what it means to challenge systems and what it means to be a person who is standing on the courage of their convictions against almost impossible odds. When I think about this mayoral race it’s like, okay, ‘Your great-grandmother was organizing against the British empire. Your parents were fighting against Nigeria, which was supported by the United States, by the British, by these European powers.’ So then the prospect of mayor just doesn’t seem to [laughs], it doesn’t seem as daunting.

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Erisa Apantaku is the executive producer of South Side Weekly Radio. This summer, her team worked on an interactive history project documenting the four Englewood high schools slated for closure by Chicago Public Schools.

The Weekly is a volunteer-run nonprofit written for and about the South Side of Chicago. Our work is made possible through donations from our readers. If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a one-time or recurring donation. Donate today.

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