Courtesy of Kina Collins

Kina Collins was born and raised in the Austin neighborhood. As a student at Rufus M. Hitch elementary and Von Steuben high school, she began organizing around stopping gun violence in her community. She later attended Louisiana State University and has organizing experience with a youth initiative of the Center for American Progress, the protest movement that emerged in 2015 around the police murder of Laquan McDonald, and Physicians for a National Health Program. Collins is challenging U.S. Representative Danny K. Davis to represent Illinois’s 7th District; Davis has held the seat since 1997. It is Collins’s first campaign for office. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me about your background?

I am a native of this community. I was born in Austin, I was raised in Austin, and when we win, I’m going to stay in Austin. I grew up in a pro-union household. My dad is a Teamster, my mom is SEIU, and so organizing has been in my blood from the very beginning. I started out organizing around gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform. As a child, I witnessed another child murdered in my community. I started doing anti-violence work in Chicago Public Schools with my peers, and then that turned into national work. I went to Louisiana State University, where I was working with Generation Progress, a part of [the] Center for American Progress, around gun violence prevention. 

I came back to Chicago in 2015, after the Laquan McDonald tape was released, and I’m part of that cohort of young activists here in the city of Chicago who organized the [2015] Black Friday shutdown and other actions. In 2017, I wrote the Illinois Council on Women and Girls Act, which was a direct response to the Trump administration eliminating an Obama-era policy called the White House Council on Women and Girls. I took on the GOP of Illinois and a Republican governor, and we won. This was very important, landmark civil rights legislation because it included protections for the transgender community and non-binary community. It included the voices of women of color, and it talked about closing the wage equity gap and expanding reproductive health care and education. And so it was a bipartisan bill, and now it’s an active council that Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton sits on.

Why did you decide to run for office?

A year before I announced, I was working as the national organizer for Physicians for a National Health Program. I organized 20,000 doctors and medical students across the country, fighting to secure a single-payer Medicare for All. When I found out that Congressman Davis was taking hundreds of thousands of dollars of corporate money from pharmaceutical companies and private insurance companies, I decided that I was organizing already, building coalitions, and writing policy, and that I was going to mount a primary challenge against him. 

How have your experiences informed the values of your campaign?

I am currently the only candidate in this race who lives in a marginalized community. When we think about federal rollbacks and the cutbacks in social services and public goods, the communities that are hardest hit are the neighborhoods in our district like Englewood, Back of the Yards, Austin, and North Lawndale. I think that my actual lived experience of seeing folks struggle every single day in my community makes me an expert at a lot of these issues that we want to tackle on the federal level. I believe that if every congressional leader lived in the poorest area of their district, we would not have lead in our water; we would not be suffering from public school shutdowns; we would not see the spike and continuation of state-sanctioned violence and police brutality because these would be all the things that [congresspersons’] families would be experiencing. So for me, this run and the election of 2020—both the presidential election and the down-ballot races—are about a return of representative democracy. In a district that’s over eighty-five percent Democrat, overwhelmingly working-class, and nearly seventy percent people of color, we deserve a working-class champion, and I am that candidate.

Can you describe the Chicago Neighborhood Alliance?

It was an organization that I started when I came back from working in Washington, D.C. In a lot of the rooms that I was sitting in D.C., we were talking about resources, and we were talking about how to stop everyday gun violence. Those meetings were filled with white men, to be quite frank about it. There were no women, there were no youth, there were no people of color. And there were no true working-class representatives in those rooms. And so, I decided to come back and start Chicago Neighborhood Alliance to say that there’s several ways that we can combat gun violence, and one of those ways is civic engagement. Me and my friends essentially put the organization together in the hopes of having communities that are impacted by everyday gun violence become more civically engaged.

What are the main issues residents in the district face on a daily basis?

Health care, gun violence, and criminal justice reform are top issues. I would say increasingly, as we’ve been knocking on doors, we’ve been hearing more people being concerned about environmental and immigration as well. But if we were just talking about statistically, the everyday things that impact constituents and residents of IL-7 it would be health care, gun violence and criminal justice reform.

We are the most Democratic district in all of Illinois. But even with as progressive-leaning and Democrat-leaning as we are, we also have the largest life-expectancy gap in the country. Streeterville, which is a part of our district downtown, has a life expectancy of ninety years. If you travel a ten-mile radius to Englewood, which is also in our district, that life expectancy drops to sixty. It’s a thirty-year life drop inside of a twenty-minute car ride. We know that’s because of the social determinants. It’s the lead in the water, it’s the bullets that are flying. And health care is essentially at the core of everything. When we talk about toxins in the air and lead in the water, that’s an environmental health issue. When we talk about food deserts, that’s a nutritional health issue. When we talk about gun violence, that’s a public health issue. To me, it is the most important thing that I want to tackle in my first hundred days, because I believe that life-expectancy gap definitely sits on the lines of race and class in our district.

How do you intend to tackle the life-expectancy gap in your first hundred days?

I’m going to put a health care task force together. It will consist of environmentalists, physicians, ER doctors, and folks in the community, activists who have been organizing in the community and have been doing this work for a really long time. We want to compile a report and take that back to the health care subcommittees in Congress. We need to be sure that we’re talking to people like FEMA to say we need emergency water filtration systems in these portions of our district. We need to unlock the federal resources to come in and start to chip away at that thirty-year gap.  

How does the Green New Deal, which you support, translate to residents in the district?

The GND is not just an environmental piece of legislation; it’s a workforce piece of legislation. The one thing that stops bullets is opportunity, and one thing that makes people feel valuable is a high-paying union job. Those are the things that we need to be bringing back to the district. When we saw the wipeout of manufacturing jobs here on the West Side, we saw the entire community get crippled. If you read the GND legislation, it does talk about the ramifications of climate change, but it also says we need to be investing in the green sustainable economy that is providing strong local economies for districts like ours. And that can help with the decrease in life expectancy by investing in green energy in IL-7. So I look at it not just as the eradication of environmental injustice and environmental racism, but also as an economic engine for Illinois.

How do you see yourself on the emerging spectrum of progressive versus moderate wings of the Democratic Party?

I see myself as an independent reformer. The party is flowing more toward the working class. I could give you a laundry list of ways that the Republican and Democratic parties have forsaken urban communities in America. When you look at my neighborhood, Austin, you can’t compare it to Streeterville or Oak Park—which is where my opponents live. You have to compare Austin to Baltimore, to Philadelphia, to the Bronx, because that’s the level of poverty that we deal with. So, we want everyday people who can speak to everyday issues.   

How will you address these disparities from the federal level in a concrete way?

I think IL-7 is a microcosm of America, and I think we chip away at it by saying that those pieces of the district that have been ignored should no longer be ignored. And that means investment in housing; that means keeping our public schools open; that means not taking donations [from] and buddying up [to] a luxury real-estate developer. It means that we are accountable and transparent to the voters, so we’re having quarterly town halls and monthly phone calls where people can dial in and hear what’s happening. And it’s a huge education issue—folks are just not educated on what’s happening. And it seems so daunting, so we have to bring it down to the real level, and explain it to people in a way that they can digest this information on the resources that we can provide for the district. 

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Jim Daley is the Weekly’s politics editor. He last wrote about public mental health in the city.

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