Four years ago, with the Great Recession in full swing, the Chicago Community Trust put its weight behind fighting suburban poverty south of Chicago. In a process that has since led to the creation of the Southland Human Services Leadership Council, I was hired to survey the strengths and leadership of the Southland region, which makes up the majority of the Second Congressional District. One of the shorthands I used to understand the task was to ask, "Who might be the Mayor of the Southland?" In other words, who are the leaders whose agendas and vision encompass the region as a whole, transcending the boundaries of village and township? Unlike Chicago, where power is centralized in City Hall and the business elites of the loop, the Southland is fragmented into forty-odd municipalities and several townships with its industrial and commercial strength mostly owned and controlled elsewhere. Who would see interests that transcend jurisdictional boundaries and who could craft a vision for a region intimately bound up with Chicago but distinct in its needs and resources?
The answer should have been the Second District's Representative to Congress, the one person with the duty to serve the public interest of the whole region. But by 2010, Jesse Jackson Jr. was already facing the Blagojevich Senate-Seat-for-Sale scandal and lying low in the District. There were few other possibilities. To the extent that I found Mayors and nonprofit leaders whose agendas were region-wide, they are people who are now supporting Robin, and here’s why: her leadership style has always been one of inclusion, reaching beyond village and county lines to embrace a shared destiny for the people living south of the city. Robin Kelly has worked at the Village level, then statewide, and most recently for Cook County; she is the only person in the race to have worked at every level of local government, and the relationships she has nurtured through that process are the reason why people are learning she is the best representative for the District as a whole.
So far the battle in the race to succeed Representative Jackson has focused on gun violence. This is an immediate and important issue. Robin Kelly has the most progressive track record on gun violence, which makes her best-suited to address the murder crisis in some Chicago neighborhoods of the District. But her appeal also goes further, and speaks to the way that those neighborhoods fit with the suburbs and farmland that also make up Illinois' Second.
The Second District is unique in all America. It may have been an accident of political redistricting but it is very much the future of the country. The District is majority Black because it is made up of the real estate into which historian St. Clair Drake's "Black Metropolis" expanded. Two Great Migrations of African-Americans were stuffed and ghettoized into small sections of Chicago's South and West sides, but as housing laws were made fairer and Black folks made economic progress, the Black Metropolis expanded into the South Shore, the South Side, the South Suburbs and onward to Bourbonnais and Kankakee. During that period of expansion, the bad joke suggested that integration was the period of time from when the first black family moved into a neighborhood until the last white family moved out. For too many Second District neighborhoods it was true.
But even after a devastating recession and foreclosure crisis wiped out untold hard-earned Black wealth, the Second District has stabilized. The pace of sprawl has slowed to a crawl, and we find integration holding. Mixed racial demographics held steady in many communities between the last two censuses, and the last white folks are unlikely to ever move out of Kankakee, Bourbonnais, Flossmoor, Lansing, Hazel Crest and many other neighborhoods; meanwhile, new immigrants from Mexico, South Asia, and the Middle East are moving in - to South Chicago, Chicago Heights, Harvey, Richton Park and more. People are living together and investing in place - something that has rarely happened, and rarely for long, in nearly a century of division since the first Great Migration of African-Americans from the South. That place is the Second Congressional District. Richly framed by the jewels of the Cook County and Will County Forest Preserves and tied by transit to one of the world's great Global Cities, we find ourselves sitting on the most undervalued real estate in Chicagoland, and the place that will model the future of integrated America for everyone else.
Robin Kelly wrote her doctoral dissertation on this future. When I met her 9 years ago at a Southland event for Diversity, Inc., she was courageously championing a vision that so many of us could not yet see – a vision for a Southland of residential integration, providing equal opportunity to all and schools to train our children for a diverse world. She is the right person to lead us into this integrated future, to show us what the Second District can become with activist leadership untarnished by scandal, to fight the scourge of guns and to represent us in a Congress that needs to help more communities like ours find their paths to middle class prosperity. When we think about what kind of leader we want and what kind of future we dream, the results point to one candidate in this important race – Robin Kelly.