CHICAGO, Ill. – “Ladies and gentlemen, Black people matter. Simply put, Black people matter,” said Rep. Will Davis (D-Homewood). “More importantly, the education of young Black boys and Black girls matter.”
The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus hopes to change racial disparities within the state’s education system during the fall veto session. This is the second pillar of policies the caucus is working on to improve life for Black Illinoisans.
Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) says the state needs to break down barriers for Black students to prevent another generation of the school to prison pipeline.
“We need to leverage this moment in time to identify bold measures that will reimagine our school system beyond the limitations of the programs we have tried in the past,” Lightford added.
She emphasized data and resources are needed to help schools move students forward. As a result, the caucus plans on introducing proposals to ensure Black communities receive adequate funding and restructure their curriculum. That is critical, as some feel schools are still “whitewashing” history.
“We need educational systems that promote fair and inclusive sustainable worlds without exclusion of Black people,” said Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Urbana). “We were experiencing more anti-Black sentiments today than in 1965.”
Ammons notes education reforms have to value contributions of Black people across all academic subjects. Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago) shares that sentiment.
“Black history is American history,” Collins said Wednesday. “The racial reckoning – confronting and challenging America today – is the result of America’s refusal to recognize that fact.”
The veteran lawmaker feels the country’s history must include the Black experience, instead of classes “taught in a vacuum.”
Attracting diversity in teaching
Caucus members spoke in the Gwendolyn Brooks Library at Chicago State University. Rep. Nicholas Smith (D-Chicago) rode his bike around the campus as a kid and also graduated from CSU. Smith noted Chicago State was once the top local college for aspiring teachers, but that has since changed. Illinois has also dealt with a significant teacher shortage for several years.
“We’re taking a closer look at who’s teaching our children, and why our teachers don’t look like the children in the classroom,” Smith added. “So, when we think about the teacher shortage, we have to think about new and innovative ways to attract people to the teaching profession.”
Davis says it’s unfortunate recent events in the national spotlight led the caucus to this opportunity for change. However, he notes Black lawmakers are here and ready to deliver.
“The objective is not to just simply walk through the door, but to kick it wide open and really do what’s necessary to make sure that the education systems from early childhood to K-12, high school and secondary education…do everything possible to make sure that the education of Black people is acknowledged, recognized and put at the forefront.”
A personal fight for change
Several lawmakers highlighted why they are passionate about improving education for Black youth. Lightford has long fought for education reforms, starting in the General Assembly at 29 years old. She faced many challenges as a young Black woman in the legislature.
Today, Lightford is the first Black woman to serve as the state’s Senate Majority Leader. The Capitol Bureau asked Lightford who inspired her as a child.
“I come from an abusive home, and I don’t know that I had inspiration,” Lightford said through tears. “I just knew that I needed to pray.”
She explained her mother married at 16 years old and was “raised to be a homemaker.” Lightford said her grandmother and great-grandmother also faced the same challenge with very limited education.
“There was just something about being a homemaker that I didn’t want to be a homemaker. Just didn’t want to cook, just didn’t want to clean,” Lightford added. “Just didn’t want to tend to other people, and I thought there had to be something more to this.”
She remembers having “some of the best” teachers in grammar school. During that era, Lightford explained there were significantly more Black teachers who understood her challenges at home. They helped her stay focused in early education and the Senator became the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“If I had to attribute anything, it would be that I had this beautiful mother who was also in this abusive environment.She never, never, never sold her children short. She was always available,” Lightford added.
Several caucus members participated in the Senate joint committee hearing addressing early childhood education Wednesday afternoon. They plan on holding a series of hearings to address other aspects of the education system in the weeks leading up to veto session starting November 17.