This story is a part of our Black mayoral candidate series, Before the Polls. Click here to read about the other Black mayoral candidates before hitting the polls on Tuesday, Feb. 26.

There is a considerable amount of people who don’t think 35-year-old Amara Enyia can win Chicago’s political long game. Her stances sound good, and they resonate with the disadvantaged Black and Brown folks on the South and West sides: anti-cop academy, pro-Community Benefits Agreement and pro- elected school board. How can anyone seeking an equitable Chicago not side with her? That’s why Enyia’s branded herself as the most progressive candidate in a heavily contested race to take Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral seat.

Then again, when you think about it, Chicago is an establishment city. Traditionally our mayors have been backed by money and power, the recipe for the victories of old man Richard J. Daley, his son Richard M. Daley and the Barack Obama-favored Emanuel.

Enyia doesn’t have that. She’s only raised $654,000, mostly through big donations from celebrity ambassadors Kanye West and Chance the Rapper. And it wasn’t until Jan. 31 that she gained the support of Cook County Clerk Dorothy Brown, a questionable alliance, considering Enyia’s anti-corruption beliefs and Brown’s history of legal and ethical issues.

Sitting in a window seat inside Wicker Park’s Haven Lounge a week before Brown’s endorsement, Enyia is well aware that people underestimate her ability to lead Chicago. She knows her rhetoric seems lofty to some. But that talk doesn’t phase her, because she’s an underdog determined to prove her worth to voters.

“We know what we’re up against and we don’t know what the outcome is going to be, but you don’t take up fights just because you know you can win. You take it up because of the principles,” Enyia explains.

Much like the grassroots efforts of Mayor Harold Washington’s campaign, Enyia’s strategy is to tap into new voters — Black and Brown young adults, the activist community and others who felt unseen and unheard during Emanuel’s administration. Although she doesn’t have the endorsements of traditional outlets such as the Chicago Sun-Times or Chicago Tribune, the social media-popular independent voter guide Girl, I Guess lists Enyia in its top two to vote for. The guide is created by South Side Weekly’s political editor Ellen Mayer and Trans Liberation Collective founding organizer Stephanie Skora.

“We’re here, actually showing up at polls without having the party backing us, without having millions of dollars, without having decades of political favors,” Enyia says. “For us to be here at this point where we got on the ballot, unchallenged, they can keep underestimating me. We’re going to do everything we possibly can.”

The TRiiBE sat down with Enyia on Jan. 22 to chat about her background, political stances, and mayoral campaign. Read our conversation below.

(The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

The TRiiBE: Tell me a little about yourself. Where’d you grow up? How did you end up getting into politics?

Amara Enyia: By profession, I work as a public policy consultant. I work here but I also work internationally. I’ve worked in government. I’ve worked as an executive in the nonprofit sector. I still do that work, but I’m also an organizer. I’ve been doing organizing work actually since being in undergrad at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A lot of my philosophy that drives that work is just how I was raised. So I come from an immigrant family. My parents have always been activists. Both my parents fought in Nigeria’s civil war against Nigeria. During that time, the late 1960s and 70s, there was a genocide that was taking place against our ethnic group. They were young at the time but determined that they had a sense of responsibility in doing what’s right and standing up against injustice, so they ended up fighting in the war.

Even when they came to the Chicago area, they continued their organizing against the [Nigerian] government. We were living in University Park at the time, commuting back and forth to Uptown, Rogers Park and Edgewater because that’s where the Nigerian communities were basically headquartered. [My siblings and I] were just raised with these values of justice and equity and organizing, and we learned it firsthand from them. A lot of my organizing work started when I was in college and that continued when I finished school and came back to Chicago. Having worked in government, it was so clear to me that there was this disconnect between those who make policy and those who are affected by policy. I never aspired to be the mayor or aspired to be an elected official. That was never a dream of mine. Quite the contrary, because I’ve never been a very public person. However, there’s so much that could happen and needs to happen in Chicago, and so many challenges and so many opportunities that it mandates that we be bold in pushing for the change that we want to see happen in the city. That’s what led me into politics.

You mention working for government. Can you talk a little bit about what jobs you had in government?

Enyia: I worked in the mayor’s office in Chicago. This was in the [Richard M.] Daley administration. I figured the best way to really understand why things are the way they are in the city is to go where the core of everything is happening. I applied and started working in the mayor’s office. From that vantage point, I pretty much got a chance to see and work across policy areas — everything from housing to economic development to food security, violence prevention. I spent service there until May 16, 2011, which was the end of Daley’s term.

From there, I went straight to work as the executive director of a nonprofit called Austin Coming Together, doing work in the Austin community. And then I was also the policy director for an organization called Manufacturing Renaissance. In that organization, I was managing a national project, or doing work to rebuild the advanced manufacturing sector from an economic development standpoint but also from a workforce standpoint. After that, I started consulting internationally on different aspects of public policy in different countries.

When you were in the Daley administration, were you a fellow or…?

Enyia: I started as a fellow actually. That’s how I got in initially. I really liked city government. I liked that you can tangibly change things in a relatively short amount of time unlike in Washington D.C., or even Springfield.

At what point did you decide to throw your hat in the ring for mayor, and why?

Enyia: I ran before. I ran in 2014, and learned a lot of difficult lessons from that first run, but the message was the same message. It’s just [that] now it’s even more relevant than it was back then. I had no [intentions] of running again after the last time. I did not want to run because I’d done it before or because people are saying I should or because of ego. If I were going to run again, it had to be the same internal conviction that I had the first time I ran, and that conviction is not something that anyone can give to you. However, in late 2017, I just had that internal [conviction]. This time, when I came out, I didn’t just jump out. I started organizing. All the people that I had organized and marched with over the years, I reached out to them first so that we could talk about what this means before going out publicly.

Do you mind sharing which organizations those were?

Enyia: They were individuals. These are people that I have worked with that are all tied to different nonprofits and different grassroots organizations.

Folks have been criticizing a lot of the candidates because everyone got into the race after Rahm Emanuel’s announcement. Folks are asking why wasn’t anyone prepared to run against Rahm Emanuel when he was running for re-election, especially in the Black community. What are your thoughts on that?

Enyia: We came out before [Emanuel’s announcement]. I was the first person to come out and challenge Rahm in 2014. Our official announcement was in August, but we had been organizing since the beginning of the year. We were very strategic about how we announced. We officially announced the day you could start collecting signatures, which was Aug. 28. That was a strategic decision. Rahm didn’t announce that he wasn’t running until, I think, a week later. But again, Rahm wasn’t really a factor in our decision.

Everyone is vying for the Black vote. Black people in Chicago really trusted Rahm Emanuel. He got into office twice. But we suffered a lot under his leadership. We’ve lost schools and suffered under all the police brutality that went on. Our population, especially in Austin, has declined tremendously. What is your plan to retain and rebuild Black Chicago?

Enyia: Well, it means changing the entire paradigm of leadership in the city. We have to create new economic development tools that will spur development in the neighborhoods. I believe that the tools that we have are outdated [and] limited. They don’t take into account the need for equity and resource allocation. So a lot of my platform is about innovation. It’s about designing a new economy that is inclusive and that plugs people in so they can stay in this city. [One] of the things I talk about [is] having a public bank for Chicago. That’s specifically because, for Black Chicagoans, redlining is still a very real thing. If you wanted to open up a business and you apply for a loan, you probably won’t get a loan. You probably don’t have a lot of wealth, and certainly not generational wealth built up.

So having a public bank that can issue low-interest loans to entrepreneurs is a way of being able to plug into the economy and build ownership which then can build wealth. We talk a lot about cooperative economic models because collective ownership is something that is not new, but if we’re talking about rebuilding communities and building wealth as a community, that is the mechanism to do that. I talk about land ownership, and why a community land trust needs to be a significant part of the city’s economic development strategy. If we’re talking about building Black wealth and preserving affordability, it starts with owning land.

When we talk about violence, I approach it from just a different lens. I look at a lot of the public health hazards, especially lead. I do a lot of food security. [I look at] what people eat and how that affects brain development, which affects behavior. [I connect] violence to that as opposed to [talking] about it in the context of policing. That’s not violence prevention. [Another thing that] would restore population [is] making the city affordable. Everybody wants access to a good school for their kids. Everybody wants to be able to work close to home. Everybody wants to have parks, or schools or churches. There’s no one in the city that wants something different from that. Yet the way that the city invests and allocates its resources will lead you to believe that only people who live in Lakeview, Lincoln Park or Hyde Park want nice things, and everyone else is content. That’s simply not the case. So we have to give people a reason to stay in Chicago and, quite frankly, we haven’t given too many Black people good reasons to stay in the city.

We watched Rahm Emanuel shut down all of these schools over the last few years. Most of them were in the Black neighborhoods. In your opinion, what do these closures say to Black youth, and how do you plan to remedy the Chicago Public Schools problem?

Enyia: Well the closures [are] just the latest in the pattern of disinvestment, dysfunction and destabilization that characterizes CPS. So we talk about the school closures, but we don’t talk about the conditions in the city that led to [those] schools needing to be closed. The reason why many of these schools were closed is because they had lost so much population in many of these areas. So you have buildings that hold 1,200 students that now have 300 students in the entire building. Then they would say, ‘oh this building’s underutilized. OK, now we’re going to close this school.’ Well, what happened in the planning, in the years where the population was declining year after year? We don’t really talk about that. We just get to the point of the school closures. And now we’re talking about even more school closures because the population is still declining.

So for CPS, for the city of Chicago, education policy follows municipal policy. If we don’t connect those two, we’re going to continue to experience the same things we’re experiencing at the city level: lower population in schools [and] people not getting access to all of the things that they need in their schools. It’s the same thing that’s happening in communities. So we have to address those structural issues. If you want people to stay in the city, they have to know, especially people with families, that they can get into a good school that’s not going to be a two-hour commute. They need to know that the funding for their school is consistent. I push for changing the student-based budgeting model. I think it’s deeply flawed. It penalizes schools that are already in communities where population decline has led to lower school population.

I think CPS should not expand charter schools because what they’re doing is having public neighborhood schools competing directly, sometimes in the same area, for a limited number of students. I think CPS needs to re-evaluate the way it draws school boundaries because they do so in a way that perpetuates segregation. I think that they need an equity office that will audit and review and evaluate capital expenditures to make sure that all sides of the city have access to programs and things that are beneficial for students. These are structural things that need to happen in CPS, and they can start just by having consistent leadership. [With] five [or] six CEOs in the last six or seven years, you can’t build anything with that type of destabilization internally.

Chicago has become more and more expensive to live in over the last few years. We’ve seen Black residents and business owners starved out of the city. Why is it that Black neighborhoods never see quality grocery stores, or businesses outside of churches, liquor stores and funeral homes, until white folks start to move in? How will you improve our neighborhoods without pushing people out?

Enyia: This is the whole argument of development without displacement. I think that it has to be a targeted economic investment strategy that identifies those commercial corridors in Black neighborhoods and creates incentives for entrepreneurs and businesses to locate in those commercial corridors. It’s not just through Tax Increment Financing dollars. It is working out deals where the taxes for particular buildings will be waived for a number of years to give the occupants time to start to generate profit from their business. It’s waiving fees and fines for a particular number of years so that businesses and entrepreneurs who are starting up are not burdened with fees or fines they may incur within those first couple of years. It’s working out rent abatement strategies with landlords so that they can provide subsidized rent to business owners in those commercial corridors. These are the things that we have to do because we recognize that these areas are considered higher risk. So we need stronger incentives to encourage businesses to locate there and to encourage private investment there. The city needs to be leading on that, and we are not.

[Gov.] J.B. Pritzker is getting ready to legalize weed. For Chicago, and as mayor, what will that mean for Black folks who have been imprisoned for marijuana charges?

Enyia: Everyone is in favor of legalization. Fine. But [we need to be] having the same conversation about what kinds of restorative measures, or reparative measures can be put in place for individuals who have been harmed by its legal status. Right now, if it costs you hundreds of thousands of dollars to have a license, you’re automatically priced out of participation in that sector. To me, that is wrong. I don’t care how excited people are about legalizing if we’re not addressing those who’ve been harmed, and if we’re not intentionally creating ownership opportunities, business opportunities, [and] distribution opportunities for individuals at all levels of the economic spectrum - not just those who are wealthy enough to buy in and get a dispensary license. Also, it’s beyond just the marijuana. It’s not just the recreational. It’s also in hemp, which is a multibillion-dollar global industry. How are we developing pipelines into that sector? There’s a level of intentionality that has to happen beyond just everybody’s excited because weed is legal. If we’re not paying attention to it, then we won’t really reap the benefits of it’s legalized status.

So many of our politicians in Chicago have been in trouble with the law. There’s a lot going on with Ald. [Edward] Burke and people who are associated with him now. You haven’t been in any trouble, but there have been concerns with money management since you started your campaign in the hole. How can Black Chicago trust that you’ll be able to handle our tax dollars responsibly?

Enyia: We learned a lot of lessons from our first campaign. That campaign fine is from our first campaign actually, and that’s not an unusual thing. Rahm Emanuel had campaign fines at the start of the election season, yet nobody is talking about the fines that he had to pay in the middle of last year. And we’re not questioning his ability. It doesn’t take a lot of genius to mismanage millions of other people’s money, and he has mismanaged city finances in a way that’s left us with $42 billion pension obligation where he’s done nothing more than borrow our way from one debt to the next debt. And yet people aren’t questioning his financial acumen. If you don’t make a lot of money where you can self-finance your entire campaign, then you’re automatically disadvantaged. It’s not because you’re any less financially able to manage a city. It’s just because we assign competence to people based on their income because there is an assumption that if you make more money, you must be smarter than everyone else. That’s absolutely not the case. 

Because of your age, and your short time in politics, you’re considered a rookie in the political game, especially compared to folks like Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot. Are you prepared to handle the responsibilities that come with being mayor? How so?

Enyia: I’ve been prepared. I have probably the most well-rounded experience and the appropriate perspective and experience for this time that we’re in as a city. Chicago is not looking for establishment candidates. Chicagoans, and quite frankly [people] across the country, are not looking for establishment candidates or decades-long incumbents. They’re many establishment candidates who have tacitly accepted corruption, who tacitly accepted mismanagement, who tacitly accepted the lack of reforms put in place, and now they’re telling you that they want to lead you into the future? We’re not buying it. People want leadership that is grounded in service first. That’s not self-serving. The role of mayor is not a prize to be won. It’s a vehicle to do some transformative things in Chicago, and that’s what Chicagoans want, and it’s why people are not responding enthusiastically to establishment candidates. We’re bringing in people who have never voted before because they see this campaign and it resonates with them in a way that has never happened before. That’s a very powerful thing. So it allows us to build out a new base of voters. We’re not scrambling for the 30 percent of people who voted in the last election. There’s a universe out there of eligible voters who are looking for a reason to get involved, and we give them that reason.

We know that Kanye has given to your campaign, and Chance has given to your campaign. It seems that celebrity has overshadowed your work, your campaign and what you stand for. How are you working to not be outshined by those two celebrities being connected with your campaign?

Enyia: Their value, Chance more so, was the fact that they allowed us to break through the clutter of the election cycle. They created a level of visibility that you can’t pay for, and that’s very valuable. It helped a lot. It helped to get us on the radar. The good thing is that we have so much substance as a campaign that what attracted people might have been ‘Ye or it might have been Chance, but what keeps them is the substance of the campaign. We actually have something to say. We’re actually viable. We actually have these proposals and ideas. 

Does Kanye being aligned with Trump and MAGA affect your campaign in any way?

Enyia: I think it did when he donated. Like Chance, we do some events together. ‘Ye supported us financially so he hasn’t been out campaigning. We had talked about his views, and he said that he did not support Trump’s policies. He supports the idea that people with different viewpoints should be able to talk to each other. Fine. He made that clear. He said that he believes our platform is what Chicago needs. That this campaign, my candidacy, is what the city of Chicago needs and he wants to help Chicago.

So this past summer, Ald. Willie Cochran referred to the Black Caucus as gangsters. So what does that statement say about how our Black aldermen operate, and how can we create a relationship between the mayor and city council and the communities where the communities benefit in the end?

Enyia: I believe in people’s assemblies as a model of governance that puts people in a position of power to where their aldermen represent their issues to the mayor. I believe that every alderman should be interested in building and expanding a civically engaged ward, and they have to do that with intention. Any individual that I am aligned with, who is running for alderman, has to prioritize building and cultivating civically engaged residents in their wards that are independent of them. What that means is they are held accountable by their residents. Your job is you are supposed to represent the interests of your residents to me, not me representing my interests to you and then you tell your residents what my interests are. So we’re completely flipping the paradigm of representation and accountability to put the interests of residents in top priority. That goes along with having a strong council-weak mayor system, which is the way it’s supposed to be. 

Do you support the cop academy? If elected mayor, what will happen with the cop academy?

Enyia: I don’t support the cop academy. The cop academy is so much bigger than just the actual building. It’s a symbol of the consistent disinvestment in some parts of the city. We’re saying that we need to invest our resources into the things that build strong people and strong communities: education, economic investment, housing, access to mental health and behavioral health resources. Those are the things that allow communities to thrive and naturally reduce violence. Whenever we talk about Black or Brown communities, the narrative is always violence which, to me, is problematic because you reduce people to violence. Then they connect violence to Blackness which then assigns inherent characteristics of violence cycles.

You’re telling me that a cop academy in West Garfield is going to be an economic development project? There’s no other neighborhood in the city that you would go into where you would sell a police training facility as economic development. ONLY in the Black neighborhood would you sell a police training academy as economic development.

Do you have ideas for what you would do instead of a cop academy in West Garfield Park which, as you know, is a community that’s in dire need of investment?

Enyia: There was a proposal that was set forward. I don’t know what happened to it. But it was a proposal to put an entertainment district along Chicago Avenue. Maybe it was Chicago and Kostner, around that area. I think it was going to be like a Dave & Busters type of facility [with] rock climbing [and] some other fun activities. That could be a significant economic driver. 

Do you support the leadership of Supt. Eddie Johnson? The Intercept released an investigative report about him, basically saying that he has a history, other than Laquan McDonald…

Enyia: He’s definitely had a thankless job. I would give him the benefit of the doubt. I think the problem is how he came into his role. The city opened up this national search, had identified a candidate, selected a candidate, and all of a sudden at the last minute, the whole process was scrapped and Eddie Johnson moved in as superintendent. So I think that cast a pall on his entire tenure. However, I do think that he has a heavy job to fill and I would give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s doing the best that he can. But until the city is committed to addressing the root causes of violence, whomever is sitting in that seat will have the most impossible task. That’s why I try to always shift the narrative around violence away from just policing to all of the things that city leadership across the board has to address as a way to really reduce violence.

If you are elected mayor, what will happen with the privatized parking meters and targeted ticketing practices, which Black folks don’t benefit from?

Enyia: So we released an economic justice platform a few weeks ago where we address all of what we call their draconian practices, and we set forth alternatives that we think are progressive, productive, and non punitive. For example, banning the boot. We think that mobility is tied to your ability to be able to make a living. If you are no longer mobile, you can’t work to make the money to pay your tickets and to live essentially. So we think that there are more productive and progressive ways of getting revenue that do not require booting people’s cars. We also are calling for a moratorium on all of those tickets until there’s a commission or task force that is examining the disparity in tickets in the city and looking at the harmful effects of the city’s ticketing practices. Until that study is done, we believe that we need to halt all of the ticketing, all of the fees and fines, because it’s been really harmful. We find that people are actually filing for bankruptcy because they got tickets. We also found that the city will take their car and sell it, and the money they get from it doesn’t even go towards paying down what you owe. These are just very draconian policies and these are the things that cause people to move out of the city.

If you are elected mayor, what will happen with affordable housing, and folks losing their homes to taxes?

Enyia: We have a new Cook County Assessor because, as we found, the current property tax system was overvaluing homes in lower-income communities and undervaluing homes in affluent communities. So it was disproportionately hurting lower-income communities. But also affordable housing is about expanding the volume of housing. [For] the new era ordinance and the mandate of 20 percent, we’re proposing even higher than that for affordable units. We also talk about doing things like allowing for coach houses to be assistant housing because you can actually expand assistant housing by legalizing coach houses. The other thing is mandating family size units because it’s not just individuals that are looking for apartments. In many instances, families want to move and live together so they need family units to be able to move into. So that’s something that we’re actually proposing.

I also believe that aldermanic prerogative is problematic because it only allows for affordable housing in certain areas of the city. People should be able to live anywhere in the city. So addressing aldermanic prerogative is a way of making sure that people have access to the entire city, even if they’re voucher holders or looking for affordable units. And then the last thing is just the city has to create a fund to help seniors subsidize upkeep on their existing homes. I saw this a lot in Austin where you have seniors who still live in these beautiful homes. The kids are gone, and they have a hard time keeping up with the repairs and the cost of maintenance for their house. So we need to actually subsidize the cost of repairs and maintenance on their homes so that they can benefit from the added value of their homes.

As you know, the folks in South Shore and communities in that area are fighting to get a Community Benefits Agreement with the Obama Library coming there. Do you support the CBA and if elected, what would you do to help push that along?

Enyia: I’ve been a part of and supporting the Coalition for a CBA for a couple of years now, long before this election season, because CBA’s are proactive measures to make sure that we can maximize development, particularly with the Obama Presidential Center. No one is saying that they don’t want the Obama Presidential Center, and I know sometimes it gets characterized that way. What we’re simply saying is we want to maximize the benefits of the center to residents who live in the area who are  going to be affected. The history of development in Chicago mandates being proactive because we have many instances where developments occurred and the people do not reap the benefits. You’ve seen time and [time] again where people are pushed out of their neighborhoods essentially because there was no accountability for the developer and the city did not push for accountability in the developer. So the CBA, I see, is proactive. I think it applies across the board with any large-scale development projects in the city.

What was Rahm Emanuel’s biggest mistake in office, and what would you have done differently if you were in office?

Enyia: I think his biggest mistake is arrogance. It’s not a crime to not know things. He came in thinking that he knew everything and he didn’t listen and still doesn’t listen. That arrogance prevents you from having the curiosity, even about the city, and also a sense of humility to know that there is something to be learned from other people. I think that arrogance created a lot of unforced errors. The way that the school closings were handled, for example, [was] very arrogant [and] didn’t take into account that these are actual people who are going to be living with the decisions that you’re making. The whole teacher’s strike [was] arrogance. You couldn’t work productively with the teachers union. You had to try to ramrod whatever your agenda is. That doesn’t work.

What would you do differently?

Enyia: For me, leadership is about service ultimately. That’s the nature of the work. It’s not about what my agenda is. It’s not about me. It’s about serving the best interest of the public, and I just believe that you can’t be a good leader if you can’t be a good follower. People never talk about that because everyone wants to be the leader. But good leadership is premised on good followership because when you follow, you understand what it takes to lead. You understand humility. You understand accountability to something beyond yourself. If you don’t have that world view, that perspective, then you would think that leadership is just sitting in the seat. It’ll be very ineffective, much like this mayor was in many instances. So for me it’s just a different approach to what leadership even is and what leadership could be in Chicago.

People are underestimating you. Most people agree with you but don’t think you can win because Chicago is an establishment city. Everyone thinks you sound good, but you don’t have the establishment, or the money, so what is the point?

Enyia: They do, and I’m fine with it. I get it to a certain extent because of how Chicago has always been. It has been an establishment city. It has been this dirty politics. So what we’re doing is essentially trying to do away with that and trying to eliminate that by doing something that we’ve never really done before, and that is to navigate the space without being tied to the establishment, without being tied to decades of political favors and the party, and all of those things that have been problematic. People are skeptical. The biggest challenge is convincing people that it’s possible. Now you’ve got to change mindsets and that’s a very difficult thing to do. But that’s the key. I think it was Nelson Mandela who said it always seems impossible until it’s done, and that’s our approach. We know what we’re up against, and we don't know what the outcome is going to be, but you don’t take up fights just because you know you can win. You take it up because of the principles, because it’s the right thing to do. We’re here, actually showing up at polls without having the party backing us, without having millions of dollars, without having decades of political favors. And we’re polling, like, three or four, possibly two. For us to be here at this point where we got on the ballot, unchallenged, they can keep underestimating me. We’re going to do everything we possibly can.

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE and a 2023-2024 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.