Community advocate Delia Ramirez was until recently the Deputy Director of the Community Renewal Society: she resigned to become one of four candidates vying to represent the 4th District to replace the retiring Cynthia Soto. Ramirez's challengers are Iris Millan, Alyx Pattison and Delia Ramirez. Windy City Times was able to talk with Shaw as well as Ramirez.
Windy City Times: What are the biggest issues your district faces?
Delia Ramirez: Stable housing. I'm talking about housing for property owners, folks that bought their homes 30-40s years ago, and are done paying the mortgage but figuring out how to pay their property taxes and all the other expenses associated with managing a home, and those that just bought, and figuring out how to cover the mortgage and property taxes. The second piece on housing is those that are rent-burdened, people who are paying far more than they have to pay in rent, spending more than half their income. Housing is one of the biggest priorities I hear in both the western part of the district as well as the eastern part of the district.
You can't talk about stable housing without talking about stable schools, and the way that we fund schools, or the impact when people are forced out of their neighborhood. We're losing enrollment, resources, and teachers, as we have seen happen for years in the state, especially in the city.
The last is pretty simple, it's community; where people would be able to say they have quality of life and safety. We can't talk about violence without looking at it as a health issue, and looking at the root causes. What causes violence to go up? What happens when you don't have a budget for two, three years and all of a sudden, there's no safety net such as the nonprofits that offer after-school programming, restorative justice programs for our young people, the local jobs, the wages. When that is not there, what happens to a community? It is these violent attacks on our community that continue to take away resources that are desperately needed in a community that is as diverse as the 4th district.
Those three things are things that I've heard when I've knocked on doors. They're also the things that I have experienced and seen; I've lived on the same block since I was 7. I went to school in the district, I ran a community center in the district, and pretty much have spent my entire life in this neighborhood, and I've seen the impact of not investing in our neighborhood.
WCT: Talk about your background and qualifications.
DR: I've worked in the nonprofit sector professionally since the age of 17. I ran this organization that is now called the Center for Changing Lives for 9 years, from 21-30. When I took over the organization, we provided emergency services for chronically homeless men, and women with children who were struggling, particularly with being victims of domestic violence, and I would say survivors of domestic violence to be more clear, and a soup kitchen. And I quickly realized that we needed to do more. In 2005 I started a community center focused on job training, access to mental health services, financial coaching and homeless prevention. It's been nationally awarded for being one of the most innovative organizations providing financial and housing coaching for people that are experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
At the age of the 30 I stepped down to take a much-needed sabbatical. I received an emerging leader fellowship with the Chicago Community Trust. Then I became a campaign manager at Common Cause, a national democracy organization focused on fundraising, and really focused on starting the campaign for automatic voter registration in the state of Illinois. I got recruited to become the deputy director at Community Renewal society. I was overseeing their policy department, their organizing department, and their 3.8 million fundraising department. I got to oversee their work particularly around criminal justice reform, fair tax, community housing and jobs, working with the team of lobbyists on staff who have done everything from policy research to crafting legislation and running a roll call for the issues in the community.
For a long time, as a nonprofit director, there were moments where I felt like I was a system worker. And unless you really fight about holding power accountable, and expanding voting rights and campaign finance reform, you're going to find yourself having to do a lot with very little, and working within a system that is truly broken for many of us.
I was born and raised in the United Methodist Church—I'm still a United Methodist, in spite of so much that I critique. I've had an opportunity to serve on a couple of national boards: I was elected vice president of all Latino affairs for the Methodist Church. I have been really championing the importance of having a church that's inclusive and affirming. At the local level I've also done some work in creating faith communities that are really focused on making sure that the LGBTQ community is not only finding a space within in the church, but they're also leading. I've been an ally and advocate as a Latina within a conservative world and making sure that we're still having these conversations, and looking at the way that transgender and other LGBT members in our district are impacted, but also looking at how are they impacted as people of color.
WCT: Talk about the work you've done with criminal justice reforms such as restorative justice.
DR: You have to look at disparities and inequities first outside of the prison, and the ways we've criminalized young people and poor people and certainly people of color. We're arresting them on marijuana and other minor drug charges, and then what happens to them inside? We have to reduce the number of LGBT inmates we have in prison, certainly detention centers.
We've had the conversation over and over, what is the kind of revenue we can create in the state of Illinois? Knowing that we're in debt and we need more revenue, we have to legalize marijuana and as we talk about legalizing marijuana, we have to look at people we've incarcerated, the number of LGBT young people that we've incarcerated because of a minor offense or because of the color of their skin. I think we have to create more progressive drug policies. And in doing that, we have to look at bail bond reforms. We have to look at expanding job opportunities at when they're realized from prison. It took us two years to get enough people in the legislature, to create and pass bills that remove barriers to employment for people with records in schools, in the healthcare centers, and in the parks. As of 2016, if you had a record, if you had been arrested for a minor offense like marijuana and ended up at a detention center, you were not allowed to work in any of those three areas. And those are three of the public facilities that generate most employment.
On the preventative side, how do we create more resources, more job training programs for people? And then the restorative justice kind of initiatives, so that people are not arrested in the first place.
WCT: Since you have a background with working with the homeless population, can you address the issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness?
DR: A number of our clients [at the homeless center] were transgender. [We made] sure that we had policies that were protective of the LGBTQ community, making sure that when they were at the shelter, they weren't going to be bullied or threatened, because that happens all the time, and these shelters have no protection oftentimes. I've seen the way that over and over we have, as nonprofits, contributed to that same violence. And I think that we don't call it out enough. We have to at core, make that a priority the way we make other protections a priority.
The number of young people who continue to end up in the streets versus the number of beds that we have—it's disgusting to be a city that talks about building a new Chicago, building a new city, while we can't take care of the people that we have in this city with basic needs, particularly young people and our LGBTQ community. One of the greatest joys for me was to help support and do program expansion for two organizations who work with the LGBTQ community, particularly the black and brown LGBTQ community. I worked with Casa Norte, helping them develop a youth in college program, where they would have free dorm space and support service and mentorship while they were in college. Even the funding around securing these beds and creating this program is something we don't talk enough about, how creative and how much you have to be an advocate, and sometimes have to go to protests and rallies to create these funds.
WCT: What more direct plans do you have if elected?
DR: I would really prioritize the way that we fund community services to ensure that the most critical emergency services are funded, and not interrupted, even when we have a budget impasse. The second piece of it is identifying how we generate more revenue. We need a progressive income tax. That's going to take a while, especially with the current governor.
Forcing the adequate taxing of hedge fund managers and closing those tax loopholes would generate over $600 million dollars in revenue alone. The second thing is legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana. That's over $500 million in revenue that we could get now, in addition to the conversations we had around criminal justice reform and no longer criminalizing people of color for carrying marijuana. The third thing is expanding sales tax for luxury services. In the state of Illinois, we tax about 50 services, while Iowa taxes about 400 luxury services, generating $650 million dollars a year.
That is more than 1.6 billion dollars in revenue. We can bring all that revenue into key places like emergency social services and our schools. Right now we fund schools via our property taxes, mostly. We know that in communities like Austin or Englewood, they're not able to generate property taxes the way they would in Lincoln Park and the eastern part of the 4th district. There is no equity when that is how we are funding our schools. If we would look at those three categories alone, we can generate much desperately needed revenue.
WCT: Any final thoughts?
DR: I'm someone that has experienced oppression and discrimination since being a little girl. I'm the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, I did not learn English until I was 7 or 8, and iI was pushed into an all-English classroom. That gives me a certain lens in the way that I see the world, and I will continue to fight for the rights of people. I've seen people of color, low income and LGBTQ people experience the greatest discrimination. I'm committed to fighting against inequality, but also fighting for equity, particularly for people of color. I am a hetereoseuxal woman and I have my own privileges as a result of that. I am an ally and I'm going to be an advocate, but I'm also taking leadership from the LGBTQ community. I don't pretend to know everything and I'm not an expert in the issue, but I will stand and I will champion and I will do whatever I possibly can. I've always said the people impacted by injustice should always be at the forefront of the conversation for justice. That's my commitment; it will be win or lose.