Each week, Illinois state Sen. Mike Simmons' constituents pile into his office to share ideas about how to improve their lives.
Through conversations with single mothers raising young children in poverty, residents facing displacement and teenagers attending school during a pandemic, Simmons aims to elevate the unique perspectives of the individuals who live in the neighborhood he grew up in and now represents.
"I want to let them speak directly to their experiences, and then it will be my job as the legislator to act on those needs and introduce legislation, then to fight really hard to get those bills passed," Simmons said.
Simmonswho's resided in Illinois' 7th Illinois Senate District his entire lifewas appointed this year and is the first openly gay Black man to occupy his seat. After just a few months in office, he's passed six laws addressing issues from hair discrimination to sexual assault with a focus on achieving equity across his district and the state at large.
As the first Black person to serve the 7th District and first openly gay member of the Illinois Senate, Simmons said he has a "fundamentally different perspective" than the people who came before him. One of the first laws he passed was the Jett Hawkins Act, which banned discrimination against ethnic hairstyles in schools.
Although racism is nothing new to him, Simmons said he's experienced situations where someone comes to meet with him and assumes he works for the senator.
"I'm not going to sit here and act like I've, all of a sudden, discovered the experience. It's just what it is," Simmons said. "I don't want to diminish it. But I'm a soldier. I was born for the struggle. I was born to do this work and so I don't let it phase me."
Simmons said it's important he talks about these experiences, even when they're "mundane" and "trite" because he's "really interested in" future generations not having to face the same obstacles he has.
"I think it's important for me, as a so-called trailblazer, to talk about it," Simmons said. "If you're going to be the first you better talk about it. You have to push and create that tension. Sometimes you do it even when you're nervous. You get nervous doing it so that the people who come next don't have to experience it."
The whole reason Simmons got into politics was because he wanted better experiences for his neighbors who faced challenges others overlooked.
Watching injusticesuch as George Floyd's murder by police in Minneapolis, Chicago police's wrongful raid on Anjannete Young's home and Amy Cooper's weaponized 911 call in New Yorkdrove him to get involved.
"I felt the callous and ambivalent response on a cellular leveljust years of disgust with the level of apathy and casual regard people in power have about the suffering of those who are oppressed," Simmons said. "People are hungry for authentic leadership and in this particular context, people in government who actually have lived experiences and understand the weight and impact of their decisions."
Simmons' biggest priorities right now are achieving better economic conditions and more access to healthcare for those living in poverty.
Simmons said he's "hit the ground running" to address the issues he's noticed in society, including some of the ones that inspired him to run for office in the first place. Simmons passed a law that will allow someone who calls the police to intimidate someone to be charged with a hate crime.
For those facing economic instability, Simmons said he tries to amplify their experiences surrounding access to health care and affordable housing so these issues can be addressed collectively.
"Oftentimes, their experiences are erased, those who don't have access or privilege or money," Simmons said. "People just assume they're not even here."
Simmons expanded rental assistance eligibility so that more people can qualify for affordable housing even as they experience small increases in income. He remembered one woman he spoke with who shared her anxieties about being able to afford to continue living in the neighborhood she was raised in.
"I think most people who live here really prize and value diversity and if we really love diversity, then we have to do the hard work to paint a vision for how we can keep that diversity and grow it," Simmons said. "So when a Black woman in Rogers Park says she grew up in affordable housing here and she worries the next generation can't, that's a red flag."
When it comes to addressing health disparities, Simmons said he wants to see everyone get access to consistent doctors and mental health counselors so that people can live to their full life expectancies.
"I care most about helping more people get access to quality healthcare and making sure they live long, healthy lives," Simmons said.
Simmons passed a law that requires health organizations to gather data about people who are treated for COVID-19 to ensure there's information about how the pandemic is impacting a "historically erased community."
He also announced a new healthcare collaborative on the North Side that he calls "a drop in the bucket" when it comes to healthcare access, but will provide some free specialized healthcare to those who need it.
Simmons is currently finalizing his legislative agenda for the next congressional session, which, so far, includes a permanent child tax credit and Medicaid reforms that would increase eligibility to 200% of the federal poverty level and provide healthcare access to undocumented immigrants.
In addition to his legislative duties, he sees part of his job as educating the community about how the government intersects with their day-to-day lives with accessible information.
"I think I've really had to get comfortable with the fact that when you're in this kind of rolean elected officialeverything you do carries weight," Simmons said. "I want to be careful about being clear in how I communicate so people don't misunderstand what I'm saying."