PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday February 12th, 2015, 11:58am

Mayoral Candidates Court Chicago's Youth Vote At Forum

Three of Chicago's five mayoral contenders participated in a youth-led candidate forum Wednesday evening focused on issues that affect the lives of young people of color in the city. Progress Illinois was there for the event.

Three of Chicago's five mayoral contenders participated in a youth-led candidate forum Wednesday evening focused on issues that affect the lives of young people of color in the city.

The "Youth Speaks!" forum --attended by mayoral challengers Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and community activist William "Dock" Walls -- took place at the Chicago History Museum's Rubloff Auditorium, which was filled with more than 200 youths and people of voting-age. Chicago's two other mayoral candidates, incumbent Rahm Emanuel and businessman Willie Wilson, were invited, but did not attend.

Ahead of the forum, which was organized by Communities United and over a dozen allied organizations, young people voiced concerns about high rates of crime, poverty and youth unemployment in their communities, among other issues.

Omphile Franklin, 17, a student at Gage Park High School, discussed the school-to-prison pipeline and the overuse of school-based arrests during his testimony.

"With the school to prison pipeline, students are being kicked out of schools, and I feel like they're just being abandoned," he told Progress Illinois after the event. "A lot of times when they're abandoned, they are pushed into the streets and they take on activities such as gang violence and things like this, and they are pushed into prisons ... A lot of time those people that act up or do bad things, they're not really horrible people, but they just don't have any kind of guidance."

The person who is elected as the city's next mayor needs to do more when it comes to "investing in these schools and these communities, especially in high-crime areas, because we're the future," Franklin said.

The three mayoral candidates, who addressed the audience separately, were asked to speak to four key issues impacting the lives of young people of color: criminalization, education, youth investment and racial inequality.

Walls went first, saying the city has an "over incarceration problem, particularly as it relates to African-African youth and Latino youth."

"First thing we have to do is spend more money on education, rehabilitation and skill development and a whole lot less money on incarnation," he said.

Walls, a former aide to the late Mayor Harold Washington, highlighted two of his proposed jobs initiatives to help close racial gaps in unemployment and create more opportunities for young people.

If elected, Walls said he wants to use $600 million in tax increment financing (TIF) funds as part of a proposed retail program he described as "grocers community owned and operated" to create jobs and eliminate food deserts in the city. Under the proposal, TIF funds would be used to create 60 small- and medium-sized grocery stores and 20 big-box stores.

The goal of the proposed program, which he said would create 50,000 jobs, is to have a grocery store located every 1.4 miles in the city.

Another proposal Walls floated involves awarding $1 million grants to 1,000 Chicago-based, small- to medium-sized businesses for job creation. Walls specified in a Chicago Tribune questionnaire that he would pay for the initiative by using $1 billion from the city's Capital Improvement Program.

On the topic of education, Walls wants to create a public school system that focuses more on the individual needs of students and provides greater access to humanities, arts and vocational training courses. Asked to sum up his youth agenda for the city, Walls wants "to tear down that wall that separates cops from communities," create more jobs for young people and establish a municipal Wi-Fi network in the city.

Meanwhile, Fioretti said the broader issue of income inequality is the "basic problem that were have here in the city."

"The rich are getting richer, and everyone else is left behind," he said. "If you're happy with the way things are going in this city, then welcome to the 1 percent and vote for Rahm Emanuel."

Fioretti also noted his support for a $15 minimum wage, restorative justice programs, and policies that ban criminal history questions on job applications.

"People talk about restorative justice in this election," Fioretti said. "I don't know where they've been. It's the first time they probably have ever heard the term. I've utilized it up and down. I've utilized it in our schools up along King Drive, and we made it happen."

Regarding education, Fioretti said one of his priorities is to increase the number of trade and vocational courses in the city's high schools.

On the issue of youth employment, the alderman noted his previous sponsorship of a resolution to use $25 million in TIF funds to pay for a city summer jobs program, though that proposal did not gain traction in the council.

The proposed program, Fioretti said, would have put "three times the amount of young people to work than what this mayor's commercial is talking about."

"We can find jobs if we want to," he stressed.

The last candidate to speak, Garcia, talked about his long-term effort to end zero-tolerance policies in schools. As a Cook County commissioner, Garcia said he has also worked to reduce the county jail's population from 10,000 to 8,600 over the past two years.

"It's still too many," Garcia said. "We continue to work at it with President Toni Preckwinkle who has led the charge, and I'm happy to say today the governor of Illinois, who is not an ally of mine, announced that they're looking at similar strategies to reduce Illinois' (prison) population."

"While I'm skeptical, I welcome the idea and hope to be working closely with those there," Garcia said of Rauner's newly-established Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform.

Garcia brought up his public safety plan, which includes spreading restorative justice practices across the city, increasing job opportunities for youth, utilizing community policing and hiring 1,000 additional police officers "to ensure that we change the patterns of engaging communities to build trust, to build muttal respect."

The commissioner said he would focus on investing in Chicago's neighborhoods and making high schools "more robust" in terms of their course offerings so "students and their parents aren't constantly looking for the selective enrollment schools ... or charter schools as an alternative."

If elected, Garcia said his administration would foster a "close relationship" with young people and get their input on jobs programs and ways to improve their schools.

"I will also consult young people about what goes on in the neighborhoods as it relates to the relationships with the police department," he said.

At the end of the forum, the attendees, who were primarily in their teens and early 20s, pledged to each turn out 10 voters for the February 24 election that represent the interests and values of young people in the city. Thereafter, the room erupted in chants of, "I believe our votes will count!"

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