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By Nate Morris, senior editor
The wind off Lake Michigan garbled his voice as Ja’Mal Green made his way through downtown Chicago between interviews.
“Can you hear me?” he asked as reception cut in and out while the “L” train he was riding screeched along the tracks.
Our thirty minute phone interview, interrupted periodically by elevator rides and greetings with neighbors, painted a picture of a young man, uninhibited by age or expectations, fighting to make the city he loves a city that works for every one of its citizens.
Ja’Mal grew up on the Southside of Chicago in Englewood. He was born there. He was raised there. It’s home.
It wasn’t an easy childhood. “I saw people killed in front of me when I was a kid,” Green recalls. Growing up in an area steeped in poverty and often overlooked or even intentionally blighted by oppression takes its toll, but even today Ja’Mal talks about the beauty of the Southside.
“The most beautiful thing here is that people can still be happy,” said Green. “Even people who are impoverished, who don’t have much, still find time to be happy, to give back and to come together when it counts.”
As he looks at the state of his city, as he sees the growing disparities created by those in power, Green sees the need to build something new. As a native to the city and a father of two young children, Green also feels an unshakeable responsibility to be a part that building process.
And so, at the age of twenty-three, Ja’Mal Green has decided to run for mayor of the third largest city in the United States.
Though he is young by any traditional political standards, this decision isn’t on a whim. He’s been building toward this moment for nearly a decade.
Green recalled going to twelve different schools when he was growing up, oscillating between campuses because he shifted living locations or because he was removed for what was deemed as “disruptive behavior”.
“I was a very active kid and I knew who I wanted to be,” Green said.
He talked about the teacher who stepped into his life as a mentor at the age of fifteen, and how in that moment he launched his work as an advocate and never looked back.
Green has spent years working as a mentor to younger students in his community. He has lead protests and marches. He speaks at assemblies. He organizes groups to action. He has opened a youth center. He has formed partnerships with the city, stood as a surrogate for Bernie Sanders and has been a vocal and consistent critic of current mayor Rahm Emanuel, especially in the aftermath of the murder of unarmed black teenager Laquan McDonald by a white police officer.
To Green, his age is not a barrier, it is an asset.
“I wear my age as a badge of honor,” says Green, “young people have always been behind the change in this country. Movements have always been begun by young people. We haven’t had time to be tainted or corrupted.”
His campaign platform is simple: create an inclusive community, end corruption and reimagine Chicago. After the first term of a Green administration, he says, “Chicago will be a new and innovative city.”
Green’s vision for this new Chicago is heavily focused on policing reform and a deep investment in education.
He wants to ensure that Chicago’s class sizes are lowered, that neighborhood schools are restored and preserved, that teachers, administrators and buildings themselves receive a rejuvenated funding stream, and he promises that every student in Chicago will be able to engage in what he calls the “Triangle Program”.
This program would allow for any graduate of Chicago Public Schools to attend community college, trade school or an entrepreneurial bootcamp with absolutely no monetary cost. Their only form of required payment would be giving back to their city through community service.
How will he pay for this idea? This is where Green’s plan around criminal justice comes into play. The city of Chicago, he claims, is incurring billions in losses from police misconduct settlements, money he believes can go into investment in education and economic development.
Green proposes that all officers in the Chicago Police Department be required to take out an insurance policy. The city government pays for the policy, and the premiums for each officer are based on that officer’s record. If an officer’s premium is too high or if the insurance company chooses to end their coverage because they believe the officer is too high-risk, that officer is either placed on desk duty or removed from the force.
The money saved by the city is then redirected back into the education system to fund programs that promote the growth and development of students.
Green also calls for removing corruption from the city government through measures including making the school board an elected body rather than appointed one, creating a citizen-lead police accountability oversight committee and implementing measures to better track data around police engagement with citizens throughout the city.
Ja’Mal describes his vision as not just one to fix some of the problems Chicago faces, but one that he says will make the city a “bold, progressive model for other cities around the nation and around the world.”
He is even proposing that the city open itself up to the bitcoin and cryptocurrency market through strategic tax incentives and the development of blockchain technology.
These bold ideas and unleashed energy from this young and powerful activist, however, do not shield him from the realities of what is required to build a successful bid for the mayor of a city like Chicago.
With just a month left to gather the 12,500 signatures needed to be on the ballot before the filing deadline, and just four months before the election itself, Green faces an undeniable uphill battle.
His campaign had only been able to raise roughly $30,000 as of August, compared to the more than $1.3 million raised by former Obama White House Chief of Staff and Bill Daley, who became the immediate frontrunner after Mayor Emanuel abruptly decided to end his re-election bid. His name is left off most major polls and he has been excluded from several debates and forums as a result. His friend Chance the Rapper recently endorsed his opponent Amara Enjiya at a press conference alongside Kanye West.
In spite of these long odds, however, Green remains undeterred.
“We are running a grassroots campaign,” Green noted, “and we are not allowing the media to control our narrative. We are going to keep going out and meeting people every single day.”
He reiterated the responsibility he felt to keep pushing forward in the race even when others continue to try and spell out what some deem to be the impossibility of his bid.
“If you see a problem, it’s your time to fix it. We have to step up and fix it in whatever way we can. It’s our time to take the torch.”
This grit, this resilience, this ceaseless determination mirrors what he believes about his Southside neighborhood.
“People expect that these communities will just give up,” he said. “That’s not the case…”
The elevator door dinged in the background as he arrived at the news station for his next interview.
“They still have hope. Sometimes they just need someone to pull it out of them.”
Nate Morris is the senior editor of the Black Wall Street Times. Nate was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area and moved to Tulsa in 2012 after graduating from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. He received his Master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2015. Nate is a Teach for America alumnus and has worked in schools throughout the Tulsa area. He is an advocate for educational equity as well as racial and social justice throughout Tulsa and the nation as a whole.