Stephany Rose Spaulding is many things — a pastor, an educator and now, a congressional candidate, to name just a few of her impressive attributes.
But one thing she is not is here to play games, as the scholarly freedom fighter is laser-focused on her Chicago community while she wages her bid for the 1st Congressional District of Illinois seat that has been held by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush for the past 30 years.
Rush — who has served 15 terms and is the only person to have ever beaten Barack Obama in an election — leaves behind an outsized pair of Congressional shoes that Spaulding, a 43-year-old national spokeswoman for racial justice coalition Just Democracy, hopes to fill.
In a race with a growing number of candidates, keep reading to learn more about Spaulding, a Chicago native, and her plans for the 1st Congressional District of Illinois.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
For our readers who may not be familiar with your background, can you describe your political platform and ideology and the role they play in your Congressional campaign?
My platform and political ideology is rooted in anti-oppression and justice. I am a race and gender scholar by training—PhD in American Studies—so I have a long professional and public relationship with working to dismantle systems of oppression. I practice the bold politics of love. For me, that means focusing on instilling the tenets of systems that are rooted in faith, compassion, and social transformation. As a Daughter of Chicago’s Southside, one need look no further than out the window of my childhood home to see the systemic inequities which still plague us today. The glimmering Chicago skyline acts as the backdrop for one of the most historic Black districts in the country; unfortunately, we have been neglected in areas that have become some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the entirety of Illinois. To fully fund and invest in the neighborhoods I played in as a young girl means to abolish racism. It means coming together as one people and demanding democracy reform by eliminating the filibuster and expanding the courts; environmental justice and sustainability; education, income and housing equity; and universal healthcare that includes hearing, vision, dental and mental healthcare.
You describe yourself in part as a civil rights activist. Please discuss your participation in liberation politics and the freedom movement and how that has shaped your approach to mainstream politics.
I have spent the past two decades fighting on the frontlines of the modern movement for civil rights, working to advance justice for systematically marginalized communities throughout the United States. Whether co-organizing the “HipHop Political Movement Convention” in Chicago in 2008, the “Protect Black Women Rally and March” in Washington, D.C., or advocating for voting rights on the national stage—delivering messages straight to members of Congress—with Just Democracy, I have placed the advancement of liberation practices across the country at the core of my political practices. This work has helped me to understand the benefits and flaws of our democratic republic and has committed me to progressively moving our country forward to a place where politicians are genuine public servants. What that looks like: publicly financed campaigns, term limits from federal to local levels, ranked-choice voting and proportional representation.
You’re also an educator as well as an HBCU graduate. Tell us a little about how education has helped to inform your politics.
I grew up with parents who retired as Chicago Public School educators, so the pursuit of education was instilled in me early on as a child. Over the course of my life, I have learned that education is the greatest equalizer in the battle for justice. Having access to quality, equitable education helps drive society towards anti-oppression. Attending historic Clark Atlanta University was transformative for my outlook on life and understanding of what is possible. We need to be working towards a society in which every person has access to tuition-free education so that we begin removing the multi-generational barriers which keep far too many of us from being able to access colleges, universities, and trade schools. Unfortunately, we are not there yet as a nation and the debate over critical race theory is evidence of how far we must go. To begin, the “debate” is a shadow-debate in the sense that most don’t have the requisite grounding in the discipline to debate it. Consequently, it is being used as a gaslight to attack anti-racism work and defund our schools.
Please explain the significance of the prospects of you filling the longtime congressional seat of Rep. Bobby’s Rush, a civil rights icon in his own right.
This is the district of hope. Home to a final stop of the Underground Railroad, to Oscar S. De Priest, Ralph Metcalfe, and where State Senator and future President Barack Obama challenged Black Panther Bobby Rush for the House in 2000, it’s been a shining light of what is thought possible. It is a community rooted in the rich culture, history and people of Illinois. It was home to thousands of African Americans who left the South during the Great Migration. And it remains the home to great American artists, thinkers and innovators today. For many here, it’s a beacon of faith in a future that still has yet to be achieved. The grocery stores which we patronized as children are gone, shops are boarded up, and small businesses are gone or struggling.That flame of hope, the dreams of a better tomorrow for a generation of young children, that’s the First District which I know and it’s the legacy I will carry with me into Congress, while also forging a new path forward for Illinoisans.
Political candidates often make campaign promises about their plans for “Day 1” on the job. What are your priorities for your presumptive first day in Congress?
Our work must start with protecting voting rights across the country, because they are the bricks through which all change will be made. I also look forward to joining the staunch advocates for change who took a bold stand, demanding that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Package and Build Back Better be passed together. Passing the cornerstone piece of this administration’s agenda—a bill which was already watered-down by Legislators who don’t know what it means to need funding like this just to survive—is well overdue and it should be done. I also believe that we can’t stop there and be satisfied without full investment in our communities. I will also work to advance HR 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, setting us down the journey towards true, restorative Justice.
The pandemic has especially had an effect on education; in particular, Chicago Public Schools has been in the national spotlight as teachers and students alike protest. Where do you fall on the spectrum of that debate and what do you see as a reasonable resolution, and is there anything you could do from Congress to help them?
Consensus is never reached by staking one’s flags at the extremes. We have to have a reasonable option that gets workers of all walks safely back to work, while protecting our children’s best interest. In Congress, we can cancel student debt to keep the economy energized and extend child tax credits so that working families don’t feel the financial burden of having to remote work, remote learn, or take off completely if one must quarantine due to COVID. I would also advance legislation that makes testing, protective gear, and sanitation equipment available to businesses and schools for the best safety practices for workers and students.
Speaking of Chicago, please explain the significance of being able to represent the Windy City and especially its Black residents from Congress in the context of Chicago’s civil rights legacy.
During the Great Migration, thousands of Black Americans came to cities like Chicago seeking the promises of a nation that wanted our labor, but not necessarily our presence. While sun-down towns remained across the South and rural America, here in Chicago there were neighborhoods where Blacks were threatened with violence if they found themselves after certain hours. We were structurally prohibited from equitable schooling, housing and job opportunities; and yet we came; we persisted; and built thriving communities primarily in Chicago’s Southside neighborhoods. Still, the struggle for equal footing in every level of being persisted throughout the city and continues today. Ownership in real estate, as well as mid- to large-scale businesses, is still imbalanced, access to government contracts is disproportionately distributed and the quality of sustainable life pales across racial lines. Consequently, I will bring this history and reality to the legislation that needs to be enacted for true justice and conciliation to take place in our city, state and across the nation.
What do you see as the most pressing issue facing Black Americans right now and how would you use your power in Congress to address it?
The arduous systemic continuation of racism in America is the most pressing issue facing Black Americans. Racism impacts every institution in the nation–the Economy, Education, Housing, Healthcare, the Criminal Justice System and our Climate Crisis.
You’re also an author who has written extensively about topics like racism and whiteness. How have those topics prepared you to be in Congress?
My work has been rooted in the bridging of divides rooted in our society. It is crucial that our Congressional leaders have the ability to effectively communicate the multi-generational traumas and harm caused by even the most well-intending legislation which, when not written with racial justice in mind, can often reinforce systems of oppression, even if unintentionally. It is important for those of us who are privileged enough to be elected to bring the voices and lived experiences of our community to the Halls of Power do so in a way that is constructive. Having the knowledge and skills to show how the issues we face intersect with other communities across the country—and even right here in our own backyard of Chicago’s First District—opens the door to creating legislation that truly puts anti-racism into practice, creating a better society for each and every one of us. As an example, just take a look at President Biden’s recent trip to my alma mater of Clark Atlanta University where we saw a long-time Senator standing on the grounds of one of the country’s most historic HBCU’s, calling for the abolishment of the filibuster. That’s progress and a beacon of hope for a better, anti-racist future for all.
Finally, you are one of a growing number of Black women seeking national office. Can you discuss 1) what it means to be a part of a historic group of Black women candidates and 2) what it would mean to become a Black Congresswoman in 2022?
It’s exciting to be part of a historic group of Black women candidates in 2022. Black women have been the backbones of communities across the nation and it is beyond time that we step into national leadership as well. The diversity of our voices and experiences enriches the national discourse and helps to craft better legislation. Unfortunately, we are still in a season of firsts. Illinois’ 1st Congressional District has yet to have a woman, let alone a woman of color to represent it, even though demographically the district is predominantly composed of women.