The nation was stunned when 75-year-old Illinois Democrat Rep. Bobby Rush announced his plans to retire from Congress at the beginning of the year, after 15 terms. The ordained minister served Chicago’s South Side residents of the 1st district for 30 years and was also “a co-founder of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.”
Academic, pastor, and progressive activist Rev. Dr. Stephany Rose Spaulding has recently announced her candidacy to succeed him. She aims to represent Illinois’ First Congressional District at West Pullman Park, which is situated across from her former classrooms at Metcalfe Elementary School.
Spaulding, a graduate of the esteemed institutions Clark Atlanta University and Purdue, is joining a crowded Democratic primary, with six others already in the race. Jonathan Jackson, son of Rev. Jesse Jackson, is also contemplating a run for Rush’s old seat.
In a Q&A with ESSENCE, Spaulding discusses what it’s like to run for Congress in her hometown, her vision for the 1st district of Illinois, and the role of our political system in improving American lives.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ESSENCE: What inspired you to run for office? Why Congress? Why now?
There are so many things that are pulling on my heart right now that specifically pertain to this moment. We are really looking at democracy at a tipping point, especially when we consider how much voting rights are under attack. As a local as well as a national activist, I see this almost as a do or die moment for democracy, if it’s going to continue.
Running for Congress allows me to put all of the things that I have been doing and funnel them all into one place—the intellectual academic, to the community organizing work, to the national policy development work, and bring them out for the people that I care for and love the most.
This work really comes from a deep commitment to justice and love, and I have been grateful and thankful to be able to [have begun] this with national coalitions that I’ve been working with over the past three years, so it’s not new to me.
I ran for Congress before back in Colorado Springs, CO and it was tough to not win that seat. For many people, they would see that as a failure, but for me, it was such a tremendous training ground. It let me know that this work is certainly possible…It reminded me that even if it doesn’t work the first time, if your response is to give up and not try again, then how much were you committed to it in the first place?
Failure has motivated me to stay in this work, to organize at the national level, which was what I did after as I did not win. Whether I have the position or not, I am going to stay committed to this work. And so, it’s also part and parcel of why I am back in this wanting to represent the people of Illinois first and this time it’s for my own, the folks who raised me, the folks who invested in me. To be able to give back a return on their investment has me motivated even more.
ESSENCE: Can you tell me about how the insurrection has impacted your run?
It gives me that much more energy because my research is in critical white masculinity, so a lot of what I see playing out is what I was writing about 10 years ago—before we got a Trump to be a Trump, so it has given me that much more energy to be in this work…[it’s] all hands on deck right now.
ESSENCE: Have you always had political ambitions?
Ironically, I did not…One individual was simply like, I knew it, I saw it when you were a little girl, and I was like how because I didn’t see [it]. When I went to Clark Atlanta University, graduating from Morgan Park High School in 1996, I thought I would become Claire Huxtable, just to tell you the truth. I thought that I would go and become an attorney, have kids, live in a nice brownstone and have celebrities running in and out of my house. That was what growing up in the 80s and 90s looked like for success for Black people.
But it was being at an HBCU, being with professors that cared deeply about their students, that I began to dream and to see myself in other ways, and I began to see the limitations that I had for myself. It was my professor who told me that I had the makings of earning a PhD and going into higher education and to do things that I did not even imagine. It’s from being in an environment like Clark Atlanta, where the model is culture for service that I learned that whatever I do in whatever field, it has to be connected to community, it has to be connected to transforming the lives of generations who are coming after us.
It wasn’t until 2017, after I had earned tenure in women’s and ethnic studies and the election of 2016, where I [realized] I have to do something to get at the legal structure, the governmental structure, that is tearing our lives apart. I have too much knowledge, I have too many skills, that I understand structurally what’s going on, [so] I have to put my hands to the plow to do this work.
What advice do you have for other Black women who might want to run for office?
Honestly, I say do it, because there is nothing more valuable than when we show up in places that people did not expect us.
ESSENCE: What change would you most like to occur in our country and specifically, your district?
For me, the hardest thing to witness is injustice, and I know for a lot of people, that’s a huge umbrella. But, it is injustice to see that there are people, there are congregants of people, who are willing to dismiss and deny the full humanity of anyone, that really breaks my heart. The work that I want to do is restorative, it’s healing and is justice oriented.
How do we truly balance the scales that have systemically kept folks oppressed? When I say folks, I mean, Black, brown, indigenous, LGBTQ+, poor, elderly, in all fashions. If we are not capable of building a government, a society, that honors the full humanity of our beings, then who do we dream ourselves to be?
What that looks like for me is ensuring that people act to protect voting rights, making sure that people have access to equitable education, access to housing security, and environmental sustainability, and health care that is all inclusive, not just physical medical care, but dental, vision, hearing, all of the things that we need, abolishing the things that prevent legislation like this from passing, like the filibuster.
That’s the work that I have been committed to already, and that I will carry forward for the people of Illinois’ first congressional district.
ESSENCE: What do you hope for your legacy to be?
That radical love. Everybody wants to talk about Martin Luther King and his dream, but he really taught and preached about radical revolutionary love, that radical revolutionary love is possible, and that is long overdue.