Defending Her Seat: An Exclusive Interview With Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Photo Credit: Amber Marie Green

In less than 24 hours, Chicagoans will have a serious decision to make as the welfare of Chicago, especially black Chicago, hangs in the balance of 9 candidates. With major concerns such as violence, youth welfare, and business resources being at the forefront on an extensive list of changes people need to see executed, Chicago Defender Managing Editor Amber Marie Green had the opportunity to sit with Mayor Lori Lightfoot for an one-on-one exclusive interview. As Mayor Lightfoot defends her seat at City Hall, she got candid with Ms. Green regarding her continuing plans for Chicago.


What are your top priorities for the black community if reelected?

Black Chicago, I think, has suffered the lion share of the harm as a result of violence that has gone on for decades. So public safety and continuing to build partnerships with neighborhoods to really turn around the fortunes of those neighborhoods by investing in them,  by supporting them, and by building up capacity in those neighborhoods. That’s how we’ve been able to turn the tide in the 15 neighborhoods that have historically driven 50% of our violence.

We’ve seen some really remarkable progress, but we’re not at the promised land by a long shot. So there’s a lot more work that we can and we will do when it comes to violence reduction. The other thing that I would say which really goes hand in hand with violence reduction, is we’ve got to continue to drive economic development and opportunity into our neighborhoods on the south and the west side. 

That also is critically important to do violence reduction. But fundamentally what I’m focused on there is building safe, vibrant, walkable communities. Communities in which young people grow up and they feel like they have some ownership in their own destiny regardless of the family circumstances that they are growing up in. And in particular, I wanna stop the pipeline of young, black and brown boys to the streets. I want them to live in an environment where they feel love and support and where they see that there’s real opportunity at their fingertips.


Regarding violence reduction, do you see the  link or correlation between access to resources for our youth regarding jobs or afterschool programs during the school year? Because I know you have amazing programs like One Summer Chicago. But during the school year, are there any plans or  incentives in place to have these children working? Because if they’re working, they’re too tired to do anything else besides academia.

Grab your smartphone and go to your app store and  look for “My Chi My Future”. And what you’re gonna find is we are the first city in the country to put safe productive activities at the touch of an app on a phone. Our goal is just to make sure that there’s never a time that a parent, a guardian, or young person says there’s nothing to do. Why do we focus on an app as opposed to a website? For obvious reasons. A lot of people don’t have access to wifi and broadband in their home. They may not have a computer in their home. The digital divide is real, but everyone now has a smartphone. It has options like building computers, digital food, health awareness, helping my community, jobs and career, lifestyle, music, art, and everything that we know that our kids love to do and they’re out of school time. Here’s a place within a reasonable distance of where they live because they can put in their zip code that they can get to that is free, that is available seven days a week that they can connect up with, their peers that maybe have similar interests.

 A lot of this is, you know, the Park District is probably the major supplier of these activities because they have programming all year round,  after school, and on the weekends. But we’ve got schools, we’ve got libraries, we’ve got local community organizations that are not only listing the activities that they have for young people, but also putting in jobs. We’re still building this out. We just announced this last summer right before Lollapalooza. And I remember the timing because we gave away free four day passes.  But this will be a game changer for young people in our city. So safe, productive, and fun activities. This is what we have to be about even if they’re not participating in a school-based function, we’ve got things for them to do, for parents to know. And for them to be able to build their skills set, but also just have fun. And then again, we’re encouraging people that have jobs for young people, put the jobs in the app.

Photo Credit: Amber Marie Green

Can we shift to businesses, specifically on the south or west side of Chicago.  For those that want to start a business, but may not have the resources, the capital, or funding to start or maintain a successful business. What are your plans regarding those that need assistance?

Starting up a business is hard. It’s challenging. You have an idea, you have a passion, but you got to be able to turn that into kind of concrete, tangible steps. It starts with thinking about what’s your business plan. If I got this business plan, who are my customers gonna be? How do I reach my customers? How do I market to them? And then of course the biggest issue is how do I finance this? How do I get access to lines of credits, loans? Is it gonna be an online business? Is there gonna be bricks and mortar? All of those questions are critically important when it comes to thinking about the idea of going from, “I have this concept in my head to making it happen”. And sometimes it’s a long journey. Sometimes it’s a very difficult journey.

So what we have been doing under my administration to help people really think about, “ okay, this idea, how do I bring this to life” is a couple of different things. We have neighborhood business development centers all across Chicago. Their job is to provide existing businesses or budding entrepreneurs with a range of technical assistance from basic things like writing a business plan, making a pitch. How do you go into a bank, what’s an important thing that you need to do to establish a relationship with the bank and get lines of credit. All of those technical assistance, it’s so important for people who are just thinking about being an entrepreneur that is available all across our city through our neighborhood business development centers. The other thing that we have done in particular I think we became adept at doing this during C O V I D is our business affairs and Consumer protection. ACP department puts on a range of different webinars that are available for folks to watch in real time.  Go on their website, download them and watch them at their convenience. But addressing some of those issues. The other things that we have tried to do to kind of break down some of the barriers particularly for minority and women owned businesses, because we don’t get the bank loans and the banking relationships and the line of credit like anybody else is frankly to lead by example, as a city. 

 Every year we procure 3.5 billion in goods and services. And we wanna make sure that those are available to women and minority businesses. So we’re breaking down those barriers, making sure we’re doing a lot to advertise. The other thing that we’ve done is we change the structures so some of the funding that’s available. So for example, you mentioned NOF ( Neighborhood Opportunity Fund) .  The Neighborhood Opportunity Fund when I came into office, but importantly as I was running, I heard from person after to person to person. “I got an NOF award, but I couldn’t take advantage of it because back then it was a matching award, not a peer grant”. So one of the first things that we did when we came into office is we changed that to make it a pure grant. So, you know this, if you get a $250,000 matching grant, that means you’ve got to get $250,000. And you’re still black brown woman that still faces the same barriers to entry when it comes to the banks and other financial lenders. If you get a matching grant that you can’t match, what good does it do? So we changed that to make NOF real and manageable.

 We have provided technical assistance on the front end with helping people help them apply, but also on the back end, once they get the grant we don’t just leave people high and dry. We help them actually execute on what their business plan was so that they can effectively maximize the dollars that come from the NOF Award. Other things that we’ve done during the height of the  pandemic, we made sure that existing small businesses and micro businesses had access to capital. That the federal government put out during the height of the pandemic under the Trump administration. That just wasn’t something that worked for small businesses. Again, if you don’t have an existing long-standing relationship with the bank, you were completely out of luck when it came to PPP.

So we put together a revolving loan fund of a hundred million that still is in existence, the largest support for small businesses across the country and double New York and LA combined. The other thing that we’ve done is  we have in the short term to help people that want to contract with the city, we’ve put together. And then the last thing I’ll say is one of the other big challenges, particularly in dealing with the government, is we historically don’t pay. We don’t pay fast and no one can wait 60, 90, or 120 days before you get that first reimbursement when you’ve got to make payroll, or when you’ve got to buy material and supplies. So we have done a couple of things on procurement and payment reform around  making sure that we are getting people paid in a timely fashion. So we’ve got a fast pay pilot, in addition, we’re scaling that up now and expanding it to a 50-50 program, which means when you put in your pay application whether it’s directly with the city. If you’re professional services or through your general contractor,  or if you’re a contractor we’re gonna give you 50% upfront. We’ll do the true up on the back end, but we’re not gonna starve you waiting for all the I’s  to be dotted T’s to be crossed. I think this is gonna be a real game changer for small businesses in Chicago.


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