Photos Provided by Kouri Marshall
I recently had the honor of sitting down with Mayor Brandon Johnson at his office in City Hall.
We covered a lot of ground during our conversation. We discussed the mayor’s background and familial upbringing, which inspired and prepared him for this moment. We touched on his time in the organizing movement and how it gave him the tools he needed to build the diverse, energized base that propelled him to victory earlier this year.
I asked him about his plans for our city as he endeavors through his first year in office and his plans to tackle crucial topics like crime and public education. And we contemplated how best to create a city and economy that works for everyone, especially the Black Chicagoans who have all too often been left behind when it comes to home ownership, generational wealth and wages.
Here is our conversation:
Kouri Marshall: Chicago has sent one organizer to the U.S. Senate, then to the White House. Can you guess his name? You’re an organizer, tell me how that helps you perform as the Mayor of Chicago?
Mayor Brandon Johnson: Organizing is a rich part of our history. Those who understand the importance of Black liberation, understand the power of organizing. In my time in public service and as a candidate for office, I strived to lean into the ancestral dynamic of bringing people together.
The issues that we face are big but are not bigger than the collective power. So bringing people together is the skillset that an executive needs. I feel that my familial upbringing — particularly growing up in a large family, and as the son of a pastor — has uniquely helped prepare me for this moment.
Kouri Marshall: What can we look forward to in these next 100 days to continually move towards a “Better, Stronger, Safer Chicago?”
Mayor Brandon Johnson: Public and community safety is top of mind for everyone. But it will not be policing alone. It must be a layered approach.
We have to close the gap between the fifth floor and everyday people. – Mayor Johnson
We have to close the gap between the fifth floor and everyday people. – Mayor Johnson
Kouri Marshall: What is your administration doing to address homelessness in the City? Any novel concepts you’re employing to address this issue?
Mayor Brandon Johnson: My older brother died addicted and unhoused. This has motivated me to fight for people who are going through addiction, homelessness and poverty in our communities. We are also focused on our “Treatment not Trauma” events, providing safe spaces for those who are addicted. We also need the city to find [more] safe spaces and to reopen mental health facilities. This takes the responsibility off the shoulders of law enforcement.
Kouri Marshall: Speaking of law enforcement: Why should Chicagoans — and Black Chicagoans in particular — be confident in Superintendent hopeful Larry Snelling to bring about change within the CPD?
Mayor Brandon Johnson: Larry Snelling is the son of Englewood, has come through public institutions that has got him to where he is today…his lived experiences. I appreciate that he speaks eloquently about treatment, not trauma. That lived experience, commitment to the full force of government, business, philanthropic community…all of that is an asset as part of the office of the mayor. I believe that an effective leader must be competent, collaborative and confident. That is the kind of leader I fully intend to be, and I expect the same of those in my administration and who I appoint.
Kouri Marshall: Going back to your time as a candidate, one of the most beautiful moments to happen on the campaign trail was when you were attacked for having a late water bill. You addressed it head on. There are so many people who have late bills in this city. You have any reflective thoughts on that period? Were you thinking, “What the heck?” Or, “I’m just like every other Chicagoan working to make ends meet?”
Mayor Brandon Johnson: Utility bills have often created tension and embarrassment. Growing up, we had to use extension cords from neighbor to neighbor just to keep the power on. Some people even put the bill in the child’s name. Growing up like this emboldened me to fight to win: it was these families and individuals that provoked me to become a teacher, a commissioner, and now, a mayor. Post-dated checks gave us hope that the finances would be there at a later date. I think voters were appreciative of my lived experiences.
Kouri Marshall: Keeping in mind that the Chicago Defender is a publication centrally focusing on the Black perspective, I am wondering: What do you think Black Chicagoans desire?
Mayor Brandon Johnson: Well, we are not a monolithic group. There are middle and working class families who are struggling to have neighborhood schools and live in disinvested communities. We need the government to work for the low income and the poor. Post civil war, education, transportation, these demands bind us — and they require the full force of government so that it meets the needs of all of them, within the community.
Kouri Marshall: What is your administration doing to deliver more resources to non-profits across the city? Any ideas on how to better connect nonprofit leaders? There are so many folks doing great work who don’t know each other.
Mayor Brandon Johnson: I recently hired a staff member who is dedicated to the philanthropic world. We created this arm to make sure that technical support is available to nonprofits across the city. We have created several deputy mayors for this purpose. Corporate leaders want to invest in the city, so this is certainly top of mind for myself and my administration. We have to close the gap between the fifth floor and everyday people. I also think that having a Nonprofit Day in Chicago is a very good idea for achieving these goals.
Kouri Marshall: So how are you feeling after a couple of months as Mayor? I heard you were bringing sanctification to the fifth floor. What do you do to find peace and balance?
Mayor Brandon Johnson: The City of Chicago is a sanctified city, and it is an honor to lead it! For peace and balance, I lean heavily into my faith, and into the principles of truth, salvation and faith. I am also an avid bike rider, so I spend a lot of time doing that and with my wife and kids. Connecting with my siblings, that also helps keep me grounded.
Kouri Marshall: We have a former teacher as Mayor, how does that inform your work everyday?
Mayor Brandon Johnson: I have a firm belief in public education. I am deeply convicted by the promise of public education. I send my kids to public school in the city of Chicago. At the same time, children are coming to school unhoused, malnourished, and they are bringing all those experiences to the classroom. CPS, CTU and Labor are now coming together to devise an operation that we can be proud of. But we need to bring more special education services into our schools. There is a burden in the classroom that combines different headstarts.
Kouri Marshall: We all know that teachers are overworked and underpaid, is there anything that can be done from the fifth floor to help increase teachers’ pay?
Mayor Brandon Johnson: My administration is working to create a school board connected to the community, including parents, former educators and nonprofits. We are working with every level of government to push for an equitable level of resources (particularly on the state level). We need a funding formula that enables an increase in money that allows funding to go into schools. Doing so will alleviate the pressure for teachers by bringing in social workers, librarians, etc. There was a shift in the public school system that was connected to standardization. Funding was associated with tests, which started a reduction of arts, trades, theater in schools. I reject this standardization of public education. A snapshot in time should not determine whether or not a child is worth investing in.
Kouri Marshall: You are only the second Black man to be elected Mayor of Chicago. What is your message to Black men — young Black men in particular?
Mayor Brandon Johnson: When I think of young Black men, I think of my middle son, Ethan. He’s helped me to become a better parent. Ethan’s emotions are on his sleeve. You know exactly what he’s thinking. We give our children mixed messages, but we need to teach them that we all need to be honest about our emotions, from top to bottom. Let them feel. But give them that comfort. We all need to have aspirations and hope — and be willing to embrace the structure of that.