State Sen. Kimberly Lightford: From Childhood Trauma to Pioneering Leadership

Before State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) became the first Black woman to serve as Majority Leader for the Illinois Senate, she would build her 26-year political career on some motherly advice.

“When I first suggested to my mom there was an opportunity for me to run for office, she was totally against it. She said, ‘Politics was dirty. It was nasty.’ And I wasn’t that type of person. She didn’t think it would be a good fit for me,” Lightford said in a recent interview with The Chicago Defender. 

She tried to calm her mother’s fears over her decision to run as a trustee in her community. But that’s when she received that precious advice that would become her motto. 

“Just mind your business and do the work.”

“For me,” said Lightford, “that was getting her blessing in some odd way.” 

In year 26 of her tenure as a state senator, Lightford built her legacy chiefly on education reform and racial equity, minding the business that minded her.

For example, Lightford sponsored a Senate bill to address the school-to-prison pipeline and the disproportionately high number of Black student suspensions by requiring public schools to eliminate zero tolerance policies in suspending or expelling students in general, unless required by state or federal law. It also called for those schools to meet student needs by addressing the root causes of their disciplinary issues, among other directives.  

In 2009, she began an effort to help get people re-enrolled in high school who previously dropped out through the Illinois Hope and Opportunity Pathways through Education program.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Lightford led an effort by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus to address systemic racism in the state by focusing on criminal justice reform, education and workforce development, economic access and equity, and health care and human services.

Why Lightford has become a fervent champion in those areas likely stems from what she experienced in her youth, especially regarding education and access to opportunity. 

Like most of us, she spent the early part of her life grasping for purpose. 

Lightford’s historic career could have been for naught had it not been for some key individuals in her story: a fifth-grade teacher and an old friend from her neighborhood. 

And we cannot forget that advice from her mother, which still looms large even in year 26. 

Turning Anger into Leadership: An Early Lesson

Though separated by only 12 miles, Maywood was way different than the West Side of Chicago in the early 1970s. 

When Vermont businessman William T. Nichols founded the village, he intended it to be “a neat, desirable suburb,” which he named after his daughter May. 

The 2.72 square mile burg became a tree-lined haven for White families away from the bustle of Chicago and its Black West Side neighborhoods. This was the world that Lightford’s family entered in 1972 after her father used his G.I. Bill and a deposit from a relative to get a home there, becoming the third Black family on their block. 

Lightford made friends with the White kids in her neighborhood. They jumped rope. They made jelly pies. And like any child, she wasn’t attuned to the signifiers of racism. However, she did notice that when her White friends left Maywood, “they never looked back.” 

This was the case even after her mother had reached out to some of those families to maintain a connection. They never responded. 

If disharmony was present, it was in their home. Lightford said that she, her two sisters and her mother dealt with abuse from her father.

So, school became a haven, an escape where she could dance, run track and do gymnastics for free, recreational activities her family couldn’t afford to pay for on their own.

Her grades were good, but her conduct wasn’t, which had her teachers wondering why someone doing so well in school seemed so maladjusted.

Instructors would better understand the disconnect because of an incident during her fifth-grade year. 

Lightford had a run-in with her teacher, or rather, that teacher pushed her into a chalkboard, and the railing cut her back, causing blood to seep through her shirt. 

The very next day, her father stormed into her school, bypassing the check-in area and principal’s office. He came straight into that classroom to confront that teacher. 

“It was like a big old scene, and [school administrators] were all on the loudspeaker yelling ‘stat, stat, stat,'” Lightford recalled. 

The rage was seemingly deserved, but it was a moment of confusion for Lightford.

“I was happy my dad defended me, telling him ‘Don’t ever put his effing hands on his child again,’ or he would kill him,” Lightford said, “But I’m thinking, at the same time, you always put your hands on me and my mom and my sisters, but this man can’t?”

When that teacher and others saw her father in action, they understood why she was so angry and disruptive. 

That same fifth-grade teacher, who used to be mean and nasty towards Lightford, changed, likely because of his confrontation with her father. But he also saw something in her that she hadn’t noticed herself. 

He picked Lightford for student council decades before she would serve as a state lawmaker. Moreover, she was the lone member of her fifth-grade class to have that distinction. Fellow students were upset. They did not understand why the teacher would nominate her, of all people, for the coveted position. 

Nonetheless, Lightford’s foray into middle school politics allowed her to learn the ins and outs of her institution. She made actual decisions with her fellow representatives from other grades on behalf of their constituents.

Then, in sixth grade, she ran for class treasurer and won. She became vice president of the student council in seventh grade. By the time Lightford entered eighth grade, she held dual roles as class and student council president. 

It was all because Lightford’s fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Bepko, recognized her leadership qualities early. 

“Bepko is the reason that I started this whole wanting to be good and wanting to do good and not wanting to be angry,” Lightford said, “He helped me channel that anger into leadership.”


Chance Encounter Leads to a Life-Changing Moment

College wasn’t supposed to be in her plans. 

Lightford scored a 16 on her ACT college admissions exam, which is considered below average. 

Despite having good grades and being a cheerleader and homecoming queen at Proviso East High School, Lightford said she didn’t see herself on campus.

She worked a full-time job after graduation. 

To get to work, Lightford had to walk a mile and a half to a bus stop and take a long bus ride through a suburb further west before getting off at a final stop and walking another mile to her destination. 

“I knew that wasn’t the life for me,” she said. 

“I just didn’t know what was right because no one has sewn anything into me to tell me that I could be anything. And I didn’t know to have greater expectations for myself, either.” 

Then, one day during the summer after high school, Lightford saw a friend driving down her 11th Avenue block. She was sitting on the porch when that friend stopped to greet her. 

The conversation went something like this. 

Her Friend: “Hey, what are you doing?” 

Lightford: “Oh, you know, I’m working. I think I’m going to go to Triton College. I don’t know yet, but I’m working full-time.”

Her Friend: “You’re not going to school, Kim?”

Lightford: “Probably not. I didn’t apply to any schools.”

Her Friend: “No way. When I get back to school on Monday, I’m gonna go talk to my counselor, and I’m gonna have them send you an application.”

That friend, a woman named Valerie, was a Western Illinois University student. In a couple of days, she returned to Western to finish summer school. 

Soon afterward, an official-looking envelope arrived at Lightford’s house with her name on it. It was the first piece of mail she had ever received. 

Western Illinois had indeed sent Lightford an application, so she filled it out and included her academic records, class ranking, letters of support and that ACT score. 

Two weeks before Fall classes began in 1986, another official-looking envelope arrived in the mail. It was Lightford’s acceptance letter. 

Western Illinois granted her provisional acceptance because of the ACT score. The conditions were that she would have to keep her grades above 2.0 in her first year to gain full acceptance. 

After receiving the letter, Lightford said she paid for a trunk and essential items needed for college. But no one gave her a trunk party, and there was no ceremonial family drop off at school, where a kid’s family drives them, takes them shopping and decorates their dorm room. 

Instead, it was Lightford and her father and four hours of roads on the way to the Macomb, Illinois, campus on the western part of the state. 

“The whole time, he just complained about everything,” Lightford said, “And it was the longest three-hour ride ever, like four hours. And he asked me what I was going to do and that I didn’t need to go that far to do it.”

But when she got to Western, meeting the conditions of her acceptance was a breeze because, as a student, Kimberly Lightford always got good grades. 

At Western, she felt freedom, the kind where you could truly be yourself.

“I finally had my own dorm room. It was like having an apartment,” she said. 

“This is my roof over my head. I can go to the cafeteria. I can eat. I can sleep. I was learning. I felt safe. I was having fun.”

Her decision was made. 

“‘Oh, I’m never going back. I’m staying at school,'” she said. 

She switched from computer science and started taking African-American studies courses. Lightford became a Delta Sigma Theta sorority member and graduated from Western Illinois with a bachelor’s in communications and public relations and a minor in business and African American studies.

And it was all thanks to a chance encounter with her friend Valerie, who happened to be riding down 11th Avenue.  

“She really did follow through,” said Lightford, “And I think that was another life-changing moment for me.” 

What’s Next

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford

Lightford’s journey post-Western Illinois is well known. She eventually earned a Master of Public Administration from the University of Illinois at Springfield.

She worked for the Department of Corrections in Chicago but was encouraged by a state representative to run for the position of Village Trustee back in Maywood, the neighborhood she first moved to as a small child. 

Buoyed by her mother’s “blessing,” she won. 

When pioneering State Senator Earlean Collins announced her retirement, Lightford ran and won again in 1998 at 30, making her the youngest person elected to the Illinois Senate.

Now that she’s in year 26 as a state lawmaker, Lightford sees herself stepping back from governing in the future. 

“I want to take the back seat a little bit but still be able to push in spaces where we as a Black community need the support — in workforce development, in education, in health care, in skill sets, in building up businesses.” 

“I still want to be a part of the “how to,” to get us to that next level as a people,” she said.

Through all that, what she desires most is what many aim for.

“I just want peace,” she said.

“I’m settled. I’m happy with myself. I have followed my mother’s instructions,” she said. 

“I hope I made my family and my ancestors proud.”


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