Robin Rue Simmons: focusing on livability in the fifth ward
"The fifth ward needs to experience the same livability as the rest of the city, and that will be my focus. I’d like to showcase and highlight all that’s great and vibrant
about the fifth ward’s rich history and culture."
Local elections take place April 4, 2017. In the 2013 elections, only 14.82 percent of Evanston voters turned out! Though a lot is determined by the federal government, we can control a lot of what happens right here. So let's Get Out The Vote in Evanston in April.
This is the first in a series of interviews with Evanston candidates to find out who they are, what's important to them, and how they’ll work specifically on issues surrounding race, equity, economic development, and youth gun violence, if they’re elected.
First up: Robin Rue Simmons, 5th ward. The 5th ward has the third greatest racial/ethnic diversity and the largest concentration of African Americans in Evanston (41.5%). Fifth ward boundaries are shown in the graphic.
Robin Simmons was born and raised in the 5th ward and, after college, moved back to raise her two children there, because, she says, “I wanted to show them the village mentality.”
Robin is the North Side Program Coordinator for Sunshine Enterprises, which offers a 12-week program called the Community Business Academy, and trains, empowers, and provides resources to local entrepreneurs to help them launch or grow their small business. The program began in Evanston last fall, and is currently training its fourth cohort of entrepreneurs. Its goal is to help people build strong businesses that transform their lives, strengthen their families, and create vibrant, sustainable neighborhoods in Evanston.
I talked to Robin about Evanston, her work, and why she decided to run for elected office.
Q: What did you do before Sunshine Enterprises?
A: I’m a serial entrepreneur. I’ve owned a store. I’ve also owned a real-estate business. But I’m most known for my involvement in residential construction through NSP2, the Neighborhood Stabilization Project. In that work, I was inspired to support small business development by helping people who had a skill set and a good work ethic but lacked business knowledge.
Q: Why are you running for 5th ward Alderwoman?
A: The fifth ward needs to experience the same livability as the rest of the city, and that will be my focus. I’d like to showcase and highlight all that’s great and vibrant about the fifth ward’s rich history and culture. In the last 10 years or so, our ward has become more diverse. We’re one of the most diverse areas in Evanston with Latinos and Muslims moving here. It’s great to see us blending together, celebrating life and community.
But I’m concerned that in the last 10 years, 3,000 black Evanston residents have moved away. A lack of businesses, jobs, and affordable housing have been at the forefront of this exodus. I’d like to address that head-on. Evanston has to be accountable for how this has happened. I intend to take an inventory of existing real estate in my ward and identify opportunities for both new and expanded businesses, and I want to increase home ownership within the ward.
Q: What did you like most about growing up in Evanston?
A: I loved the community at Family Focus and I felt safe because everyone knew me and my family. I enjoyed meeting friends at school that had such different backgrounds—It was really cool to learn about things like Hannukah and Bat Mitzvahs.
Q: What did you like least?
The economic divide. I could see it even as a child.
Q: How has Evanston changed since you were a child?
A: The violence has gotten worse. I remember gun shots, shootings, but nothing like what we see now, and the number of teens who have guns. And the community held families more accountable than they do today. As youth, we respected our elders and they had all the authority to address our behaviors, whether they were relatives or not. Elders helped raise all the youth in neighborhood. Now everyone is so guarded and disconnected that that doesn’t happen.
Q: How has violence affected you?
A: I’m the president of my block club and I worked closely with the police to manage my block. I got very intentional with my involvement in my neighborhood in terms of what I could do to manage the violence. The shootings in and around my block started happening not just at night, but in the early morning, afternoon, and evening, and there were fatalities.
My daughter has heard shots, heard screams, seen mourning families and police activity. No matter how good I make her life inside our home, I’ll never be able to take away from her the sound of a gunshot. And I think back about where each of my family members was at the time of a shooting and how they could have been caught in the crossfire. It’s a real trauma to go through, as a student, as a mom. It’s unfair, and I’m distressed that our youth are living this way. I have cried about this situation. But there is no time for tears, only action. I’m committed to seeing our neighborhoods restored to what they were.
Q: What do you think could make a difference?
The immediate answer is workforce development and job creation. If people can make a livable wage they won’t commit certain crimes. But there has to be city-wide buy-in. All of Evanston, elected officials, the faith community, the business communities in all our wards, all have a role in changing the violence issue.
We also need something specifically for our young people. I don’t just mean in the 5th ward, but for all Evanston’s youth. I talk to them often and ask them, where are we failing you? Most often, they say there’s nothing to do other than go to movies or hang out downtown, but even then, there are loitering laws. We need a bowling alley or a skating rink. We have an economically divided community and there are many families who can’t send their kids on ski trips, international service trips, or go on vacations. So they stay here. We need to accommodate our children more.
We do have Fleetwood-Jourdain, and it offers skating, but we need better skates, and more sizes. It would be great to make Fleetwood more intentionally focused on youth. Until we can get a recreation center, or an arcade, or a bowling alley, we should modernize Fleetwood and renovate it so it’s inviting to youth. It should offer skating nights, weekend dance parties. We should offer young people their music, their snacks.
Q: What can each Evanston resident do to help reduce the violence?
A: There’s no one answer. We have several layers of challenges that we need to overcome, and everybody has a role and a responsibility. We are all accountable. Violence should be an urgent concern for everyone. People who live far beyond the 5th ward need to appreciate that violence affects the entire city. Imagine if it were your child who couldn’t play in their back yard for fear of gun shots. I also think it’s important to humanize one another and be intentional about meeting different people, people you don’t usually spend time with. You develop a better understanding of their situation.
Q: What can the city do to reduce violence?
A: The city has focused its attention on growing a livable, progressive city without giving fair attention to those most in need. There have been many conversations about what should be done in the 5th ward—without the people themselves being invited to the conversation. The city should make this it's number one agenda item. We’re one of the best small cities in the nation. We’re cited for so many things. Best downtown, great schools. We’re setting trends on environmental issues. We also celebrate our diversity, but we have to look very closely at how segregated Evanston actually is. We need to work on that. I truly believe that community building will directly lead to a reduction in violence.
Q: What is your ward’s biggest struggle?
Economic development. We’re lacking in opportunities. We don’t have jobs that are able to sustain and grow families in our community based on Evanston’s cost of living. And we don’t have businesses that support our residents. We don’t have retail opportunities for business owners and our residents’ convenience. People would enjoy the experience of living here much more, and feel more connected, if they could walk to a neighborhood restaurant, for example. At the moment, we have to leave the community to have access to almost anything.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish?
A: I plan to improve and enhance our existing business community by working closely with the city and using its economic-development resources to attract new business and support our existing businesses. I’ll continue my work advocating for contracts for minorities and women in local businesses.
I plan to work with 5th-ward residents to find out what businesses and services they feel are lacking, and then prioritize and strategize according to that input to attract new businesses that will create revenue and jobs and increase our tax base. I’d like the community to be more walkable, and that will come with additional businesses and professional services that will give us easier access to shopping, restaurants, banks and other conveniences in the ward. I’d like to see improved facades to make our businesses more attractive.
I think this will all help to bring pride and ownership to our ward, and it will be encouraging to the youth in this community who feel separated from all that we are celebrating about Evanston on a city level. It will be great for morale and community development overall.
Q: What other issues to you plan to work on?
A: I was a young mother in the 5th ward. I had to deal with being low-income and struggling to find affordable housing. This is a community to which I plan to give special attention. There’s a gap in services for them right now. Young parents need more support—beyond diapers and formula—to keep them on their education track and working toward financial independence so they can raise their children. I know so many young parents who are homeless, couch-surfing. If I had my way, I’d create a home for young mothers and their children, like an affordable-housing apartment complex, so they aren't set back from life’s goals.
I also plan to work with residents with disabilities in my ward. We are unique in that we have quite a few group homes for adults with autism and invisible disabilities as well as physical disabilities. I want to make sure they’re included in our plans.
And I plan to work on the issues faced by residents in the east of the ward. Those mostly pertain to housing quality and managing the relationship with Northwestern students who live there.
Q: You’ve been privately working on a lot of these issues for years. Why did you decide to run for office?
A: I had to consider the benefits of being elected. I’ve participated in council and other community meetings to weigh in and advocate on behalf of residents regarding contracting opportunities, business support, homelessness prevention, teen parenting, and senior matters. But I’m running because I will have a vote on the city council, I’ll have more influence on council, and I can be the voice for those least served in our community.
Q: How does it feel to be running for Ald. Holmes seat?
She has such big shoes to fill and has served the 5th ward for so many years. I’m giving my pursuit of this office my full attention and making sure I’m familiar with all the issues facing this ward. I’ve shadowed her closely to eliminate as much of the learning curve as I can so I can jump in and continue her community work. Ms. Holmes is someone I’ve looked up to my entire life. I don’t remember a time that she wasn’t a leader and advocate for us.
Q: Why should 5th ward residents vote for you?
A: I am invested in my community. I was born raised here. I’ve worked hard for my community most of my adult life—long before I decided to run. I’ve served in volunteer roles in city doing committee work, I’ve worked at executive board levels at various nonprofits in town. I’ve owned businesses here. I’ve created jobs and supported businesses. I’ve created better than two dozen affordable homes in the fifth ward. I’m also well prepared. I’ve shadowed the fifth ward alderman for some time. I think I’m qualified and proven as to my commitment and my intentions for the progress of the 5th ward.
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