Devon Reid: A Passion for Public Service
"The violence and shootings in Evanston are truly being caused by a small group of people ... Once we identify them, I guarantee when we talk with them, the biggest issue in their lives is a lack of economic opportunity
and a lack of job skills."
Devon Malcolm Reid is running for City Clerk of Evanston. Last week, as he was gathering signatures outside Panera Bread to get on the ballot, he was wrongly arrested by Evanston police. This week, Devon is fighting another battle—to stay in the race against objections filed by the wife of the current City Clerk Rodney Greene.
But Devon isn’t deterred by these obstacles; he’s faced and overcome far greater ones. At 24, Devon is quietly confident and laser-focused on beginning a life of public service. I talked to him about his life and why he decided to run for elected office.
DE: Did you grow up in Evanston?
DR: I was born in Evanston’s fifth ward. My family came to Evanston from South Carolina in 1916, along with many other black families, after the particularly brutal lynching of Anthony Crawford. My great- grandmother lived at 1419 Emerson right opposite the fire station.
She took folks into our home to give them a place to stay. My great uncle, her brother, was the first black law clerk in the state of Michigan. He worked at the Ford factory to pay his way through law school. He’s 95 years old, and he’s still a judge. My mom went to ETHS. She became a correctional officer. My great-grandmother was a domestic worker on the North Shore and worked till she was in her 90s. These are the folks I grew up around. I grew up living with my mother and grandmother. This rich history really instilled in me the values of community and public service.
DE: Have you lived anywhere other than Evanston?
DR: When I was 12, my mother made a mistake in her life, and was incarcerated. My mom was the breadwinner for the family, so my grandmother and I were forced to leave Evanston and move to Roseland on the south side of Chicago. We lived in a homeless shelter for a period of time. I left what I consider a fairly privileged black life here in Evanston.
But I see my story of struggle as a story of love in many ways. Through our homelessness, there were many people who stepped up and helped us wherever they could, whether they gave us a place to stay, found an apartment for us to rent, or helped us with groceries. Families took me places with their kids, just to make sure I was on the right path and had the support that I needed.
DE: How did you overcome homelessness?
DR: My grandmother and I got on our feet a bit, but my grandmother suffered from mental illness. After we found an apartment, she needed food and medicine, and eventually she became so ill it wasn’t realistic to be able to manage a kid moving into high school and looking after herself. For a decent period, I was the one who did the grocery shopping, paid the bills, and made sure things were taken care of. But again, we had a decent amount of support.
I think our landlord was aware of the situation and she was the one who started the process of figuring out how to help us. My grandmother realized her health was failing and she knew we’d both have better opportunities if we were split up. I was a freshman in high school, so I was 14. I became a foster child. I’m an only child. My mom was an only child. My grandmother was an only child, so there wasn’t a line of family that could just step in.
My grandmother was actually able, once we were split up, to find affordable housing for seniors. Often there’s units like that for seniors where they don’t take kids. So she did that, and eventually moved into an assisted living home.
DE: So what happened to you?
DR: I lived with a Latino family in Humboldt Park for six years and went to high school. That was another circumstance that, though it wasn’t the greatest, it way opened up my eyes to an entirely new culture. I learned a bit of Spanish, I understand it more than I can speak it—I know ‘take out the garbage,’ ‘it’s time for school,’ and ‘wash the dishes’ better than anything else.
I had maybe a non-stereotypical foster experience because I stayed with one family the entire time; I didn’t move from house to house which is often the experience of foster kids.
While I lived there, there were dozens of kids who came through cycling in and out — kids who were temporarily wards of the state and then either moved back to their families or became foster kids in another house. It was a great experience meeting a lot of different folks with similar or vastly different experiences. I still keep in touch with my foster family. I make sure that I spend either Thanksgiving or Christmas with them every year, and birthdays if we can.
DE: What about your mom?
DR: My mom is out of prison now and lives in Indianapolis. She’s been out for a few years, and we’ve developed a very close relationship.
DE: Where you a good student?
DR: I was a good student, though there was a period of time when I wasn’t the greatest. I went to Orrington for elementary school, which was amazing. In high school, I was in Honors classes. But one day when I was a sophomore, I was in math class and I noticed that at the bottom of my math sheet it said ‘middle school math with pizazz.’ I was so insulted that I was in Honors math and getting this kind of work. It was mind-boggling and it contributed to me becoming disinterested in school. I would ditch school, but mostly I would go to the band room—we had these isolation booths—and play my guitar literally all day long. I’d go to History, English, lunch and gym. I don’t know how I got away with that.
DE: What did you do after high school?
DR: It was 2010. The first thing I did was run for alderman in Chicago. I was 18. I was the youngest person to successfully make my own ballot and run for office, and that was inspired pretty much by my life up to that point. I’d always had an interest in politics rooted in my great-uncle and my desire to do public service. And I felt, even at that young age, that elected officials didn’t represent the life I’d experienced. I ran against Roberto Maldinado. To put it quite frankly he is an old machine-style politician. I lost. It was a great campaign to run and lose. It really taught me process, and also a lot of skills in community organizing, and doing research.
“The first thing I did was run for alderman in Chicago. I was 18. I was the youngest person to successfully make my own ballot and run for office.”
DE: How did you run a campaign?
DR: I saved up my allowance. Everything was very grassroots. I was still a foster kid at that point. I used the internet. It was my tool. That’s how I researched. I read through handbooks. I figured it out. As I campaigned, I met folks who offered to help and support me. From that I developed a campaign manager and people who took me around to meet political figures. I did research on alderman I thought were good guys, trying to figure out who they were, and I set up meetings with them. I tried to learn as much as I could.
DE: So what happened after you lost?
DR: After I lost, I got involved in community organizing from the connections I made—Bickerdike Development Corporation was the first one—they build build affordable housing in Humboldt Park and Logan Square. There was a lot of community resistance to it, because even folks from moderate- or lower-income communities sometimes don’t want section 8 housing near them. So we had to do a lot of door-knocking to educate people about how important it is that we have this housing for folks, what it means to be on section 8, what kind of people are in section 8 housing—women, children, grandmothers with their grandchildren—it’s important to make this housing available for them.
DE: When did you leave foster care?
DR: I moved out at 19 because there is a state law around foster kids: at 18, you have option of dissolving your relationship with the state entirely or you can move to independent living and keep relationship with state till you’re 21.
At 21 you’re flat out on your ass; no more state support. You have to figure out life by yourself. Luckily, I had a great support network. I got my own apartment and I had a ton of jobs. I worked at the chamber of commerce at North Center in the 47th ward, I took a lot of odd jobs. Then I moved back to Evanston at 21.
I was working here at Coffee Lab and piecing together political consulting jobs. I went to Oakton for a bit, but haven’t finished college yet. At Oakton, I was student government president. I plan to get a degree at some point. It is a goal, and not to say it’s any way impossible, but today is not like when my great-uncle put himself through law school by working at the Ford plant. That doesn’t really happen any more. So I honestly enjoy my work and so far I’ve been able to do what I want to do without college degree. It’s just very difficult to pay rent and go to school full time.
DE: What have you been doing recently?
DR: I’m on the board of Citizens’ Greener Evanston, where I’m focusing on environmental justice issues—the nexus of environmental issues and social inequity—so the waste transfer station is an issue that the newly formed environmental justice committee of CGE is working on. I most recently worked to pass automatic voter registration in the General Assembly which I did through Chicago Votes. But the governor vetoed it. I hope as City Clerk for a town of 75,000 people, that I will be a leader in that role working to pass that legislation.
I also taught Civics through Chicago Votes. The state passed a Civics requirement last year and became law this year in Illinois. Every student must take a Civics course to graduate. So I and a group of other young folks worked with Civics teachers at Chicago schools and we developed a lesson plan and taught Civics to juniors and seniors. That was really fun.
DE: How do you know what you know?
DR: From the internet and from books. I read voracioulsy. I don’t really read fiction, it doesn’t interest me. I wish it did because I’d probably be a better writer, but I read boring policy papers. That’s what I do. And I watch a lot of council meetings and Senate hearings on You Tube.
DE: Why are you running for City Clerk?
DR: I truly believe the Clerk’s office has been ignored. It’s an office that can be used as a tool for Evanston residents to make sure that we’re holding elected officials accountable through access to records, through FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), through having access to the ballot, and truly understanding their rights as residents. The Clerk’s office can take leadership in making sure our policy represents our values in Evanston.
DE: What do you want to accomplish if you win?
DR: I want to make the clerk an active participant in solving some of the toughest issues in Evanston. One of my greatest missions is to create a way for residents to track legislation and ordinances so they know what policy is being introduced and they can follow it from its introduction to its passage or failure; to know what council members have voted against or for; what edits and changes have been made as it moves through committee. The biggest component is to make sure residents have an active voice in making policy from introduction to passage. This will all be facilitated online digitally and folks will be able to access it online. This is not an option now.
DE: What do you see as Evanston’s toughest issues?
DR: I’ll start with toughest issues that clerk’s office can address:
Affordable housing. The real estate transfer tax is administered and collected through the Clerk’s office. I propose to increase that tax by $2, which would give the city an extra $1.2 million dollars, which we could allocate directly to the affordable housing fund. It would take a referendum to get this increase stamped, but I’ll lead the efforts to make the case for it to get on the ballot.
Violence is a big issue. The Clerk, as records keeper, can help build and restore trust in our police department, which will in turn build a stronger partnership between law enforcement and those communities that are most affected by violence. There’s an extreme level of distrust right now. I will build that trust by making sure that when officers commit misconduct they’re held accountable. I will push legislation to create a citizens police accountability board.
In my case, when I was arrested, directly upon my release I was able to call half the city council to make sure there was pressure on the police department to address this injustice. I want folks throughout Evanston, but especially young folks of color who face the brunt of this, to have access to an elected official and to know, at end of day, if you call me when you believe that misconduct has been committed, I can look at any videos record and decide if more can be done to hold the officer accountable and that it’s not swept under the rug.
I also think we need elected officials who will stand up for broad issues and policies that will affect the lives of people who live in Evanston. One example is that when you run for local office outside Chicago, you file with a local election board, and that board decides whether candidates’ petitions meet legal requirements. The board consists of the Mayor, the longest-serving alderman, and the City Clerk. That’s a political trifecta of potential conflict of interest. In my case, I had to turn in my petitions to my opponent, which doesn’t make sense. State Senator Daniel Bissintroduced legislation to clean this process up and put it in the County Clerk’s office. The current Clerk, Rodney Greene, was against that.
DE: With your recent (wrongful) arrest and consequent coverage of police/community relations, what’s your view of the relationship between young black men in Evanston and the EPD?
DR: The relationship overall is one of distance and suspicion in many ways. It goes both ways: suspicion by law enforcement of folks like me, and vice versa. We’re both assuming the worst in each other. That’s part of the problem.
In the last year, I’ve been stopped five or more times in Evanston. One time, I had my key in the door to walk into my building. I was stopped and told I fit the description of someone who had mugged someone in the area. I had to wait in the cold for other officers to come and confirm I wasn’t the mugger. The fifth ward is highly over-policed.
DE: How can we work to reduce violence in Evanston?
DR: I’ve looked at a few models in the past. The violence and shootings in Evanston are truly being caused by a small group of people. It shouldn’t be impossible to identify the few people who are likely to shoot or be shot. Once we identify them, I guarantee when we talk with them, the biggest issue in their lives is a lack of economic opportunity and a lack of job skills.
There’s a small city in California that had one of the highest murder rates per capita in the U.S. They started a program of internships. They found the 50 people most likely to shoot or be shot. They offered them a slot in the internship program with a stipend to participate that would pay their rent and bills. They received mentoring and help with resumes and job training. The murder rate went down, and the recidivism rate went down considerably for people who successfully completed the program.
Folks who are on this path come from very unstable environments and we need to address that and make sure as a community we step into their lives. We’re a resource-rich city. We can afford to help those most vulnerable who resort to violence to solve their issues because they’ve given up on the world and the world has given up on them. They just take matter into own hands.
DE: Do you have other interests besides politics?
DR: I am a huge music fan. I’d say that’s my second biggest passion, if not equal to politics. I play guitar. That’s my instrument. I was exposed to violin and trumpet when I was little. I listen to everything: the Beatles, ELO, rap music like Kendrick Lamar. Indie music. The full spectrum. You’ll find me listening to Irish jig music. I don’t just listen to music; I study it.
For more about Devon’s recent arrest:
(To learn about the role of Evanston’s City Clerk, go to cityofevanston.org/government/city-clerk/)