When state rep Juliana Stratton, scarcely a year in office, announced she was joining J.B. Pritzker’s campaign, a scramble ensued to represent the Fifth District in her stead. While it’s a majority-black district, gerrymandering has stretched its boundaries from Goethe Street in the Gold Coast to 80th Street in Avalon Park, running through some of the richest and poorest areas of Chicago with just 25 east-to-west blocks at its widest point. Three of the four candidates still in the race are African-American. Among them is Ken Dunkin, who held this seat for 15 years before Stratton and doesn’t appear to be actively fund-raising—his candidate committee received $1.3 million from the Bruce Rauner-aligned Illinois Opportunity Project in 2016. His two serious opponents are Lamont Robinson—a businessman receiving support from 4th Ward alderman Pat Dowell, house speaker Mike Madigan, and many unions—and Dilara Sayeed, a 48-year-old former teacher and founder of an education start-up who’s presenting herself as the “unbought and unbossed” candidate in this race.
We reached Sayeed at her South Loop apartment via video chat—she prefers to handle interviews that way if she can’t meet people in person.
Why do you prefer to do interviews in video chat rather than by phone?
People see my name, they see Dilara Sayeed, and even though it’s 2018 in the United States of America, people still wonder: I wonder what that name looks like in real life? I wonder if she speaks English well? You know what I mean? It’s just the reality of our world. And I think face-to-face, eye-to-eye is a really important way to communicate.
I grew up in the city, I’m a Head Start kid, lived in the city all my life until we got married. And then my husband’s job took us to Naperville. We lived there for about 15 years and I became the first tenured American Muslim teacher in DuPage County. Helped introduce a race-and-class pluralism curriculum into the district. . . .Naperville taught me a lot about how to collaborate and work with different kinds of people and be a bridge builder. And then we moved back to the city five years ago.
I found an article from 2002, when Rod Blagojevich was running for governor. You were quoted in the story talking about how you usually voted Republican. When you decided to get into politics why did you go into the Democratic Party?
It’s interesting that I said that, because if you look at my voting record I haven’t voted Republican except in 2000 and 2001. I pulled a Republican ballot, and that was more because of how you take your Democratic values in a heavily Republican community. You try to sometimes be strategic and vote for the most Democratic of the Republican candidates.
My first political contribution in my life was in 2003, when I gave a check to a young candidate for senator. My husband said, “Wait, we don’t even have money for political contributions. Why would you give him money?” And I said, “Honey, you don’t understand. His name’s Barack Obama. And I think he’s going to be president of the United States one day.” My values as a Chicagoan have always been Democratic.
You’re a Muslim woman of Indian descent running for office in a majority-black district with also very wealthy white areas—what’s that been like?
I will knock on a door in South Shore and someone will open the door and they will say, “Oh, wow!”-I am not the typical candidate. So I get questions, we share things, we realize how many things we have in common. When I say, “Last week I walked into a retail store and I was ignored by the saleswoman until somebody else walked in who didn’t look like me,” that resonates with people. Discrimination resonates. We live in a time when racism still resonates. We live in a time when people understand that to be a Head Start kid and then to be able to build a life, make it, live where I live-that’s a celebration for us.
Sometimes I’m in South Shore, they’ll say, “Hey, wow, and you’re running for state rep? That’s always been a black seat. You’re not black . . . But you’re not white!” I’ll have someone open the door and say, “Assalamualaikum, may God’s peace be with you. My father was Muslim,” or “My sister is Muslim,” or “I’m dating a Muslim,” and so you’d be surprised how much we actually have a common.
When I go to the Gold Coast [chuckles] I’ve heard everything from “You live in the South Loop?” “You’re a teacher? Your husband’s a doctor?” And then say, “You’re not white . . . But you’re not black!”
As you’re traveling around the district campaigning, do you ever reflect on the gerrymandering that created it and connected such a disparate set of communities?
My thoughts are: it’s an opportunity.
So you see the gerrymandering as a good thing?
No, I don’t necessarily, but I see it as what exists right now. This is the reality of our district. This may be a gerrymandered district, but it is a slice of America from wealth to poverty, from white to black, from gay to straight. This is a slice of America, and this is my America.
What are three issues that you’d want to advocate for down in Springfield that are particularly pertinent to your would-be constituents in River North, and three issues that would be particularly important to your constituents in Greater Grand Crossing?
Can I tell you—the issues are the same. It’s just how they’re interpreted in different parts.
The three issues that I’m espousing go hand in hand. Number one is a stronger education system everywhere in this state. If we have a stronger education system we’re able to help people have economic security. That’s number two. You have people ready for jobs, you have skilled workers, you have potential entrepreneurs if they’ve had a strong education. We help people who will grow up to run businesses and we have people who will retire and want to have the savings that they’ve created to be safe. That’s economic security.
When you have a strong education system and economic security you are actually alleviating the issues around public safety—alleviating criminal activity, you’re alleviating illegal guns, crime. So all three of those issues impact the entire district.
How do you explain why a Chicago Public School is a better quality school on the north side of your district compared to the south-side part of your district?
There are two key reasons. If you want to look at the quality of a school, look at the investment in the community. The school’s not a bubble in itself. So when you walk around James Madison [Elementary] School [in Greater Grand Crossing], 30 percent, three out of every ten homes—and I’ve counted them—are boarded up. If you walk down the street-there is no grocery store. There is no pharmacy. There is no place for kids to hang out after school. There’s liquor stores at the corner, there’s run-down, boarded-up stores on the corner. Because there’s a divestment in the community, people then are moving out, families are moving out.
Number two is the social capital of the people who live there. Lincoln Park residents call central [CPS] office and say, “Our school’s overcrowded, we need an annex. I pay this much in property taxes.” They’re well-intentioned parents who want the best for their kids, and they get it. Why? Because they do pay higher property taxes. The mayor knows it, the school district knows it, and they get what they need because they have social capital. When a parent in Englewood calls and says, “Our school is underfunded” or “There’s rats at Mollison [Elementary School],” somebody needs to come and fix that,” they’re very valid but they don’t have the social capital.
But doesn’t this whole situation with Cook County Assessor’s Office and how they’ve been assessing property taxes show that the people in Lincoln Park are probably paying a lesser rate?
You’re exactly right, but that’s not the perception.
If you had communities that were rich and vibrant, the schools would be rich and vibrant. People would move there, and they would want to live, work, play, pray, right in that district, right in that neighborhood. And they don’t right now. The social capital people bring—it’s the color of your skin, it is the kind of home you live in, it’s the perception that if you have more social capital you must be paying more in property taxes. The car you drive is nice—all of that changes the way we treat people.
I went to Brennemann Elementary School [in Uptown]. Every day, though, I walked past Walt Disney Magnet School-one of the best schools in the country. And every day I wished I went to that school. Why didn’t I? My parents didn’t know how to navigate the system. It’s just the reality of my life. Many people say “I went to Chicago Public Schools” but will point out that they went to a selective school or a magnet school. I’m not a product of the magnet schools. I wish I was. My parents didn’t know what to do to get me in.
What grades did you go to Brennemann?
From kindergarten through third grade. Then we were unfortunately robbed by our neighbor. My parents were very afraid, so we moved to where I went to Hitch Elementary School [in Norwood Park]. We were the first nonwhite family at Hitch. [Sighs] That was a whole ‘nother way of looking at my color, my skin tone, and my racial background, because I was bullied at school. It was not easy during the 70s and 80s to be the first nonwhite kid in a school. And again there was a magnet school, there was a selective high school, I could’ve gone to Whitney Young-my parents didn’t know how to do that. And I don’t want a kid’s demographic or luck [to determine] how well they’re raised. I want James Madison to be a great neighborhood school, Emmett Till to be a great neighborhood school, and Ogden to be a great neighborhood school. Not because the parents know how to navigate the system. But because our responsibility as state legislators and government officials and CPS officials is to make sure there’s a great neighborhood school in every community.