The life of my family is deeply connected to the life of my city.
In the early 1960s, my mother--who is white--became pregnant with a black child (my oldest brother Michael) in her late teens. She was told by her mother to either give Michael up for adoption or to leave because it was unsafe for her to bring a black child into their neighborhood. She chose her child and moved to the Southside, spending years homeless and on welfare.
With help from friends, extended family, and public assistance programs, my mother managed to raise five successful children. In 2011—fifty years after she was forced to leave the Northside because of the color of her firstborn son—I, her third son, was brought back to the Northside when an all-white local school council gave me the sacred responsibility of leading the education of their children, as principal of Blaine Elementary School.
The journey of my mother and my family tells me with absolute certainty that my city has the power to transform itself. Once this campaign wins the Mayor's Office, I will be blessed with the privilege of leading the next phase of that transformation.
My life has been filled with grace. My creator keeps giving me blessings I have not earned and do not deserve, but that’s what makes it grace: you receive it despite your faults. I believe I have a higher purpose in life and that I receive God’s amazing grace so I can fulfill that purpose.
No one has been more central to me fulfilling that purpose than my partner, Margaret. I met her in 1978 when I was seven-years-old. After I served in the U.S. Navy, she convinced me to go to college even while I insisted that I wasn’t college material.
We became a couple in 1984 and married in 1997. In 2007 Margaret gave birth to our son. His name is James, but we call him by his middle name, Zahran, which means “to shine.” Every day he lives up to his name and projects his light on our world. He attends our neighborhood public school. Like all parents, we want what's best for him, including that he grow up in a vibrant, safe, and prosperous city.
I have been a student, teacher, principal, and parent at public and private Chicago schools. For 14 years I've taught and led on the Southside, Westside, and Northside in schools that were majority African-American, majority Latino, and majority white. I became principal at Blaine Elementary in 2011 where my staff and I led its rise to be the #1 ranked neighborhood school in Chicago.
In 2013, after two years of award-winning improvements at Blaine, I became the first Chicago principal to speak openly about the destructive policies of Chicago’s mayor and school board. I spoke up because corruption in CPS and City Hall was impeding our school system's ability to get children the resources they needed.
From 2013 to 2016, I launched a one-man assault against City Hall’s intimidation of principals, the failings and abuses of school privatizers, disinvestment in school custodial services, the manipulation of school test score data, the misuse and overuse of standardized testing, fiscal recklessness and incompetence on the part of school district officials, and corrupt school district contracts.
I was the first and only CPS employee to speak out publicly against the now infamous Barbara Byrd-Bennett SUPES contract long before it became a national scandal.
In 2015, I campaigned for Chuy Garcia and, in 2016, was a Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic Convention and a member of the Democratic Party Platform Committee where I helped make significant progressive changes.
I was featured in two Bernie Sanders presidential campaign ads. The first focused on corruption in Chicago and the second was a two-minute national TV ad called “America Beyond,” with parts of my life story elucidating the hopes and possibilities of the Sanders campaign.
In February of 2016, I ran for the presidency of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association (CPAA).
In an apparent attempt to influence the CPAA election, Emanuel appointees at CPS abruptly terminated me as principal of Blaine Elementary School. Despite this action, I won with nearly 70% of the vote.
Since then, I have focused on building an organization that represents the voices of school leaders in order to create and support state and local policies that benefit our schools and the students they serve.
I served in the U.S. Navy in the late 1980s. I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1996 with a bachelors degree, and I received my masters there in Educational Leadership in 2000.
I have deep respect for the ways in which people connect with God through the many religions that have been practiced for centuries. I also respect those who choose to practice universal human values of decency rather than adopt a religion--a position that I held for most of my adult life until a series of events beginning with my mother's passing in July of 2011 inspired me to study the life of Jesus Christ as an example to strive toward.
Power-hungry demagogues often use religion to divide and conquer, so I want to be clear that—while I sometimes refer to God and scripture in my public conversations—I do not push my spiritual beliefs on other people or advocate government-sponsored religious activity. I believe religion is personal--between me and the God in whom I believe. I have fallen short of Christ’s example on many occasions, so I believe that the only person I need to push my spiritual beliefs on is myself.
Cord Jefferson and Hampton Sides said, “It is self-defeating to want our heroes to be perfect because we aren’t perfect ourselves. By calling our heroes superhuman, we also let ourselves off the hook: Why do the hard work of bettering the world if that’s something only saints do?”
Although I am proud of moving past my doubts, fears, and imperfections to do the right thing when it has mattered most, I know that fixing Chicago doesn’t require lone heroes or individual saints; it requires a movement. My hero is the public, awakened and willing to change this city for the better.
I had a great time telling my backstory during a one-hour interview on the radio program, The Ed Couple.
Also, in the summer of 2017, poet and author Kevin Coval invited me to tell parts of my story in the StoryCorps booth at the Chicago Cultural Center.