Candidates (left to right, from top left) Kevin Bailey, Anthony Driver Jr., Maya Hodari, Nicole Johnson, Jennifer Maddox, Quandra Speights and Jeanette Taylor speak at a 20th Ward candidate forum Saturday. Credit: All photos courtesy of The Triibe

WOODLAWN — Often an afterthought during election season, Chicago youth were front and center Saturday afternoon at a 20th Ward aldermanic debate at the Experimental Station in Woodlawn.

While all of the 20th Ward candidates in a crowded race committed to appear, according to organizers, seven of the nine made it to the forum moderated by Tiffany Walden, editor-in-chief of The Triibe, a Chicago news site focused on black millennials. The candidates weighed in on everything from the Obama Presidential Library to how to best tackle youth unemployment in the ward.

Dernard Newell, a pastor and attorney, and Andre Smith, an entrepreneur, pastor and founder of Chicago Against Violence, did not attend the forum. Candidate Kevin Bailey left half-way through the forum to attend another campaign-related event.

The forum was co-sponsored by The Triibe, South Side Weekly magazine and student-led advocacy group Good Kids Mad City. Youth in the audience asked questions of candidates at the end of forum.

Creating new jobs for South Side youth

When asked how they would create jobs for South Side youth, some of the candidates touted their records of community involvement.

Jennifer Maddox, who works in community affairs with the Chicago Police, promised to continue to provide opportunities through Future Ties, an afterschool program she founded in 2017 to help teens in Parkway Gardens.

Organizer Jeanette Taylor, who led the Dyett High School hunger strike, said neighborhood schools should remain open as community centers until 8 p.m., providing a safe space for youth programs. She also wants to form a youth caucus in the ward so they’ll have a seat at the table.

Anthony Driver Jr., the youngest candidate on the ballot, pledged to use $97,000 in ward menu money to create a job training program for teens and young adults. He would work to expand vocational training in high schools so students would graduate with trade certifications, too.

“As a person who graduated from college with two degrees and a ton of student loan debt, I realize that there should be another option that our students have access to,” said Driver, a former Estell Group policy fellow who has worked with the Chicago Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement..

Kevin Bailey, a civil engineer and 20th Ward Democratic Committeeman, said he would continue his work with afterschool programs, including working with “Transformers” actor Richard Gallion to provide acting classes for teens.

Former teacher Nicole Johnson, who has worked as a manager at Teamwork Englewood and Chicago Votes, aims to form a partnership between Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges of Chicago to create a “workforce pipeline.”

RELATED: Development On The South Side — Including The Obama Library — Can’t Leave Locals Behind, 20th Ward Candidates Say

Improving schools

Touting a 12-year-old student he mentors who is currently pursing a graduate degree in engineering, Bailey said he’d work to tap new resources for the area’s youth by working closely with the University of Chicago.

Taylor said she’d push for a moratorium on charter schools, would use tax-increment financing (TIF) dollars to fund neighborhood schools and would work closely with principals, parents and Local School Councils to ensure their needs are addresses.

Maddox again brought up the importance of afterschool programs like Future Ties, adding that she would also work closely with principals and would host workshops for parents.

Attorney Quandra Speights pledged to repurpose shuttered schools and create community committees to address specific needs in the ward.

Maya Hodari, co-founder of the Woodlawn Neighbors Association, said she would hold monthly taskforce meetings to assess neighborhood needs and would work to ensure school curriculum meets the needs of neighborhood students.

CPS monitoring social media accounts

Calling the practice as invasion of privacy, all of the 20th Ward candidates said Chicago Public Schools staff shouldn’t be tracking student activity on social media platforms.

Over the past four school years, more than 700 CPS students have been called into interventions based on their social media activity, according to a recent ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ investigation. CPS officials say they are doing it to quell gang violence in schools, but critics are raising concerns about the monitoring.

Maddox said monitoring social media should start at home.

“Parents need to monitor their kids’ social media pages. I have a 32- and a 30-year-old and I still monitor their social media pages,” said Maddox, eliciting chuckles from the audience. “We know that this is how conflict arises.”

Driver and Johnson also called on Chicago Police to end the gang database, too, a database that is riddled with errors.

Speights was the lone dissenter, saying the gang database needs to be accurate, and to that end, she would work with Chicago Police to improve its accuracy.

Getting to school safely

All of the candidates believe in supporting existing programs to help students get to and from school safely, acknowledging that while the Safe Passage program has been effective, more resources are needed.

In addition to repurposing shuttered school buildings, Driver said he’d create a youth council backed by the alderman’s office to mediate conflicts.

Speights added that she’d make sure that Safe Passage workers get paid in a timely manner, which has been an ongoing issue for some employees.

Maddox said she’d reassess Safe Passage policies so workers would be allowed to help kids cross the street, something that isn’t currently allowed.

Calling high school teens the most vulnerable of all students, Hodari said she’d work to identify the students who travel outside of the ward for school to help them arrive safely. She’d also push charter schools to make admitting neighborhood students a priority.

Johnson said she’d lobby the state legislature to fund bussing and would work to create dedicated public transit options for high school students.

The nine candidates — thinned from a crowd of 15 — all hope to replace current Ald. Willie Cochran, who is awaiting trial on corruption charges and is not seeking re-election.

The 20th Ward includes all or parts of Washington Park, Woodlawn, West Englewood, Back of the Yards and Park Manor

Watch the entire forum here:

RELATED: Everything You Need To Vote On Feb. 26

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