Precious Quinn had never heard of the woman who walked into her drama class in the basement of the Austin Community Resource Center Wednesday and stood watching their scenes, then was introduced by teacher Arraon "Skippa" Hixson.
“My name is Amara Enyia,” she began. “I live in East Garfield Park. I work in Austin. I met Arraon a few years ago. Arraon’s been doing this work in theater for years, I always respected, always enjoyed it, and I am running for mayor of the city of Chicago.”
The three dozen teens applauded.
“I wanted to say a few words to encourage you,” she continued. “As someone who remembers, not too long ago, when I was your age, I know what it’s like. I know what it is, in the community here, and I want to encourage you, all of you, to do what you’re passionate about, and not to let anyone tell you anything is impossible.”
Enyia is certainly taking her own advice, as the only opponent of Rahm Emanuel who is actively campaigning (former 9th ward alderman Robert Shaw’s efforts seem limited to announcing his candidacy last March. He doesn’t even have a web site. Karen Lewis is still curling her toes around the edge of the diving board, gathering her courage).
“I fully expect to win,” said Enyia.
Then again, Rahm keeps saying that he’s going to make CPS the best school system in the nation, so maybe a quixotic hunger for the impossible is part of the job description.
“People are really looking for change,” said Enyia. “No baggage, Authenticity. Things we don’t associate with our elected officials. A fresh voice. Fresh energy.”
What has Rahm done that she wouldn’t have done? What has he failed to do?
“He did not articulate a clear vision for Chicago,” she said. “His Chicago is very polarized, very divided. Entire neighborhoods feel ignored, like they’re not part of the city.”
We certainly felt that in Austin, where the YMCA abandoned its decaying building, which community leaders now try to run on their own. We looked in at the most crowded volleyball game I’ve ever seen: I counted 24 kids on the cacophonous brick-walled court.
“Everybody’s scrambling for the scraps,” said Robbie Wilkerson, who runs the center.
Enyia is short on specifics. When I asked about the pension crisis, she talked about finding inefficiencies and mentioned the will-o’-the-wisp of a financial transaction tax, which isn’t quite the same as saying the city will hold bake sales, but is currently illegal under state law and might not bring in enough if it weren’t, since traders vow they’ll move to the Cayman Islands first.
She spoke of the need “to show every individual, every neighborhood is valued,” but I wondered if she realized that many voters see politics in literal black and white — is she not the black candidate to Rahm’s white?
“The younger generation is less beholden to the identity politics that have prohibited groups of people from working together collectively in the past,” said Enyia, 31. “That unifying message resonates more with us. Our generation isn’t looking for the quote-unquote ‘black candidate.’ It’s looking for the best candidate.”
Pretty to think so. Every time she insisted she is going to win, I heard Sydney Greenstreet’s voice, as Signor Ferrari from “Casablanca,” saying, “That would take a miracle. And Rahm Emanuel has outlawed miracles.”
Still. Stranger things have happened. The city is honoring Jane Byrne, who beat a sitting mayor as her first (and last) electoral victory. I have no idea whether Amara Enyia will end up even running a credible campaign — she has, she says, a few thousand dollars in her campaign chest, compared to Rahm’s millions. But she is a former high hurdler at Crete-Monee High School, and nothing makes someone dig for their best effort like hearing footsteps closing in from behind. You don’t have to want Rahm sacked to think that a real contest in February would be better for the city than a cakewalk over Bob Shaw. Whether Enyia makes Rahm sweat will depend on how much she can inspire people like Precious Quinn.
“I like her,” said Quinn, 19, adding that the violence in her neighborhood made her “about to give up.”
But Enyia offers hope, she said. “I’ve never seen anybody with her strength.”