SEPTEMBER 4, 2019
Robert Emmons Jr., a 26-year-old, is running to unseat Representative Bobby Rush (D-Ill), a 26-year incumbent, in Illinois’s 1st Congressional district Democratic primary.
Emmons is a gun-violence prevention advocate, social innovator, and nonprofit leader. Rush, who started his advocacy as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Community, is a former civil rights activist who cofounded the Black Panther party in Chicago. He’s been making policy for almost as long as Emmons has been alive.
But Emmons, who lost his best friend to gun violence, told Teen Vogue that the America he grew up in has not made enough progress when it comes to equality. That lived experience as a young man in Chicago is driving his run for office, he said.
“To be honest, I’m not one of the politicians who says they had no plans of running for office,” Emmons said. “But I never thought I would do it at 26 years old, two years into my marriage.”
While the timing may be earlier than he anticipated, Emmons is running for Congress in 2020 because of what he says is a “missing voice” in our current political system. “That missing voice is one that understands the principle that power comes from many,” he told Teen Vogue.
Emmons inherited this model of teamwork from his grandmother, who was deeply involved in her community and reinvigorated a “block club” in her 49th Street Chicago neighborhood.
“My grandmother didn’t clean up the neighborhood all by herself,” Emmons said. “She brought the whole block together. That’s reflective of the resilience of community.”
At the age of 13, Emmons and his sister, who had previously lived in New Jersey, went to live with their grandparents in Chicago. The poverty he’d experienced growing up in his Garden State neighborhood was suddenly even starker and all around him, he recalled.
“Most of the kids in my high school [in Chicago] were experiencing what we had faced [in New Jersey],” Emmons said. “I began to see myself as someone who can solve inequality.”
Although Emmons saw hardship to scale on the South Side of Chicago, he also “saw organizing to scale,” he said.
Emmons is not the first optimistic young man with dreams for a better Chicago. Almost 20 years ago, recognizing similar issues as an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama attempted to unseat Rush. It was the only election Obama lost in his political career.
At the time of the 2000 election, the Illinois 1st Congressional district was 65% black. According to Eric Adelstein, founder and partner of Adelstein Liston Media and a consultant to Rush during that campaign, the district has changed. According to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, it’s 51.3% black, 40.6% white, and 2% Asian. The geographic boundaries have also shifted to include more rural areas.
“Like much of urban America, the First has seen rising levels of income inequality, gentrification, and out-migration to exurban areas,” Adelstein told Teen Vogue.
“The First is a historic district from the standpoint of being one of, if not the longest, standing majority-minority districts in the U.S. It has been that way since 1920,” Adelstein added. “William Dawson was a legendary figure in early African-American politics, and the seat was held by Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington.”
Emmons recognizes this legacy. Though he’s ready to be the face of something new, he makes sure to honor the politicians who came before him — including Rush. By fighting for gun-violence prevention, economic equality, and racial justice, Emmons is tackling the same issues Rush has fought for but, as Emmons points out, with closer “proximity” to the issues.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants in this seat particularly,” Emmons told Teen Vogue.He mentioned that his district has been home to people like the aforementioned Washington, renowned social justice advocate Reverend Michael Pfleger, and Muhammad Ali, the boxer, activist, and philanthropist.
“As we go around the district talking about gun-violence prevention and criminal justice reform, we have learned from generations prior and have to work in a multigenerational fashion,” Emmons said. “In this district in particular, as young Democrats, we are fighting for health care, gun-violence prevention, and criminal justice reform. These are issues that disproportionately impact young black men under 35. There is not a single member of Congress who fits this demographic.”
The Rush campaign declined Teen Vogue’s repeated requests for comment.
According to Jacky Grimshaw, a long-time political organizer in Chicago who supports Emmons’s campaign, this race goes beyond both identity politics and age.
“It’s not just age, it’s also vision,” Grimshaw told Teen Vogue. “The vision that Robert [Emmons] has is speaking to the needs of folks in the district, from the African-Americans to the white population in the rural county. He has a vision that resonates with folks.”
Emmons’s best friend, whom he met in high school on the South Side of Chicago and roomed with during their freshman year at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, died from gun violence in Chicago in 2015. That same year the city of Chicago saw a significant spike in deaths by gun violence overall. This surge in gun violence came at a time when the Chicago police department faced accusations of extreme misconduct.
“Before he was murdered I was fighting for gun-violence prevention. But I was doing it in a way similar to the national conversation right now, advocating for background checks and [a] ban on assault weapons. But I wasn’t talking about root causes,” Emmons said. “After he was killed, I dropped out of college. I had to re-find myself. I rededicated my life to fighting gun violence.”
At that point, Emmons reached back out to an organization called One Goal Graduation, a Chicago-based college-access program that both he and his best friend were a part of prior to their enrollment in college. With the guidance of One Goal Graduation, Emmons graduated from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and shortly afterwards went to work at One Goal Graduation, helping to provide others like him with similar access.
According to Emmons, gun violence is born out of a lack of opportunity and its root causes include systemic poverty, lack of adequate health care, environmental injustice, racism, and the way we fund our schools.
“All these things are extremely interconnected,” Emmons told Teen Vogue. “With that comes an opportunity for the solutions to be extremely interconnected.”
The 26-year-old suggests potential solutions such as universal pre-Kindergarten, a livable wage, access to higher education, as well as Medicare and mental health care for all. He supports the Green New Deal for its economic and environmental benefits, and recently secured the first endorsement of the 2020 cycle from the progressive group People for Bernie.
After just a few weeks campaigning on the ground, Emmons feels assured that his time — and the 1st district’s time — has come.
“To my surprise, the vast majority of the people we speak to, even the ones who love Bobby [Rush] and the work he has done as an activist in the '80s, are ready for reinvigoration, progressive ideas, and unity at a time when our country feels plagued with division,” Emmons said. “It’s now time to fulfill the legacies of his generation.”