To raise up the importance of diverse representation in our government at all levels, we asked some of our Young Elected Officials network members to reflect on how their backgrounds have influenced and improved their leadership, and about their experience in their local communities as young elected officials.
This conversation was with Kam Buckner, who is the Illinois House Representative for District 26 – which encompasses the lakefront-adjacent Chicago communities – and the chair of the Illinois House Legislative Black Caucus. The interview below was edited for clarity.
What inspired me to run for office and to enter into public service was the example that was set for me by my parents. My mother spent more than three decades as a Chicago public school teacher and my father spent more than three decades as a law enforcement officer in Chicago. They impressed upon their five children that public service is the rent that you pay in order to live on this earth, and so they made it very clear to us that we owed something to the communities that we came from. That’s really what drove me to campaign for this position.
It’s been an extremely gratifying and fulfilling two terms so far as a state representative here in Illinois, specifically representing Chicago. As a Black male who grew up in the city, who has an organic connection to Chicago and to the surrounding area, this is the honor and the privilege of a lifetime. I wanted to bring a new and different voice to the table, and to elevate certain conversations that our state government may not have had in previous years and previous generations. It’s important to me as an under-forty-year-old Black man from Chicago to be able to have all of my experiences inform and contextualize the work that we do in our Illinois state capital.
I believe my background has made me a better elected official and has been very effective and helpful to me as I maneuver through public service, because I have an intimate understanding of many of the issues we work on regularly. For example, we often discuss the funding of schools and making sure that our public schools have the resources they need. I’m a kid that went to Chicago public schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Not only was my mother a teacher, but also I have two sisters who are teachers, and my oldest sister is a principal in Chicago right now. So I understand the work that teachers and administrators do from a very personal standpoint.
Additionally, my colleagues and I often talk about law enforcement and criminal justice reform, which have been hot button issues around the country over the past year in particular, and that’s something with which I have personal experience. Not only am I a young man who unfortunately had run-ins with law enforcement that were unfair and based on my race, but also I am the son of a father whose safety while he performed his job on the streets of Chicago worried me. I worried about him coming home every night. All of my experiences contextualize and help inform me as an elected official as we make decisions that affect people’s daily lives.
My mantra is always “Nothing about us without us.” That means Black folks, women, folks who may be suffering from traumas, people from the LGBTQIA space, immigrants – that means all of us. With more voices at the table and more voices in the room, we can make better decisions and better choices. We’ve known for a long time that our elected bodies, whether they be county boards or school boards or Congress, have been pretty homogeneous. Time’s up for that. We are hopefully moving in the right direction as a country, and we need to make sure that everybody has a seat at the table so we can bring back better results and ultimately make our country better overall.
I appreciate the work that People For the American Way’s YEO Network is doing to make sure that we’re putting the things that matter most at the forefront, and that we not only talk about the problems but that we find ways to come up with solutions. It’s important to be empowered, engaged, and informed, and as we share stories from across the country, we share best practices and solutions, and together we can really get some work done.