Smile Politely

15 questions for Clarissa Fourman

Clarissa Fourman, the Champaign City Council member who represents District 1, talks Champaign police, the state budget, and the Orpheum Children’s Museum as part of our occasional series on public officials.

Question 1.

Smile Politely: What are you connections to C-U?

Clarissa Fourman: I grew up here. My mom moved here when she was young, so I was born here and have lived here most of my life. I went to Centennial High School.

Question 2.

SP: What is your professional background?

Fourman: I’ve worked in law firms since I was 19. I wanted to go to law school, but having kids tends to slow you down. So first I worked as a legal assistant, and now I’m a paralegal. I’m finishing up my Master’s degree now, but one day I would like to go to law school. Hopefully when my children are older, I’ll be able to go.


Question 3.

SP: How did you get involved in the Champaign City Council?

Fourman: I worked for Mayor Feinen years ago as a legal assistant, when she was a city council member. Part of my job was facilitating phone calls and coordinating meetings. I watched her deal with problems, talk with citizens, and listen even when she knew there wasn’t anything she could do. I watched her respond to the death of Kiwane Carrington. She never turned anyone away. I became interested in council work for that reason.

The seat in my district has come up a few times. I always felt like I was too busy and had too much going on to serve on council. Now I have a little less on my plate, so I decided I would try and learn more about council. It’s not what it appears to be, but being involved has been a really good learning experience. Mayor Feinen made it look easy.

Question 4.

SP: You said serving on city council is different than you expected. How so?

Fourman: I think people tend to see the city council as a body that has power, where people run things and make decisions. But that’s just not the truth. The city manager runs the city; the city council is there to help her. People think they can call a city councilmember and she can help. But that’s a misconception. Usually the best I can do is transfer you to someone else. Our role is to focus more on policy. It’s really nothing like what you would think.

Question 5.

SP: What issues have most captured your attention so far as a member of city council?

Fourman: I’ve paid a lot of attention to the operation of the city. It’s not simple at all because every day, everything has to run. If one part is missing, the whole thing breaks down. But the city staff is incredibly good at what they do. If we didn’t have such a strong city staff, things just wouldn’t get done.

The recent shootings have been very hard. And some of the police situations have been very trying. It’s human nature to want to solve problems. But it doesn’t always work like that. So, on the one hand, it’s hard to realize you’re not going to be able to fix something.

On the other hand, as a black person, seeing what goes on from the inside, from a police officer’s point of view, has changed some of the views I had about the police. In the past, I thought police officers should live in our city limits. I thought they should live and work with the people they deal with. After learning more about how they do their jobs, I understand that at the end of the day, they want to go home, go out to eat, and spend time with their families without being in the spotlight. It’s not easy to do that when you live where you are arresting people.

Learning about how the police do their jobs has given me a lot more respect for them because I’ve realized they have to act very quickly. That realization has impacted how I feel about law enforcement. When I was growing up, everyone I knew had been in prison or knew someone in prison. The number of people who to prison in Champaign County is incredible. It’s easy to look at that and think there’s something wrong with the police. But it’s not that simple. It’s much more complicated than that.

Question 6. 

SP: What are your views on the recent situation surrounding Champaign police officer Matt Rush?

Fourman: Well, since I do legal work, I know how employment law works. Sometimes it doesn’t work out the way it does in the private sector, which can be frustrating. So I have a different view on it than some of the other council members. I know that people’s hands were tied even though Chief Cobb recognized he had a problem and tried to deal with it. I have a lot of respect for him. He manages over two hundred officers, and the things he does can’t always be popular. Since the officer came back and still has his job, even though Chief Cobb expressed that he didn’t feel that officer is fit for force, it’s a very difficult situation. I can understand people’s frustration. It’s a case where we know better, but we can’t do better.

But from another perspective, people have rights. And you don’t want people to fear interacting with that police officer. I don’t know what calls Officer Rush might respond to in the future. If there is fear, people won’t trust him. I try to see it from both sides. And I’m learning more about why it’s such a complicated situation. It’s not a Champaign City Council thing. It’s way up above that—its structural. 

So the public being upset has been difficult to watch, because there’s very little we can do. And I have a young son who is African American. My fears are just as great as anyone else’s.

Question 7.

SP: What are your thoughts on issues of race in Champaign-Urbana?

Fourman: When I was growing up, we had one black officer in Champaign. He took a really personal role in working with black youth in Champaign. We grew up with him not arresting us but trying to help us instead. So I think my perspective is entirely different from what my son sees. I don’t remember the attitude toward the police being so negative as it is now. Nowadays, kids won’t call the police if they need help. But when I was growing up, you did. That’s a big change.

In Champaign, we definitely have barriers that separate the “good” from the “bad” neighborhoods in terms of socioeconomic status. Sometimes those barriers are physical; they prevent people who are driving down University from seeing what’s going on in the North End. So the city has a long way to go. 

In 2016, if you have multiple jobs and you can’t afford daycare or extracurricular activities, there are very few places for your kids to go in this town. I think that’s why we have issues with kids and guns. We need to work on that. We need to provide kids with opportunities. If we could do that, I think Champaign would stop looking so segregated. I know the city is committed to doing that, so I hope it happens.

Question 8.

SP: Tell me about your district.

Fourman: One thing most people don’t realize is that District 1 is the most diverse district in Champaign. We have Garden Hills, but we also have part of Campustown. So we have low-income people, but we also have students. 

I live in Garden Hills, and I like living there. When I was growing up, Garden Hills was the place to be. It’s been hard to watch that neighborhood change. It’s turned into a lot of abandoned houses, and there are no sidewalks. It can feel like you are living in a bad neighborhood. But I think the City of Champaign is committed to changing that area. And not just how it looks, but also helping the residents.

Question 9. 

SP: Tell me more about how the City of Champaign is improving your district.

Fourman: A big aspect is the Bristol Place redevelopment. That’s on the edge of our district, but it will have a huge impact on the makeup of District 1. They are focusing on energy efficiency and the way that area looks. That’s going going to change how you feel when you’re going in to that area. The City has a goal of connecting the North End with Downtown Champaign. Right now, those parts of the city feel very separated.

In Garden Hills, the city is working on a huge beautification program. One aspect of it has the same goal as the Boneyard Creek project: to help with the flooding in our neighborhood. Right now, the streets will flood with even a small rain, and there are lots of places where you can play in the street like it’s a pool after a storm. 

And the Summer Youth Employment Program has been expanded to include older kids. I think that’s going to be a big change between this summer and a couple summers ago. Programs like that are important for teenagers and also for parents who struggling to find something to do with their kids.

Question 10.

SP: What issues are most important to your district?

Fourman: I would say overall the biggest thing we are dealing with is the police. Even prior to the situation with Officer Rush, and prior to the recent increase in shootings, dealing with the police was difficult. Community members have been working on that relationship for a long time.

Another thing is that if you drive around District 1, you’ll see it’s not like the other neighborhoods in Champaign. We have multiple liquor stores, payday loan stores, and videogaming stores. You won’t find that in southwest Champaign. Those kinds of businesses concern the people who live there. And then there’s the fact that you can’t get fresh groceries in District 1. The City of Champaign doesn’t control what kinds of businesses people open, but it does concern council from a city planning perspective.

Question 11.

SP: What do you think about how Downtown Champaign is changing?

Fourman: Right now, downtown is not very diverse. I don’t see many African American people my age out downtown. Young families don’t spend much time downtown. And I don’t know a lot of places where young African American people go downtown. A lot of students don’t venture downtown because they don’t think Downtown Champaign is for them. When they graduate, they often move to Chicago. So there is something about the vibe we’re giving off. We need to make downtown more inclusive. Part of it has to do with the fact that it’s very expensive now. I think the people who work in the bars downtown couldn’t hang out there if they weren’t working. There has got to be something we can do to make downtown feel less Manhattan and more small town. I do wonder if the way we have changed it has made downtown less diverse.

And when people who are African American go downtown, people sometimes feel like they’re “causing a problem.” For example, there have been issues with people hanging out in parking lots. When I was growing up, that was the thing to do. We couldn’t afford to pay cover to go into the bars, so we would hang out in parking lots. People say things like, “they’re causing problems in the parking lots.” I wish people would see that there’s a reason why people hang out there. Lots of people can’t pay $10 just to get into a venue.

Question 12.

SP: How do you think the debates over the state budget will affect Champaign-Urbana?

Fourman: The main thing about the state budget that concerns me is that the first things to go are always the things that affect the people with the lowest incomes. Things like daycare, which has already had cuts. Those cuts affected my family. Daycare is expensive. It is an expensive part of raising a family. When you cut funding for daycare, a single mother with one child has to make an incredibly low wage to qualify. But if you don’t have daycare, you can’t work, and you’re back on welfare. A lot of politicians don’t realize that if you’re working at McDonald’s, you can’t afford both daycare and rent. At least not here in Champaign County. I understand the state budget has to be balanced. But if you don’t think it’s going to be balanced on the backs of the poor, you haven’t been paying attention.

Most politicians are not going to raise taxes on people who make more than $100,000. Today, you’re punished if you don’t make a lot of money. It seems like most politicians don’t want people to have access to birth control or good education. But without those things, how do we get people to be self-sufficient?

Question 13.

SP: How do you think Champaign County stacks up against the rest of the state in terms of resources for low-income people?

Fourman: Across the state of Illinois, if you weren’t born into a rich family, it’s almost impossible to get on your feet. But here, in Champaign County, we’re relatively resource rich. If I hadn’t grown up in Champaign County, I wouldn’t have the same life that I have now. I might have been someone who is caught in that cycle of poverty. Here, I could do things like take the bus to school. 

But with what’s happening with the state budget, those opportunities may change. The budget isn’t going to affect people who make $400,000 at the U of I. It’s going to hurt people who make less than $20,000 working food service in Champaign. I grew up in foster care. I had no support system. So when I think about how the budget will affect C-U, I think about those people who have no support system. 

Most politicians know nothing about struggle. They don’t understand being in a position where you have to choose between paying your power bill or feeding your kids. Or having to quit a job because you can’t afford to put your kids in daycare. I’ve heard people say things like, “You just need to get a better job,” or  “You just need to move.” I think, “Really? I wish I would have known it was that simple.” 

Question 14.

SP: How would you describe your political philosophy?

Fourman: I am not a politician. And I don’t want to be a politician. I didn’t get involved in council be one. That means that no one is in my ear, and my life doesn’t change because of how I vote. I like it just like that. I don’t ever want that to change. And me not being involved in politics is great for everyone. I want to do what’s best for the people who need it. I want to be the voice for the people who need it. 

Question 15.

SP: What are your favorite spaces in Champaign?

Fourman: I have children, so I love spaces that are free or inexpensive and good for kids. We love the Champaign Public Library. My kids love to read, so hat’s a big treat for us. We love the parks. We like to drive around and discover parks. We’re really, really into ice-skating. And we’ve started to enjoy Orpheum Children’s Museum. I hadn’t been there until recently. We’ve gone there a couple times, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much they have. I’d like to see more families, especially more African American families, at the Orpheum.

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