West Side Young Men Travel to the State Capitol to Advocate for a new Department for Early Childhood and the Austin People’s Action Center’s Freedom School

Senator Lightford stands next to Javon Hill holding up one finger representing SB000.  Photo provided by Jerry Thomas PR
Senator Lightford stands next to Javon Hill holding up one finger representing SB000. Photo provided by Jerry Thomas PR

West Side Young Men Travel to the State Capitol to Advocate for a new Department for Early Childhood and the Austin People’s Action Center’s Freedom School

Trip Part of the APAC’s Freedom School Advocacy Day in Springfield and a Special Meeting with Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, a major advocate for education in Illinois

 When Javon Hill, a lanky 22-year-old African American male from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood was called from the audience to speak before the Illinois Senate in Springfield last Wednesday afternoon, he drew stares.

Unlike the mostly white, middle-aged audience dressed in suits and other professional attire, Hill sported gym clothes, wearing a T-shirt of the rapper Trippie Redd in dreadlocks with his tongue sticking out. Hill also wears his hair in dreadlocks and his body is accented by tattoos.

But the look of shock quickly turned to amazement as Hill spoke eloquently about why the Senate should pass SB0001, which calls for the creation of the Department of Early Childhood, an agency that will become the sole provider for offering early childhood education, care programs and services to children and families.

Sitting next to Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, who sponsored the bill last month, Hill said the agency is needed because the state must do more to grab the attention of children who are getting educated by new technologies, celebrities and other influencers over the Internet.

“It will really improve the lives of the next generation of kids who are not really being paid attention to. It will really show our parents and let people know we have real pains going on, and we have real community issues that we can overcome, and now we can because of the support we get from Ms. Cynthia Williams (of the Austin Peoples Action Center) and Senator Lightford,” said Hill, who comments brought some members of the audience to tears.

Hill was a member of a delegation of young men who traveled to Springfield on behalf of the Austin Peoples Action Centers (APAC), the legendary social service agency located at 5125 W. North Ave. They departed from the city’s West Side, along with the organization’s founder and executive director, Cynthia Williams, and several members of her staff, to the state’s capitol as part of APAC’s Freedom School Advocacy Day. During the day-long visit, they attended the Executive Committee’s hearing to advocate for Senate Bill 0001 and to build awareness about APAC’s Freedom School, an afterschool program that provides education and other enrichment support programs for children. The delegation also met with Senator Lightford (D-4th), who lived in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood when she was a toddler, and the students were included in a documentary being produced on Lightford’s work to enhance educational opportunities for children in underserved communities.

Prior to the executive session, Lightford explained to the delegation the process of moving a community concern from an idea to a law, what happens in session, and the protocol for addressing the Senate.

“You have to be my children, but you have to be quiet to be my children, or security will put you out,” Lightford warned the young men. “It is not a space in a democracy that permits blurting out from the audience. You cannot speak if you are not recognized. If any of you want to testify on behalf of the community, let me know.”

Hill informed the senator that he wanted to testify. After the Senate voted, the delegation departed quietly.

“My sons, they made me proud. My soul is on fire,” said Williams, who said civic engagement is a major component of the Freedom School and other APAC programs that target youth and young adults. “This is why I continue to do this kind of work after 44 years. I just love my kids to life. They did an amazing job.”

As they walked away from the hearing and the distinguished crowds gathered in the halls of the Capitol, Williams said full of pride to the young men, whom she describes as her “street sons,” “This is how a bill gets passed.”

Her street sons said the next time they return to Springfield they want to be dressed in suits. Williams, crediting the state for providing APAC with funding that makes civic engagement trips possible, said she has appealed to business and other power brokers to help her purchase suits for the young men.

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