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Members of Congress hold annual LGBTQ gathering online
by Matt Simonette

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Members of Illinois' congressional delegation hosted a virtual edition of their annual LGBTQ breakfast the morning of Aug. 25.

Both political officials and community advocates participated in the event, which addressed, among other topics, the congressional response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the current census and the intricacies of voting in the upcoming election.

U.S. Reps. Robin Kelly ( D-2 ), Mike Quigley ( D-5 ), Raja Krishnamoorthi ( D-8 ) and Jan Schakowsky ( D-9 ) all took part. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin ( D-IL ) participated as well.

"We are in an unprecedented health and economic crisis, and trying to deal with systemic discrimination and racism that roils our society at the same time," said Krisnamoorthi, who then discussed the Heroes Act legislative package introduced in Congress.

The aid included in that bill, Krishnamoorthi added, is not a partisan issue: "I get questions every day from Democrats, Republicans and independents who happen to be leading their towns and villages, asking how they can get help to avoid layoffs and cuts in services. … They are seeing their revenue drop in the pandemic."

Aisha Davis, director of policy for AIDS Foundation of Chicago, detailed the federal government's response to the pandemic, additionally noting that the state is facing a deficit of about $6 billion. Davis said that AFC has been advocating a legislative agenda that would perpetuate broader systemic change in overlapping realms such as racial equity and healthcare access.

"We are hoping that the next package that comes from Congress includes some funding that enables states to bridge the gaps that these deficits are creating due to the pandemics," she added, noting that funding was especially important for programming assisting BIPOC communities as well as Ryan White Act-funded programs. "Right now, our conversations are not just going to focus on our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, but what the communities are going to look like after the pandemic has ended."

Schakowsky signaled her frustrations as Congress negotiated the various packages, noting that Republicans at one point scrubbed spending on nutrition programs but increased exemptions for corporate lunches.

"If there's anything that signals our differing values, that has got to be it," she said.

Illinois census director Oswaldo Alvarez spoke about the importance of the LGBTQ community participating in the census and detailed how the state for the first time created an office managing state residents' participation, which he said Gov. JB Pritzker instigated in response to hostility to the census in the federal government's executive branch.

"The census is one of the very few tools that we all have to twist government's arm to represent us and invest in us," Alvarez said. "Each one of us, each person, approximately represents about $1,500 per person per year, so about $15,000 over the course of a decade."

Census data also determines redistricting maps, he added. "If we don't have an accurate count, we don't have accurate representation."

"Illinois faces a very real threat of losing representation in Congress at a time when we really need it most," Quigley said.

Illinois has about an 82% response rate so far, and Chicago has the highest response rate from cities with more than 2 million people, Alvarez said. Nevertheless, reaching participants in marginalized neighborhoods remains difficult, so census officials have been working in tandem with local non-profit organizations.

"Those nonprofits are the ones who are knocking on doors and trying to deliver the message to people," Alvarez added. The federal government recently moved the final deadline for census participation up to Sept. 30.

Kelly echoed the importance of a vigorous census response in Illinois: "I've done 12 or 13 census events. I just did a census caravan on the South Side of Chicago, where, in the Seventh Ward, it's low. We're trying to bring that up."

Quinn Kareem Rallins—director of the state's Justice, Equity, and Opportunity Initiative—described his program as the state's "first real effort to centralize criminal justice reform towards restorative justice, shifting [away from] punitive policies that the state has traditionally embraced." The initiative is primarily under the purview of Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton.

"We need to equip communities to solve their own problems, and shift from the traditional criminal justice system," Rallins added, further explaining that officials extensively engaged with incarcerated youth to identify gaps that both impede smooth re-entry and perpetuate recidivism. Among those gaps were detention facilities far from their communities and insufficient mental-health resources in their home communities.

Rallins added that the Pritzker administration will be addressing bail reform and sentencing strategies in the months ahead.

Schakowsky said that the House, for its part, will "move ahead with criminal justice reform. We are going to move ahead with the Justice in Policing Act as hard as we can. But we know that real changes are not going to come until after the next election."

Quigley spoke about the pervasive negativity permeating cultural discourses and anxieties affecting so many Americans. He said that, as the current presidential term progresses, the most common question he has been asked is what anyone can do to help during such chaotic times. His answer, he said, "is that you take care of each other. … In the final analysis, we can't meet the hatred that we're living with with equal hatred."

Durbin said that he had watched the Republican National Convention and noted participants' ominous warnings about Marxism and various other right-wing dog-whistle issues. "I don't think Americans need to be afraid of those," Durbin said. "I think Americans are very concerned that we lack the leadership in the public health crisis we are currently facing."

Pride Action Tank Executive Director Kim Hunt, HRC Chicago's Justin Koziatek and Equality Illinois Policy Director Mike Ziri moderated the Aug. 25 event. AIDS Foundation of Chicago Government Policy Director Timothy Jackson also discussed the logistics of voting by mail as well as issues at stake in the upcoming election.

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