After years of lobbying for the arts and for political reform, Evanston native Ra Joy would like to take his passion for social justice and his belief in the power of the arts to transform thinking to a permanent – or at least four-year – home in Springfield. He is one of the candidates for Lieutenant Governor in the March primary on the Democratic ticket. Christopher Kennedy is his gubernatorial running mate.
On Nov. 10, the RoundTable spoke with Mr. Joy about his ties to Evanston, his overlapping careers in the arts and politics, and what he and Mr. Kennedy would like to accomplish if they were elected.
“Bleeding Orange and Blue”
A fourth-generation Evanstonian, Mr. Joy walked past his grandfather’s candy store on his way to King Lab School when it was housed in the former Foster School building.
Now transplanted to Chicago, Mr. Joy said, “I love Evanston. I can appreciate how valuable it was to grow up in a community as diverse and opened-minded as Evanston … to walk the school hallways with people of every color, creed, and from all walks of life…. … The thing I also appreciated was seeing strong black public figures – Chief of Police William Logan, Fire Chief Sanders Hicks, and Mayor Lorraine Morton. … I tell people my heart still bleeds orange and blue.”
“Kung Fu” Social Justice
While a student at Southern Illinois University, Mr. Joy received a challenge from his older brother to “do something.” The catalyst was an incident at Evanston Township High School. A gun brought to the school in a backpack discharged in the cafeteria, though without harming anyone.
Mr. Joy decided to forego his football eligibility that year and joined AmeriCorps instead, and spent 900 hours as a tutor and mentor in an elementary school in Carbondale. He returned to Evanston with a desire to work with youth and a passion for social justice. At the McGaw YMCA, he led Project SOAR and worked on youth programs including after-school tutoring, sports initiatives, entrepreneurship training, and youth in government. “That experience had a powerful effect on me and was the start of my professional career,” Mr. Joy said.
His first foray into politics was working for Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, serving as Suburban Director/Grants Coordinator from 2001 to 2007.
“Working for Jan was like wanting to learn Kung Fu and being given a chance to study with Bruce Lee. This also had a profound effect on me. A lot of the work around public policy and civic engagement is really about power. And the quintessential question of power is ‘Who decides?’” Mr. Joy said,
A visual artist, Mr. Joy started an initiative called “Who Stole the Soul?” a platform to feature the work of artists of color and to raise funds for cultural projects. “That contributed to my wanting to step into the executive directorship of Arts Alliance Illinois,” he said. There he helped strengthen the role of culture and the arts in people’s lives, schools, and communities. Arts Alliance Illinois also paved the way for the new arts learning standards at the Illinois State Board of Education, he said.
Looking to CHANGE Illinois
Getting further into the political but not necessarily partisan sphere, Mr. Joy then went to CHANGE Illinois, the Coalition for Honest and New Government Ethics. CHANGE Illinois is a non-partisan coalition of civic, business, non-profit, and philanthropic organizations organized to address the culture of corruption in Illinois politics.
“CHANGE brought me into a role that was more political in nature. It opened my eyes into how power works in Illinois and the political theater that’s unfolding here. … I came to realize that everything we care about is being held up by the dysfunction and corruption in our State government,” Mr. Joy said.
Violence: a Horrific Bond
Mr. Joy said he and Mr. Kennedy had met over the years through their interests in the arts and culture and the belief in their power to strengthen democracy. The two also share a horrific bond: death of a close family member by gun violence. Mr. Kennedy’s father, Robert Kennedy, was killed in 1968 during his campaign for president. Mr. Joy’s oldest son, Xavier, was killed this past summer as he was walking home near Hyde Park.
“This has been an incredibly painful summer for our family. … June 8, 2017 was the worst day of my life,” Mr. Joy said. “The ugly truth is that every other hour in [Chicago] someone is shot. As a result, you have other parents like us who are forced to bury their children.
“There’s a physical pain that comes with that loss. There’s a hole in my heart, and it’s never going to be fixed. I’ve talked to a lot of parents who have dealt with the pain of a sudden loss of a loved one. I realized that pain doesn’t go away.”
Another type of violence Mr. Joy sees is the corrosive influence of money in politics. Big money discourages people from running for office, he says, and should be acknowledged as a violent act.
“Fifty years ago, Chris Kennedy’s father launched a presidential campaign based on the principles of peace, justice, and compassion for those who suffer. Now, a half century later, Chris and I are running a statewide campaign based on these same ideals,” he said. To those issues they would add education-funding reform, campaign finance reform, and “our broken property-tax system.”
Mr. Joy says he sees the gubernatorial election as more than simply replacing the present Governor. “It presents a chance to rethink and reimagine state government, to fundamentally change the political culture and make Illinois work for everyone. … It’s also a platform for me to turn poison into medicine and pain into purpose.”