HOPKINS PARK — Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton joined a group of state and local elected officials and business owners in Pembroke Township on Monday to celebrate last week’s signing of landmark legislation that expands economic opportunity in Illinois.
Members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, several of which were in attendance at the press conference, hammered out the four pillars of the bill, which received the governor’s signature last week.
The legislation includes measures that aim to prevent employers from discriminating against people with criminal records, reduce interest on payday loans, and improve access to public housing. It also expands access to state contracts for minority-owned businesses, women and individuals with disabilities.
“It took an extraordinary effort by not only the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus but others in the state Legislature to move us ahead,” Pritzker said during Monday’s hour-long news conference at Lorenzo R. Smith School in Hopkins Park. “There is still much more work to be done.”
In addition to economic equity, the black caucus has also been addressing police and criminal justice reform, education reform, and health care and human services reform.
Putting focus on Pembroke
Broadcasting the press conference from Pembroke Township served to shine a light on how this legislation will help the 2,100 residents of one of the poorest townships in the state.
The area has been without a major employer since the Nestlé factory closed two decades ago. Proposed legislation now working its way through the state Legislature looks to bring natural gas to the township. The decades-long effort would be a game changer for the township, according to local, state and federal officials.
The former Nestlé facility, which spans 20,000+ square feet, is looked to as an anchor for developing the township economically.
“The Nestlé plant can be a good accelerator,” Fred Carter said.
Carter and his wife, Dr. Jifunza Wright-Carter, co-founded Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living in 2006. They were among the speakers at Monday’s press conference and discussed how their nonprofit works to equip youth and families with the skills of sustainability that will be lifeboats in times to come.
Several other speakers mentioned there was a time when farmers in the township produced food for the rest of the county.
Wright-Carter said the Black Oaks organization will work with black farmers who are behind on paying property tax. She said the organization also works with farmers by leasing their land to produce revenue that will help pay back taxes.
After six years in a lease, the farmer can keep the land.
“We want you to hold onto this rich farmland,” she said.
Wright-Carter said they could also work with older farmers who do not have family wanting to take over running the farm.
“We can lease it to young people and they can learn,” she said.
The township also is home to Ivy League Farms. Evera Ivy, whose parents have worked the family’s farmland, said she returned home to help steward the land going forward, including the continuation of vegetable growing and entry into industrial hemp production.
Since 1972, the farm has grown natural fruits and vegetables including greens, okra, squash, bell peppers, watermelons, eggplants, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, sunflowers, and various peas and beans.
“We’ve come a long way,” Ivy said. “We have boots on the ground and our hands in the soil.”
Stratton said Pembroke has a rich history, including agriculture.
“These are resilient people here,” she said.