Municipal elections are happening April 2nd, and there are a variety of local positions up for grabs. We came up with some questions for candidates in several of these races, and will be publishing their answers over the course of the next couple of weeks as they respond. Smile Politely doesn’t generally endorse local candidates, and these interviews are not endorsements. Hopefully, they will provide you readers with some insight into the importance of local races, and help you develop a sense of which candidates share your values. We’ve reached out to those running for Champaign and Urbana school boards and park districts, Champaign City Council, Mayor of Champaign, and Parkland Board of Trustees.

Champaign residents will be electing three city council members for at-large seats. That means you do not have to vote for someone representing your particular district, rather you will have all names to choose from on your ballot. There are eight candidates vying for these three spots, including three incumbents.

Dr. Jon Paul Youakim is a pediatrician, and he's challenging for a seat on the Champaign City Council.

Smile Politely: Why are you seeking a seat on the city council? What are you hoping to improve and/or accomplish?

Jon Paul Youakim: I’m running because I want to bring a community health perspective to the city council. I want to ensure that decisions we make will be cost-effective and place Champaign on a better path so that years from now we aren’t looking back and wondering why we didn’t invest in our community. Throughout my life I’ve always tried to find ways to make the biggest difference with the time that I have been given. As I pursued my dream of becoming a pediatrician, I learned from my mentors that you are supposed to be an advocate for families and children. This is something that I've proudly taken to heart. Running for city council is an extension of that endeavor by implementing an ambitious long-term strategy to break the cycle of poverty, giving a platform for the vulnerable and voiceless in our city, empowering community members with opportunities to lift themselves up and making our community more productive and resilient.

SP: The Community Coalition has been a good first step in beginning to discuss community violence. Now, beyond conversations and collecting data, what specific actions can be taken to address the issue of gun violence in the community?

Youakim: Gun violence is a symptom and result of poor public policies and legislation: a result of decades of mass incarceration, decades of systemic racism and classism and a lack of addressing economic and educational adversities. The overarching issue that needs to be addressed in this city is truly the cycle of poverty that is inextricably linked to gun violence. The Champaign Community Coalition is a noble endeavor that is attempting to decrease gun violence in our community. The issue however is that the program is not enough, it is only a piece of the puzzle. Those that have participated in the program have stressed that as a city we need to find ways to offer educational opportunities, jobs that offer living wages and address affordable housing for those that have been incarcerated. The goals to decrease gun violence echoes the objectives to decrease recidivism rates in the community. We as a city aren’t addressing enough of the root causes of gun violence. We need to have a comprehensive 10-20 year plan that provides a platform for community members to lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty, overcome educational and economic adversity and that prevents so many from falling into that cycle in the first place.

A landmark study by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente in the 1990s observed the correlation between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and well-being later in life. These ACEs can include all types of abuse and neglect as well as household stressors (such as domestic abuse, mental illness, parental separation, substance abuse and the incarceration of a family member). The researchers questioned individuals on whether they had been exposed to these ACEs and found that adverse childhood experiences led to a whole host of problems later in life. The more prevalent and elongated these stressors were, the greater the risk of "negative health and well-being across the life course". An individual with four of these ACEs vs. an individual with zero has twice the risk of having heart disease, 4x the risk for lung disease, depression & drug abuse, 7x the risk for alcoholism and 12x the risk for suicide. What’s even more disturbing is that someone with six or more of these ACEs has their life expectancy drop from 80 years to 60 years. The reason this is the case is because toxic stress disrupts normal brain development leading to social, emotional and cognitive impairment leading to the adoption of high risk behaviors. This leads to an increase in social problems, disease, disability and ultimately early death. These long lasting effects can be seen in Champaign and throughout communities nationwide.

Taking a closer look at the 1990s Kaiser Permanente ACEs study we see that the effects of these adverse childhood experiences gives rise to an increase in gun violence. Toxic stress on the brain stunts the development in parts of the brain responsible for empathy, planning for the future, reasoning and regulating impulsivity. This stress over stimulates the part that is responsible for fight or flight, the amygdala. This increase in impulsivity is important because when the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab studied the homicides in Chicago they found an alarming pattern. They found that the overall equation of gun violence was young individuals getting into a disagreement, there’s an impulsive action with a gun around leading to a dead body. It’s this impulsivity that we find significant because it is controlled by the part of the brain that is disrupted and stunted by toxic stress.

There are many in the community that are currently working towards addressing these ACEs. One example is Healthy Beginnings which includes a mobile clinic, weekly nurse visits to pregnant women to provide care & support as well as child & family education. Healthy Beginnings is also working on providing classes for parents of 0-3 year-olds to prepare children for school and promote the overall well-being of the family. We need a long-term plan that is coordinated with the County Board, County Jail, surrounding municipalities and local businesses to address the re-integration of those being released from prison so that they can be productive and successful members of society. The Community Coalition is a part of that equation as well. The city must help fill in the gaps of a larger community health initiative in addressing the cycle of poverty and ultimately gun violence by directly addressing affordable housing, encouraging job training and education for those of a lower socioeconomic status and those recently released from prison. We must coordinate with designated community members and hospitals to stop escalation in gang violence and quell tensions when gun violence occurs. It’s a large project that will take years, but we need this long-term vision if we are going to make meaningful positive changes to our community.

SP: What sort of developments should be prioritized for Downtown Champaign?

Youakim: I would want to make affordable downtown housing a priority along with promoting the development of more family-friendly businesses. Downtown Champaign has a vibrant nightlife, but during the day it is more of a place to work than for families to enjoy. There is a great book store and some shops, but it could benefit from a few more activities geared towards families.

SP: An area of Champaign that is sorely lacking in a healthy economic and recreational infrastructure is North Champaign. What ideas do you have for stimulating that region?

Youakim: In terms of recreation, North Champaign would greatly benefit from a community center, unfortunately it doesn’t appear attainable in the near future. For now, I would want to take the Small Business Incentive Program and ensure that a significant percentage is designated to developing and stimulating economic development in North Champaign.

SP: The City of Champaign currently does not have any funding mechanisms for the arts in the community. What responsibility does the city have to the arts community? Do you see it as an essential service in the same way as new construction and infrastructure improvements? Why or why not?

Youakim: The city’s responsibility should be to assist in the collaboration of art projects in the community. There are many areas where we can boast our local talent in the city. I feel that many in the community have realized that in order to coordinate local artists and organizations with each other we needed a group that would facilitate that endeavor. Art is essential to life as it allows us to dream, but sometimes it is difficult to justify in a budget over infrastructure improvements. Luckily, through the hard work of many in the community, we have received funding from the Illinois Arts Council and are fortunate enough to have 40 North. I believe that over time with the help of the city and others in the community it can continue to build on fostering artistic expression in our community.