I can hear it in her voice. Clarissa Fourman doesn’t want to have to keep having these conversations. She is tired of speaking out in the ways she does, having to challenge her own counterparts on city council, but she knows she has no choice. This is her vocation now.
That conflict is what brought about her decision to run for a second elected term in District 1 for Champaign City Council. Previously, she announced via social media she was done, that she just couldn't do it any longer. In that video, she was fed up, and listed an exhaustive amount of reasons why, insinuating that she had learned too much about the dirty truths behind why true and meaningful change in Champaign wasn’t coming fast enough.
But almost just as soon as she said she was out, she was back in. Not but a fortnight later, she began her campaign.
Ms. Fourman is used to getting back in. She is the mother of six children and she’s not even pushing 40 years old. She’s a paralegal at a local law firm, but also an outspoken community activist and, to be sure, a rabble rouser on council and on social media if there ever was one here in Champaign. She presses people's buttons, and it's intentional.
Speaking with her, you can tell she really cares about people, but she doesn't care if people disagree with her, or what they have to say about her style. She is going to speak her mind, and at times, she’s going to get herself in hot water. But that is a price she is willing to pay if it means confronting issues that very few in any positions of power seem to want to deal with with any measured and tangible results.
But she listens, and she takes people at their word.
Here and now, in 2021, she’s up against her first electoral challenge. She got on council midterm by unamimous decision in 2015, and in 2017, she won re-election unopposed with a tally of 320 total votes. This time around, she is being challenged for the seat by two people: Azark Cobbs, a familiar name at the ballot box in Champaign, and Davion Williams, a young upstart candidate with an ambitious agenda, and a strong academic background.
But again, Fourman isn’t concerned. She’s seen too many things over the past six years on council to get scared of a challenge at the ballot box. Her thinking is that her community trusts her by now, even if the majority of the council members she shares space with doesn’t. And if she wins, this time, she’s going to grow more emphatic and beat a louder drum.
We spent some time speaking over the past week: about what is driving her right now, and why the immediate future in Champaign just has to be different than it has been. According to Fourman, the people she represents — who are arguably in the most need citywide — are being neglected. She knows how it feels firsthand, because she’s lived it, and is still living it, over and over again.
Smile Politely: For those who aren't familiar, give us your background: where’d you grow up, what led you to where you are, tell us about your family, your current job and past jobs, your formal education etc etc. Tell us who you are.
Clarissa Fourman: Born and raised in CU. I grew up in local foster homes. I had my first kid when I was 15. I went to Centennial but left early to get my GED. I have six kids now. Jakaiece –18; Karinadee –16; Sathais – 14; Cassiauna – 9; Marissa – 6; and Honey – 5. I've been with my partner for ten years. I graduated from Roosevelt University in 2012 with a bachelor's degree. I have an almost complete master's degree which I put on hold when I started council. I plan to finish one day. I am a paralegal by day, verbal assassin by night.
SP: How did you first come to want to be on city council? Was there anything or one issue that made it appealing?
Fourman: Actually then council member [Deb Feinen] turned mayor asked me if I was interested in serving for District 1 because the current representative [Will Kyles] had been elected to an at-large seat. In retrospect, when I first met the then city council in 2015, the Black council members told me they wouldn’t vote for me, but they apparently they changed their mind because I was unanimously appointed. It was a rough introduction to politics, especially by the people who looked like me.
SP: You are an outspoken and fearless critic of both the city and the council upon which you serve. What needs to change inside the community? What needs to change inside the council?
Fourman: The community needs to be heard. By that, I mean the community needs to be more aware when things are going on. By the time we hear from the community it is after decisions are made. For example, we spent months working on police listening sessions, and of the roughly 90K citizens the city manager estimates we have, we heard from a total of just about 50. That is not real community feedback. We need to hear the community.
The city council needs to change. And by that I mean those who believe in upholding Jim Crow laws and policies need to be off the council. We are held back by those that see Black and Brown people as less than, and it continues to reflect in our policies. What concerns me the most isn’t the passive aggressive racial undertones but the complicit city council members who stay silent as their colleagues spew out racial hatred; they just sit there as if it’s not a reflection of them. The city council that is seated now is the problem in Champaign. And we all know it.
Photo by Haas Family.
SP: Can you be more specific on which council members? And when you speak about policy and implementation, what are you specifically looking for during the next four years?
Fourman: Other than council member [Alicia] Beck [in District 2], every member of the city council seems to be completely okay with the racial rhetoric that has been spewed during city council meetings. I’m less bothered by the people actually doing it, but rather, those who don’t speak up to stop it. That scares me more. It is every other seated council member. Seeing change on the city council is going to be vital to the city moving forward. I don’t think it is possible with this group of people.
I think we need to take a serious look at the food desert in the north end. There needs to be a grocery store on the north end of town immediately. The city has property and the ability to give incentives. No one should need to cross a highway to get to an affordable grocery store.
SP: So, what else is missing from the City of Champaign right now? And what can council do to change it?
Fourman: Progressive leadership is missing. Our staff is progressive but the city council is not. I don’t mean like "oh we need to change everything," but we need to stop relying on what worked in the 1990s. It’s 2021 and we still have policies from the eighties. The city needs to move forward with the times.
The city council, or at least five members, need to grow a backbone. Status quo is great and it really keeps the train moving. But it’s 2021 and we don’t have five councilmembers who believe Black Lives Matter. How can we really say we are a forward thinking city if we don’t put it in our policy? It is important to do what has worked, but will it really hurt anyone to try something different?
We need a neighborhood wellness program to get infrastructure in poorly performing neighborhoods. Garden Hills has been a big focus for the last six years and I know it will continue. But I believe attention needs to be given to the Garden Park area (including the area across Bloomington Road) and the Garwood [subdivision]. It is my hope the north Neil Street Corridor will become a priority.
SP: How do you see the future of Downtown Champaign shaping the culture of the city?
Fourman: If we don’t add entertainment or arts to downtown in a real way, I think our downtown will continue to suffer. We’ve seen what Friday Night Live has done, but the city needs to stick with the Neil Street Corridor plan, invest in the Plaza Park in Downtown Champaign, and watch our arts and entertainment culture thrive. But we have to be willing to make the investment.
SP: You’ve been outspoken in the past about the importance of our police force and their presence in your district in particular. What does the idea of Defund The Police mean to you?
Fourman: I believe defunding the police means to reallocate some of the funding from that to areas like neighborhood wellness or just basically "things to do." I realize that sounds simple. Of course it is. But by neighborhood wellness, I mean the infrastructure and quality of life that residents really contribute to the community. Oftentimes, whether or not we are subjected to violence rests on this very idea due to people living in neighborhoods with a low quality of life.
And by things to do, and I mean this in the nicest way, but there is no longer almost anything to do in Champaign. Literally, there's almost nothing left. There are zero entertainment venues, zero art venues, and zero open community centers. Why don’t we have these things? Why aren’t they a priority? Call me an idealist, fine, but I would love to see an Open Mic night for the kid who plays drums on the overpass to make money. Adults can find things to do, if you have money, you can create that space. But kids ages 15-24, especially kids from impoverished backgrounds, suffer greatly from us not having any type of culture or arts and entertainment scene left around here. This is not a simple situation, and there is no simple solution, but I believe if we used even a fraction of the money we spend on police enforcement in Black and high risk neighborhoods to create a “What’s Happening Champaign Commission” that was rooted in arts and cultural programming, we could see some amazing things. But that’s me dreaming. We need more than just me on board for this. It starts at the top and it needs broad support. That's why we need change, and fast.
Clarissa Fourman is running for re-election in District 1 on Champaign City Council. You can hear from her and challenger Davion Williams in their League of Women Voters candidate forum. The election is tomorrow, April 6th. Find information on voting at the Champaign County Clerk's website.