Lisle, Illinois ~ Toni Preckwinkle had a message to deliver to students and audience members gathered in Benedictine University’s Goodwin Hall Auditorium Tuesday.
If you want government to solve some of society’s biggest issues, you need to step into the ring.
“Solutions to our nation’s most challenging social problems are not going to come from Washington or Springfield alone,” said the Cook County board president. “Every level of government, every sector, every community has to be engaged. That means you can and you must define what public service means to you.
“For as much as government can and must do, it depends on the determination and persistence of individual citizens,” she added. “Casting your vote is your first obligation as a citizen. That’s necessary, but not sufficient. If you want to have good leaders, you’ve got to work to make it happen.”
A dedicated community leader for more than two decades, Preckwinkle has worked to implement major reforms reshaping county government through fiscal responsibility, innovative leadership, improved services, transparency and accountability. She was invited to speak at Benedictine by the University’s nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Civic Leadership (CCL), which seeks to bring dynamic speakers to campus so that students and the larger community can fully engross themselves in multiple issues and topics of public concern.
“I was glad to learn about the CCL because it provides you with an opportunity that not many people receive to study and engage at the highest levels at an institution that ascribes not only to impart wisdom, but to also engage students in critical-thinking and provide an environment that encourages questioning, dialogue and even disagreement,” Preckwinkle said. “With that opportunity comes challenges. Tackling big challenges – such as rebuilding our economy, strengthening our schools, improving our health care system, lowering crime in the community – all of that requires sustained effort, and we need our young people to take the training and the education that you have to try and help us work on those problems.”
Preckwinkle was drawn to politics at age 16 after a high school teacher invited her to work on the campaign for Katie McWatt, the first African-American woman to run for city council in St. Paul, Minn. McWatt didn’t win, but the experience furthered an emerging interest in politics.
Preckwinkle earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago and spent a decade in Chicago teaching high school history. She then served 19 years as alderman of the 4th Ward, where she worked to improve local public schools and increased the amount of affordable housing by sponsoring two living wage and affordable housing ordinances.
“I usually say I’m a teacher with a temp job,” Preckwinkle said. “I loved being a teacher, and the experience in my view provides you with wonderful training to be a public servant.”
Preckwinkle touched on two of the largest issues she’s faced in her presidency – improving health care services and reducing the population of pre-trial detentions in the Cook County Jail.
Unlike private care providers, Cook County’s vast network of hospitals and clinics serves the needs of all regardless of immigration status or ability to pay – a policy which had continually stressed the system by more than $500 million annually in uncompensated care. Today, thanks to an expanded Medicaid program, the system is solvent after years of operating in the red, Preckwinkle said.
“Let me just say President Obama’s Affordable Care Act has gotten a lot of bad press,” she said. “It has a lot of moving parts. But one wonderful part of it is the support it’s given to public health systems. It’s enabled us to build a health care system that not only provides better care for our patients, but also substantially impacts the bottom line of our health care system.”
And as early as 2013, the county’s jail had been at or near capacity many days with more than 10,000 inmates – 93 percent of whom were waiting to appear before a judge following an arrest, Preckwinkle said. Today, that number has been reduced to 7,500, mostly due to increased collaboration with officials overseeing the court system and increased use of electronic monitoring and the I-Bond for nonviolent offenders, which assesses a financial penalty to defendants if they fail to show up for court.
“We know many of the people going into our jail even today would be better off if we could somehow treat them with mental health services, substance abuse services and job training outside of the criminal justice system,” Preckwinkle added. “That’s one of the things we are working on.”
Paulina Piasecki, a junior Writing and Publishing major from Lake Villa, was inspired by Preckwinkle’s words encouraging more young people to get caught up in the issues that matter to them.
“It was important that she reached out to students in the audience and told them to get involved,” Piasecki said. “I think her words really spoke to millennials who are becoming very active in this upcoming election. I hope all the students realized that what she was saying was for them to go out and make a difference.”
Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 10,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 19 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among “America’s Top Colleges” for the fifth consecutive year in 2015. Benedictine University’s Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain’s Chicago Business as the fifth largest in the Chicago area in 2015.