Growing up in South Shore, Ameena Matthews says, she learned the value of a close-knit community early on. Matthews was raised near 79th Street and Constance Avenue by her grandmother, Madea, who seemed to know the whole neighborhood.
“Each community, regardless if it was Pill Hill, or Woodlawn, or Greater Grand Crossing — 20 by 20, we had our own heartbeat,” said Matthews. “My grandmother knew your grandmother that knew his grandmother that knew his mom that knew… And if it was something that I was doing, it was not a phone call. It was like, ‘Sound the horn, get your behind home.’”
One night, Madea did get a call, at 2:30 in the morning: a woman who lived nearby was threatening to shoot her neighbor. Matthews followed her grandmother to the house a few blocks away.
“And I just watched her so softly call the person’s name and (say) ‘Give me the gun and let him off the hood of the car — damn it, now,’” remembers Matthews. “That was the loudest I’ve ever heard her, when she said, ‘Damn it, now!’”
Years later, Matthews took up peacemaking as a vocation of her own. She got a job with Ceasefire, an organization that sends people out to neighborhoods as anti-violence activists, and rose to prominence after her starring role in “The Interrupters,” a 2011 documentary that chronicled the group’s efforts.
Now, Matthews is running for Congress in the First District against Rep. Bobby Rush. She says that, during his 27 years in office, Rush has largely failed to provide for his constituents on the South Side.
“There was a gentleman named Bobby Rush that (my grandmother) believed in — everyone believed in …. And he left us for dead,” said Matthews. “He has not done anything that would federally support the First District.”
She also accused him of “misappropriating” federal funds, in reference to his failure to pay two decades’ worth of rent on a South Shore office space, as well as a $1.1 million bank loan he took out to buy a church in Englewood that has since closed. In 2018, a judge ordered that Rush’s congressional wages be garnished to pay back the loan. Matthews also criticized Rush for endorsing Bill Daley in last year’s mayoral election.
“He endorsed Bill Daley. What kind of message is that sending to people — to unite or divide?”, said Matthews. “Our community, they were confused. They felt at a disadvantage, and they felt like they were not represented.”
Matthews has not raised any money for her campaign, according to federal election data. (The independent watchdog website OpenSecrets.org lists her as having received $971 in contributions, all of them from outside the district.)
If she were elected to office, Matthews would focus on incarceration reform, particularly for young people — those who have just been released from prison, as well as those in danger of ending up there because they lack social services, well-funded schools and community support.
“As the congresswoman, it is my responsibility to vouch for a young man (who) has come out of the federal penitentiary for a job, to make sure that you’re becoming a productive member of society,” she said. “You must get an education to move forward. That is the only way we can not slide through the cracks of mass incarceration.”
She also supports canceling student loan debt. “I believe that will free up a lot of young people that...have student loans and want to continue to move forward,” she said. “And they want to continue to move forward and not in a stress or strain to decide, ‘Am I gonna pay for rent, or am I gonna pay for…?’”
But Matthews is also concerned with older people in the district, starting with her own family. When she was young, Madea owned a lingerie store and worked two jobs, one as a union steward at a Zenith electronics factory. She’s 86 years old now and retired, but Matthews says she’s thinking of getting a job to pay for healthcare and groceries.
“She takes her COPD medicine that she has to pay a copay for, or goes to (see) the doctor that she has to pay a copay for. Or does she want to go get some eggs or bread or anything?”, says Matthews. “And that’s just in my family. I know that there’s hundreds of thousands of families that live and have lived this way for the last 27 years, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair.”