She Runs Illinois 2020! — Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, candidate for IL House Rep, District 17
She Votes Illinois is pleased to feature Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, incumbent, running for IL House of Representatives, District 17. Follow our series, She Runs Illinois 2020!, leading up to election day as we showcase and uplift the voices of Illinois women running for public office in the upcoming election.
Tell us about yourself
I am the granddaughter of Chinese immigrants who fought deportation under the Chinese Exclusion Acts and only the second Asian American ever elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. My sense of justice was instilled from an early age by my parents. My dad, a veteran, participated in the vanguard of the civil rights movement. My mother was a leader in the women’s movement, bringing me with her to march for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.
After law school, I worked as a lawyer at Winston and Strawn where I took on transnational human traffickers that exploited women and children. I fought and won in federal court to protect victims of child trafficking and forced marriage and became the first American lawyer to earn a Masters Degree in International Human Rights Law from Northwestern University, publishing on gendered war crimes in the Northwestern Journal of Human Rights. I partnered with the National Immigrant Justice Center to aggressively defend the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children.
As a founding member and co-chair of the Illinois Unaccompanied Children’s Task Force, I pioneered the use of pro bono social workers to serve as guardians ad litem to ensure that no child is left to navigate the complex immigration system alone.
I later joined the North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic and built the immigration law practice serving as its first Director to continue my work providing access to justice to our community’s most vulnerable residents. There I developed the Clinic’s capacity to represent Dreamers, domestic violence survivors, and low-income residents of the community with family-based petitions and cases involving victims of severe crime.
Born and raised in Oak Park, and a public-school graduate, I earned my Bachelor’s degree from Indiana University, my law degree from Loyola University Chicago School of Law, and my Masters in Law from Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. I have lived in Glenview since 2002 with my husband Michael, and our three sons.
Tell us about the women in your life
The most influential woman in my life has always been my mother. She led by example and taught me to value the power of my own voice. She was a grassroots organizer, and I have vivid memories of listening intently to League of Women Voters meetings in our living room. I joined her in the march for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70’s as a small child, and an archival newspaper photo of my mother and I from one of those marches hangs on my office wall in Springfield.
These early experiences taught me the value of activism and gave me the ability to view myself in the larger context of the world defined by gender roles that have worked to undermine women’s agency over our bodies and our lives. My mother gave me a sense of myself unlimited by the boundaries set by her generation and nurtured my ability to speak out against injustice.
What led you into politics? Why are you running for THIS office?
I ran for office in the wake of the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump as part of a wave of women motivated to run for office for the first time to ensure that our voices are heard. As the only immigration lawyer in the General Assembly, I introduced and passed three bills in my first term to provide humanitarian protections for immigrant children and access to justice for all immigrants residing in Illinois. At the state-level, we passed a $15/hour minimum wage, protected women’s reproductive rights, passed the equal pay — no salary history bill, capped the price of insulin and created thousands of green energy jobs. We have more work to do to ensure that no child’s education is determined by their zip code and address the systemic inequalities deepened by the Pandemic.
What do you feel should be the balance between taking the advice of health experts to continue social distancing and reopening the economy in order to ensure that people are able to make a living?
Every day, I hear from small business owners worried about losing their business, employees worried about losing their job and healthcare, and parents worried about their kids falling behind on education and development. We cannot ignore these very real crises as we seek to contain and manage this pandemic.
I believe we must listen to public health science and the experts who practice it. Reopening too quickly or in the wrong way could set our recovery back months — or longer. We must look at ways other places have reopened successfully, learn from those efforts, and implement similar measures where appropriate.
Recognizing that systemic racism is built into policies and laws, what changes to policies and laws are you prioritizing for change/implementation in order to address systemic racism and why?
Clearly there is a lot of work and more learning to be done to put an end to tragedies like the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I stand with my colleagues in the Black Caucus to address systemic racism and anti-blackness in Illinois. This includes demanding greater police accountability and transparency.
The Black Caucus in the Illinois House and Senate are working on a package of legislation to address systemic racism, and I stand ready to be an ally. In terms of legislation that has been filed in the past, I support HB 4999, which would make any police officer convicted of a felony ineligible to receive future pension benefits. I also support HB 3926, which would require a special prosecutor whenever there is a death involving law enforcement. In addition, the Attorney General must have the authority to investigate police misconduct.
What are the most overlooked issues from a policy perspective impacting women in your district?
Access to quality, affordable childcare is an issue that impacts women from all walks of life and presents barriers to participating in the workforce. We need to approach this as a systemic equity issue. The COVID pandemic has highlighted the inadequacies in our childcare system. I serve on the House Democratic Women’s Caucus working group on childcare to craft legislation geared towards providing increased access to paid family/medical leave and increased access to unpaid leave. I strongly support the Childcare Restoration Grant program which has made Illinois a leader in supporting the childcare system during the pandemic, but we must do more to increase pay for early childhood educators and improve access and affordability for working parents.
What do you wish you had known before you decided to run for office?
When I first went to Springfield, I had no idea what an amazing class of freshman women I would join. Elected for the first time in 2018, our freshman cohort has been vocal about issues like ethics reform, reproductive rights, and public education. It’s easy to look at the historic crises we face and despair, but I am uplifted and energized every day by the hope, optimism, and tenacity of these amazing women.
We are facing the most consequential election of our lifetime. The pandemic has cost lives and livelihoods, and we have no time to waste. I am optimistic that we can get our state back on track, kids back in school, businesses up and running but to do this, we’ve got to work together.
If you would like to learn more about Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz and her platform or volunteer for her campaign, please check out her website at jenggforrep.com. Don’t forget to follow her on social media @jenggforrep. Reach out today and help make a difference in the upcoming 2020 election.
(The information contained in this post is provided only as general information and does not imply an endorsement by She Votes Illinois.)