As I settled into my dorm room as a freshman at the University of Chicago back in 1965, one question kept ringing in my ear: “where are you from?”
Being far from home for the first time, I was surprised when the answer didn’t come easily. To my fellow Midwesterners, I would say St. Paul. To those from farther flung places, I would claim Minnesota. To my international counterparts, sometimes I’d just point to a map.
Looking back, I have to admit, I found these seemingly mundane exchanges fascinating – a kind of personal sociological experiment about place-based identity. But as I look over my “data,” I can’t help but notice a glaring gap in my place-based vocabulary. For one reason or another, my home county – back then, Ramsey County, Minn. – never made it into the rotation.
I found this observation peculiar then, but now that I find myself the president of the second largest county in the United States, Cook County, which encapsulates the city of Chicago and its suburbs, I consider it an oversight worthy of correction. That feeling rings especially true this month. April is National County Government Month, and the biggest stories of the year – criminal justice reform, the presidential election and public health - have had the good work of counties across the country front and center.
These efforts, in this month especially, make me proud to call my county “home.”
On the criminal justice front, in the backdrop of the shootings in Minneapolis, this past summer’s unrest and now the court room reckonings, many counties have heeded the calls coming from our Black and Brown communities. More than 90 percent of counties are responsible for their local jails and the majority also run our criminal justice systems. That’s why it is up to us, at the county level, to begin undoing past harms and working toward a more equitable future.
In Cook County, we are reimagining criminal justice. We view crime and violence as public health crisis – one that deserves preventative solutions instead of reactionary treatments. To this end, Cook County’s FY2021 budget includes nearly $100 million to be put toward a newly created “Equity Fund” and will provide historic investments in restorative justice, workforce training, affordable transportation and housing assistance. We’re doing this because we believe we need to invest in our communities if we are to see a return.
In what could be considered the climax of 2020, counties have also lived up to their oaths to steward fair and democratic elections. Despite a global pandemic and a drastic decrease in local tax revenue, counties oversaw over 100,000 polling places and employed nearly 700,000 poll workers this past November. When you consider these numbers in combination with the herculean effort to ramp up mail-in voting processes, it seems almost miraculous that we were able to pull it off.
And pull it off we did. Despite myriad unfounded claims of fraud coming out of the previous White House administration, this year’s presidential election has been called the most secure in the history of our country.
Finally, in the year since the pandemic began, county governments have ramped up their public health departments in unprecedented fashion. America’s 3,069 counties support over 1,900 public health departments, nearly 1,000 public hospitals and clinics, and over 800 long-term care facilities around the United States. Whether it’s tapping new tech to meet the challenges of the pandemic, taking life-saving medication to our residents’ doorsteps, or standing up mass vaccination sites across the country, it’s been our local counties that have held a steady hand and responded to the crisis in innovative ways.
In a year defined by tragedy, these historic efforts on the part of counties serve as proof of our resilience. They remind us of the goodwill of our neighbors and the sacrifices so many are willing to take for the greater good. For me, however, these efforts speak to my identity. They remind me to be proud to claim my county as “home.”
This April, I hope that you’ll join me the next time someone asks, “where are you from?”Hero 1