Chicago made history this past fall when the city government officially recognized Juneteenth as a day of observance. The citywide acknowledgment of the date that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States was the result of a yearlong effort led by activists and Illinois State alum Torrence Gardner ’13.
Gardner serves as the director of economic and community development for the 49th Ward in Chicago. In this capacity, Gardner works with Alderwoman Maria Hadden, assisting with legislation, organizing community events, and the authorization of building licenses and permits.
“I love the idea that you can change things,” Gardner said. “You are born into this world and with these laws that are either right or unjust and you run up against them at some point in your life. I love that politics offers that opportunity to change, especially those unjust laws that you think are so unmovable.”
The process of creating legislation recognizing Juneteenth in Chicago started in fall 2019 when members of the grassroots organization the Black Remembrance Project approached Gardner’s office.
“Folks were really looking for a way to show the beauty, truth, and history of Black folks in this country,” Gardner said. “And Juneteenth has grown and become more popularized thanks to efforts, especially after George Floyd’s death, to ensure that Black folks’ commitment and work and influence over this city and country were recognized.”
Activists originally sought a resolution simply recognizing the date of June 19 to commemorate emancipation. Gardner urged them to think bigger and push for legislation that would make Juneteenth an official city holiday. Gardner collaborated with his co-workers to draft a bill that would get as many people on board as possible.
The original legislation proposed in November 2019 didn’t receive much media attention. The death of George Floyd on May 25 and the following nationwide protests ignited the activist base and brought the measure into public consciousness. Gardner’s team started a social media campaign that garnered over 5,000 petition signatures, leading directly to the city recognizing June 19 as a day of observance.
“This is the time for Black folks to really be recognized,” Gardner said. “And Juneteenth was seen by everyone as a real healing moment that says this isn’t purely out of protest, it is out of celebration.”
His passion for electoral politics was born at Illinois State after working on the McLean County Board campaign of Erik Rankin ’00, M.S. ’03, director of enrollment management and undergraduate studies for the Department of Politics and Government.
“He was a sponge. He wanted to soak up every possible thing he could with pretty much every experience he got into,” Rankin said. “He really did a great job connecting with citizens in my County Board district.”
Gardner had seen injustices in his life before coming to Illinois State and working on Rankin’s campaign gave him an avenue to make a difference.
Another mentor to Gardner during his time at Illinois State was Dr. Noha Shawki, who worked with him when he was an Illinois State Model United Nations delegate during his senior year. She isn’t surprised that her former student has already made a big impact in his young political career.
“I still clearly remember Torrence’s passion for the causes he believes in, his energy, and his commitment to bringing about change,” Shawki said. “I am proud of everything he has accomplished since he graduated from ISU and look forward to staying in touch with him and to continuing to follow his journey.”
Gardner knows his journey continues. He is seeking to make June 19 an official city holiday that gives workers a paid day off in honor of African American enslaved people who made significant contributions to America’s wealth and culture as we know it today. He has continued working with city leaders since November and his persistence is paying off. At a flag-raising ceremony June 14 at Daley Plaza, Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared Juneteenth an official holiday, pending approval of the City Council.
Gardner has a simple message for Redbirds who want to make a career in politics: Never give up.
“You are going to have to persist like crazy,” he said. “You are going to have to constantly call, constantly email, constantly stay on top of people to get what you want. What I’ve learned is that people don’t initially take what you are saying quite seriously. You have to push them to action.”
This article was updated June 15, 2021, to reflect developments in the effort to make Juneteenth an official holiday in Chicago.