August 16, 2022
Amplify Inclusion Podcast
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion, a podcast where we share authentic stories of inclusion in action.
Illinois State Senator Robert Peters shares his personal story and discusses key initiatives impacting the disability community. Listen now or view the full transcript below.
This episode was co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound with music courtesy of Nealle DiPaolo. This season is made possible thanks to generous support from the Fred J. Brunner Foundation, Enterprise Fleet Management, First Bank Chicago and members of the Aspire community.
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion. I’m Clare from the nonprofit, Aspire. Thanks for joining us for stories and conversation about disability inclusion. Today my guest is State Senator Robert Peters, who represents the 13th District of Illinois. Senator Peters was born in 1985, deaf and with a massive speech impediment. He began his career in community advocacy as an organizer. And now as a state senator, he has helped pass several key pieces of public safety legislation. Among his various committee roles in the Illinois State Senate, he’s the chair of the Public Safety Committee. In August of 2021, the Community Emergency Services and Supports Act, also known as CESSA, was signed into Illinois law. This new legislation requires emergency response operators to refer calls seeking mental and behavioral health support to a new service that can dispatch a team of mental health professionals instead of police. Senator Peters was one of the chief sponsors of this bill. I had the chance to speak with Senator Peters to discuss the progress of CESSA and the rights and protections of the disability community. Here’s our conversation. Senator Peters, it’s an honor to have you with me today.
Sen. Peters 01:22
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
I wanted to have you here today, especially as we’re approaching the anniversary of CESSA to talk more about that act. But first, I’d love for you to just share a bit about your journey to the Illinois State Senate. And if you’d like to talk a little bit about your connection to the disability community.
Sen. Peters 01:42
Yeah, I mean, I think the best way to describe my connection to the disability community is from birth. And you know, I won’t go on like an overly long journey. I’ll try to keep it relatively brief. I sometimes joke I was born deaf with the speech impediment, and given the opportunity to talk I will talk. Yeah, so I was, you know, as you know, that was born in 1985. My biological mom, she struggled with a lot of addiction, particularly drug addiction. And I was born first not able to hear, which led to me developing a speech impediment, and I was adopted. And I was adopted by a civil rights lawyer for a father and a social worker for mom. And I struggled a lot as a kid, often, my parents were told that they should never have adopted me. I was predetermined to not make it in the world. I think often a lot of people who were born with a disability have been told that you can’t be this, you can’t do this can’t whatever. And my dad sort of said to me, it wasn’t about whether I can or cannot do something, it was whether I tried, and I think that played a big role in my life, is that nobody can tell you what you can and cannot do, you can only find that out on your own. And it wasn’t based off the idea of succeeding, it was based off of both success and failure, which is the idea that there’s not pressure to have to be successful, and there’s not pressure to be a failure, but nobody should be able to preordain you and take away your ability to at least try to be who you want to be in this world. And so I think that played a big role in me and led me to, you know, organizing, which is I always say a case in failure. You’re always basically trying and fighting often in uphill battles. And you’re doing it with a lot of people who share a similar self interest in changing the world. And if changing the world was easy, it would already be done. And so you basically take the idea of like, a lot of people tell you, you can’t do something. And the only way to find out is if you go out there and try. And I think that played a large part in my development, both as a person personally and as an organizer.
So was there a specific point, when you remember feeling you wanted to make that jump from organizer to a political figure role?
Sen. Peters 03:47
Yeah. So you know, I can get deep into organizing, but they always say that um in organizing it’s power before program. So we are often told or believe in great ideas. And there’s a sort of belief or thing that we’ve been told that ideas are the most important thing in the world. Ideas
are important imagination is important. And being able to imagine the world they want to want to have or build is important. But it doesn’t come without power. And you have to organize power, you have to build power. So before you can say all the things you want to do in the world, you have to first build power. And there’s different routes to creating power, different routes to make power happen in the world. But at the end of the day, it’s it’s three things. It’s organized people, organized money, and organized narrative. And so I think for a long time, I felt that the best conduit for organizing that power was in governing, you know, elected office. There’s other ways to do it. But I think that governing is, the world as it is now. And so years ago, you know, while organizing, many organizers pushed me to think of what role do I want to play in this broader movement organizing space, and because of that push it was sort of in the governing power of
space, so in government. Not necessarily in elected, but in that space in the halls of governing power, and it almost to the point where I see myself as an organizer who’s in governing space, so not- they’re not separate things they’re together. There’s just a different way of organizing. And that pushed me towards the idea of who’s in the position to power and how can we impact people’s lives?
I love that framing of you seeing yourself as an organizer in government. And I think that perspective is probably what makes you so relatable and helps you to really connect with communities. So I want to dive into CESSA bit because, as I said, I know you really prioritize health and safety. CESSA is directly related to health and safety. So we’re approaching the anniversary of the passing of CESSA, which is the Community Emergency Services and Supports Act. It was signed into law by Governor Pritzker in August of 2021. And it directly impacts lots of communities, the whole community really, right? But there’s a direct impact on the health and safety of people with disabilities, people with mental health disabilities, specifically, but I don’t think many people know about it. Is that your experience, as well?
Sen. Peters 06:09
Yeah, I think that it’s a historic landmark piece of legislation. But Illinois made a lot of history over the last 16, 18 months. And I think that when it comes to this one in terms of mental health first responders and behavioral health first responders, you got lost in that. Everybody wants to say that the thing that they worked on, it’s the most important thing that’s ever happened. It’s easy to do that. And I don’t want to say that I think it’s important people know, like Illinois is the first state to really create a mental-health first responder system. We’re able to take what is I think, a landmark piece of policy and what’s called 988, so when you call 988, you’ll be able to get a mental health response. And to say, well, if you call 911, in an emergency, there needs to be coordination to ensure that someone responding to that mental health and behavioral health crisis is not a police officer or law enforcement agent who’s just not tasked to do this. I think that if you talk to anybody in the law enforcement space, they would say well they’d prefer not to do that. And they keep being asked to do more. And we’re saying no, I think those people who are literally trained, they might be going to get their masters or they might have worked a decade in the mental space where they themselves are struggling with mental health crises and trauma that they’ve experienced in their life who know what needs to happen during that period of time. And we’ve seen devastating consequences when you rely specifically on a law enforcement response. And that’s really the sort of precursor to CESSA, which is the Stephon Watts Act, which is named after Stephon Watts, who was 15 years old and had autism. And he had a traumatic experience. And his parents said, do not bring someone in here who’s not going to be able to respond to my kid going through this sort of traumatic experience right now. And of course, that did not happen. And he ended up getting shot and killed in Calumet City. And you know, the Watts family and a great deal of organizers came together and said, We need to change this. And it sort of led to a six year journey with a lot of ups and downs, particularly starting with a down and a movement that said that we’re not going to talk about mental health abstractly, and led to the creation of CESSA. And now, you know, on January 1st of 2023, the
hope is, when you call 911, there’ll be a coordinated effort to make sure that we have mental health first responders, combined with the advent of 988. And now when someone’s going through very traumatic experience, they can have someone who can actually talk and work with them and understand that experience, instead of having someone who first instinct might be to react to anything near violence in a violent manner, themselves. And I want to give all credits to the Watts family, and particularly to Access Living who came to me with this bill, and you know, I said Yes, right away. And I want to, you know, shout out Kelly Cassidy who’s always working on these issues. And at the end of the day, I think that this is an example of the disability rights movement that’s been organizing for decades, showing some serious power, some serious flux, and I think a credit to a movement that has become very clear and understanding what intersectionality means that this is explicitly this is very much so a racial justice issue in itself. And I think that this is something that, again, credit to the evolution of a movement to the growth of a movement and the power of the movement. And the idea that these movements are not happening in silos but are actually connected so that things that happen post-George Floyd, they themselves are connected to disability justice, and disability power. And if we don’t see these things connected, then inevitably we won’t be able to get to where we need to be.
And I want to clarify one thing so people understand this doesn’t necessarily mean that police officers won’t arrive on scene, correct? What it means is that the first response will be someone who is a mental health professional with the goal of minimizing risk.
Sen. Peters 10:00
Yeah, I think the best way to put it is if there is something that is very violent, of course, that’s a response that will lead to law enforcement interaction. But most of the time, most cases don’t ever get there. What we hear in the news tends to think that’s what’s happening. But most of these cases won’t rely on law enforcement. And they’ve been asked to do this, even though it doesn’t rely on them. And the idea is to say, not every tool in the toolbox needs to be a hammer. If you do that, and you think of every situation requiring the hammer, you’re just gonna have holes in your wall. And so in this situation, we’re saying we have to have more tools in the toolbox to deal with a series of different crises. In this case, it’s a crisis around trauma-informed practices that need to happen, you don’t always have to use the hammer, you can use a different tool.
You mentioned that we’re sort of in that implementation phase, correct? So operational would be something we’d hope to see January 2023. So when we’re thinking about what’s happened since August of 2021, when this was passed, up until now, can you help people that aren’t in government understand what kind of things are happening in an implementation phase?
Sen. Peters 11:13
Yeah, so we have multiple departments trying to coordinate together when it comes to Department of Mental Health, and Department of Human Services, state and local agencies and nonprofits, law enforcement, first responders broadly, like firefighters- all sorts of being talked to and communicated to about what’s happening in the process. Then we have the development of regional community hubs, right, where there’ll be folks per region, that will help work and set the tone for implementing the policy. And then we’ll have a statewide version of that, above that. Now the key part of the regionals because people know their region more than anything, that’s gonna be a very important part to implementation. There’ll be different people from different stakeholders who are going to be part of that to make sure that we implement this across the board in a good and healthy way. And that’s happening right now. And the hope is, as we get different actors, right, so you get people who are like 911 operators, and they say, well, in my region, I need X, Y, and Z. Or you’re talking to firefighters and they say, in this region, we need this. Or we talk to someone in Disability Justice space and they say, well, we need this. And the idea is that they then build that together to say, Okay, in this region, this is how this will be implemented. This is how this will work. This is the timeframe and the data that we want to get. And the hope is by January 1st, we get this up and running. But I also am one of those realistic people. I prefer that we do whatever we can to make this right, and get this right, instead of simply just having a deadline.
I know it’s hard to really measure change right now, because there’s still so much to be revealed. Just since the passing, do you think there’s any observable change, yet? Even just thinking about mindset conversations before we’re actually seeing results of the law?
Sen. Peters 13:02
Yeah, I mean, I want to give a shout out- Trilogy, which is a an agency and organization, particularly in their Northside in Rogers Park, have been sort of piloting a mental health first responder system, I got to listen and sit in on them doing this work. And you can tell how much people cared. They have mostly haven’t had to worry about violence. They have mostly had pleasant and good conversations with people. And I think they are showing to destigmatize, what it means to have a mental-health first responder and to do the work and the amount of love and care they have doing it with something that was beautiful to see. And they’re doing this because they too want to change the world. And they are and they are seeing firsthand how this can work and how this can get done. And I think it’s going to be very important, as we’re building this out what comes from their- their sort of pilot work in Rogers Park in Evanston. You know, not a lot of people might know this. But Rogers Park particularly has been hit hard over the last few decades. When it comes to mental health centers being closed. Housing crises, people understand there’s a connection there. The inherent pressures of an economic crisis are very difficult on people. So Trilogy, saying, we can do this here- I mean, if they can get this done in an area that has experienced an extreme amount of trauma with people who’ve experienced trauma, and often people who’ve been forgotten and left behind by the status quo. And show
that we can actually do this in a way that is respectful, uplifting, that stems the crisis, maybe not end the crisis, but holds it back a bit as we figure out what we’re going to do in this world. Then you can do this anywhere, whether it’s downstate in Vermilion County, Illinois, or, you know, the Southside of Chicago. So, what I’m trying to say is no excuses.
You know, this reminded me of a comment you made shortly ago and using that word intersectionality, right, and a lot- that’s a thread through a lot of the things that you’re saying and really pointing out specifically with CESSA that, you know, we can’t separate disability justice from racial justice. And you know how we have to be thinking about all of these things as interconnected in terms of solutions. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you apply that intersectional lens, and in your work as an Illinois state senator, and in specifically making sure that disability is a thread that racial equity is a thread through all of these conversations, what’s your approach to that?
Sen. Peters 15:31
Yeah, I think that, um, I heard this from Amber at Access Living. But she once said that disability is the one thing that anybody can have as an -ism, right? That any one of us at any time can have different levels and degrees of disability. And it is in that moment, that we then recognize that we need to do something around disability justice and rights. For me, I was not able to hear, struggled to be able to speak, I’ve had hip surgery, knee surgery, ankle surgery, so more surgeries than can count. And not everybody has had that experience. But everybody needs to think about that experience. And everybody needs to ask themselves, particularly in the Disability Justice space, what would it be like for you if you don’t have a proper curb cut? What would you think in that moment? And we’ve often seen things in the idea of this individualized, overcoming side of things, but really, these things are connected. If it was you or a loved one who’s struggling to get down from stairs to be able to go to the doctor, how would you feel? Why would you put someone through that? And so I think that when I think about the intersectional side of things on a broader level, whether it’s something that I’ve personally experienced, or something that I’ve seen, I’ve tried to ask myself, A) is this even necessary to have to act prejudicially to a situation? Like, what good does this do to me and the people I love? B) one for all all for one. That we are a community, a society. And I always think about Pope Francis’s line that we have to think about this as a collective samaritan. So we do each other as we’d want done to ourselves. When someone falls, you should hold a hand out and lift them up. When someone needs food you should think about- what are we doing collectively, not just myself, to make sure they have food on their table? And in the last few years, we’ve had a lot of conversations around public safety. And we keep doing the same things around these over and over again. And it turns out that maybe what we need to make us safer, to make us healthier, to give us dignity, is to think about that collective samaritan. And so, I think a large part of that is the disability justice movement. It’s understanding that the disability justice movement are tied to things around gender justice, are tied around class, and are tied around race. If you’re a black woman who’s working class, and you live in a house, in South Shore, your ability to be able to afford what you need to be able to get up the stairs- it’s going to be very different than someone
else. And all that does is put you in a greater bind. And if you’re in a greater bind, well, then the community’s in a greater bind. And then the city’s in a greater bind, and the state and as you can see, so on. And so we should reduce that bind on people.
That are so- so well put. And I think it’s so important to hear an individual story that we don’t all see on a daily basis and that ripple effect. I want to also give you a chance to talk about any other legislation that you’re currently working on that’s directly impacting the disability community. I know you did recently proposed a measure related to accessibility of the capitol building. I would love to hear about that. And anything else that’s top of mind for you that you’d like to share about.
Sen. Peters 18:50
Yeah, I mean, I think I’ll talk about SB 180, which is about accessibility on a capitol complex. And I’m going to share a story. So Amber from Access Living was going to testify on behalf of the bill. But of course, we did not have someone to be able to do sign language in the committee, which is, I think, a shining example of why we needed to create better accessibility, because even on a bill around accessibility, we weren’t able to be accessible. And I think that the bills, you know, it’s it’s kind of a first step, it’s going to be a task force around accessibility in terms of the capitol complex. But the hope is that we get out of that task for some great recommendations that we can implement in for general assembly, so that next time somebody who needs American Sign Language during committee hearings, will know that they’re going to have sign language available, and so that we don’t do bills on disabilities rights and justice and not actually be able to accommodate the people who will be most impacted by those pieces of legislation. That just got signed into law. Want to also shout out a representative, Anne Williams, who is the house sponsor for helping get that done. And I think that’s a good example and good place about how state government is in the process of evolution, and healthy and good evolution.
Well, congratulations on that. And thank you for your work on that. And the many issues that are so tied to all of us. As we said, right, there’s a, you know, obviously, direct impacts on the disability community, but I loved your phrase, you know, it’s impacts one of us it, it’s for the better for all of us. So I just want to say thank you so much for joining me and for the work that you do on behalf of the people of Illinois. We really appreciate you.
Sen. Peters 20:38
Definitely, thank you.
Thank you to my guest, Illinois State Senator Robert Peters. Join us next time for my conversation with Coach Kenneth Jennings, a disabled activist and founder of the Gridiron Alliance Foundation. Until then, stay connected with us at AspireChicago.com and be a part of the inclusive movement by rating and subscribing to Amplify Inclusion. This episode was co produced and engineered by Subframe Sound. This season is made possible thanks to generous support from the Fred J. Brunner Foundation, Enterprise Fleet Management, First Bank Chicago, and members of the Aspire community.
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