28 Days of Black Excellence: Al Riley
Al Riley, a former State Representative of the 38ᵗʰ District of Illinois, was influential in facilitating mass transit and infrastructure improvements in the state ranging from major projects on the Interstate 57/294 interchange and Illinois-Indiana Expressway to new rail cars for the Metra Electric line. He also passed a resolution to encourage the Chicago Transit Authority to build the Red Line Extension from Chicago to the south suburbs and helped to change the State Procurement Code to make it more inclusive to minority vendors. An alumnus of UIC, Riley has a Master of Urban Policy degree.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.
Aisha El-Amin 0:34
Greetings UIC family and friends and welcome to UIC’s “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. And it is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with some powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC’s alumni, some of our faculty and staff from the past as well. So each day we have a new guest. And I am excited to welcome our guest today, Mr. Al Riley, who graduated in urban planning before it was urban planning and public, you know, our current name, public administration, it was just urban planning. He has a history there. He just schooled me a bit even before we started. He came out in 1978 and has done some phenomenal things in the world. And we like to just kind of hear what you’ve been up to. Kind of know a little bit about you, your background, where you’re from and what you’ve been doing since ’78 and leaving UIC.
Al Riley 1:37
[Laughter] Well, thank you, and it’s good to be here. UIC will always be in my heart. It was in many ways formative with me. You know, I, when I came back from the service I worked in planning for a couple of years and decided, hey, you know, I need to go back and get that master’s degree. So I’ve had experience. Many of us at that time had experience in planning. We worked for a county or, you know, we had done something. And so it was a group of really talented people with a lot of skills. And the faculty at that time, you know, really matched. And so I really honed all of my skills during that time at UIC. And they kind of flung us out there and said, you know, do good in the world. And we we made it a good attempt to do that.
Aisha El-Amin 2:36
So, you said when you came out of military…so as a, from one veteran to another, thank you for your service. I certainly appreciate you. What branch and what was your military MOS, or military occupational specialty?
Al Riley 2:51
I was in the Army. Were you in the Army?
Aisha El-Amin 2:53
[Laughter] Yes, yes.
Al Riley 2:55
Okay, then you know what 11 bush is [laughter].
Aisha El-Amin 3:00
I was a 95 Bravo military police officer. Yes, yes.
Al Riley 3:04
Well, I was I was an 82nd airborne. And it was interesting duty. And I ended up after that being in the branches of intelligence and psychological operations and in civil affairs.
Aisha El-Amin 3:27
Wow. Wow. So are you from Chicago?
Al Riley 3:31
Yes, I am.
Aisha El-Amin 3:32
Okay. South Side? West Side?
Al Riley 3:34
Aisha El-Amin 3:35
Alright. You okay with me still. I’m a South Sider [laughter].
Al Riley 3:38
But one of the things, you know, when we taught, you know, I also taught at UIC. We teach about the history of Chicago and the great migration. The place where we first landed was the West Side of Chicago, because that’s where a lot of the bus stations and so forth, were. And so I’m from K Town and we moved to the South Side. I went to Lindblom High School. We moved to the South Side of my senior year, which was 1968. Right at the time that Nixon was elected president.
Aisha El-Amin 3:41
Wow. Now, so I know, because I know you…but maybe folks as they listen to this, we will have students we’ll have staff and faculty, even community members listening. What have you been doing? I know you’ve had many roles. But can you kind of talk through some of your life journey so far?
Al Riley 4:41
Well real quickly, and it’s one of the things, you know, when you interview somebody who’s a little long in the tooth [laughter]. I was really inspired by my father. My father was in the civil rights movement in Chicago; played a big role and brought King to Chicago. He was part of that great migration. You came up north with skills. He was a welder and he went to school nights, ended up getting a master’s degree from University of Chicago. And he worked for OEO [Office of Economic Opportunity]. The new cabinet level agency under Sargent Shriver, part of the Great Society programs. And then he moved to HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development]. He ended up being the assistant regional administrator for Region Five of HUD. So as I was coming up, I didn’t read comic books, I read federal regulations [laughter]. He sort of spurred me to go out and do those kinds of policy things. And of course, UIC at that time was I mean, you know, you just cut your teeth on policy. And so when I left, and that’s one of the reasons I left in 1977, I became chief planner for Will County. And, you know, I did that for a few years.
And because some of the faculty members, I mean, it was a stat program. It was urban planning, but you really had to know your statistical analysis. And I really thank Ashish Sen, who we’re still friends to this day, for that kind of background. I left and I was a dean of Institutional Research and Planning at a local community college. I went on and worked in cancer research. I was chief of biostatistics for the Illinois Cancer Council. And we were doing cancer clinical trials, which is why I get a lot of questions now about the vaccine and clinical trials, and all of that stuff. And we did a lot of things, clinical trials on drugs that everybody knows about now, like some of the interferons and some of the monoclonal antibodies that everybody’s talking about. We were doing some of that stuff then. Tamoxifen. So again, that was my background in statistics from UIC, specifically. And I went on and did some other things. I headed up some other county departments, but I was always in that research and policy sort of realm. In 2007, and that’s another thing too, I never thought I would get in politics. But policy is my background, I guess, since 1984, I got involved in local politics and held a number of offices. And in 2007, I became the state representative for the 38th District of Illinois, which is the south central suburbs. And again, you can imagine, with that background I was able to go down to Springfield and really change the way — to the extent that one person can do that, which is difficult — but change the way that folks began to look at different areas of the metropolitan area. We had the Metra Electric line, for example, out here.
Aisha El-Amin 8:21
Al Riley 8:22
And we didn’t have bathrooms on trains, but other lines had bathrooms on their trains, Chicago and Northwestern. They could drink. A lot of times I’d go visit friends and they had happy hours on the train. We couldn’t do that on the Metra Electric. And you have to put the little card in the turnstile, whereas they check transportation on the trains out there. And I remember one of the Metra directors at that time, when told about some of these disparities said, “We’re not a social services agency.” That’s what he said.
Aisha El-Amin 9:00
Al Riley 9:01
And I’m like, oh no. And so when I went down to Springfield, it’s funny, everybody likes to think, will you aspire to get into leadership? And I did get into leadership. I was assistant majority leader for two terms. Or you want an appropriations committee. Do you know what I wanted? I wanted to chair mass transit. And I got it.
Aisha El-Amin 9:26
Al Riley 9:26
And a lot of people, I just got to be honest with you, a lot of people ate a lot of their words. This is public money. And you can’t have that kind of attitude.
Aisha El-Amin 9:37
Al Riley 9:38
When it comes to public money.
Aisha El-Amin 9:40
Al Riley 9:41
And so if I did nothing else, not pass some big bills. Let’s talk about the sale of the Thompson Center right now. To get that back on the tax rolls and renovate, well that was my bill. That was one of the last bills that I passed, was coming up with a framework on how the Thompson Center would be sold. And so the listeners, listening to all of that, that’s nothing but planning and policy. That’s all that is. And so I use both my personal background, but also what I learned at UIC, to help me be able to kick some people in the rear [laughter] and get them to understand that all of the areas of our metropolitan area should be equal and be equally treated.
Aisha El-Amin 10:38
So tell me, because I ride the Metra Electric, and I’m in Flossmoor and I go to UIC every day using it, using that transportation. We have restrooms. Were you part of changing that? With with your work?
Al Riley 10:58
Yes. Matter of fact, there’s a train that’s named after one of the first administrators, Black administrators with Metra who started out as a motorman. I was part of it. I remember. And it’s so funny. Everybody remembers, or should, remember when Reagan went to the Soviet Union at that time, and said, “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall.” Well, a good friend of ours, who many out in the south suburbs know and met with, who was 44th President of these United States, Barack Obama. When he was running for the Senate, the U.S. Senate, came out and said the same thing, take these turnstiles down. So there have always been problems with, as I say, resource allocation. So yes, I did. Matter of fact, there’s some tapes around somewhere on the blogosphere. I got a multimillion dollar, actually it was like a memorandum of understanding, to come up with money to buy these trains with with bathrooms. And that was done. And I did that extra legislatively. I didn’t have to pass a bill. But it was pressure and putting them on Front Street and passing a bill saying that, you know, all public entities will have your meetings taped, and live… Yeah. So we could see what it was you were doing.
Aisha El-Amin 12:46
That’s right. That transparency.
Al Riley 12:48
And so, yes, the stations being renovated, like it Richton Park and so on and so forth. Yeah, there were a lot of people. But yes, that was, those are my babies.
Aisha El-Amin 13:01
Well, I offer you gratitude, because I’m a beneficiary of that work. And I know that you only have given us a snippet of all the great things that you’re able to do in that position. And so as you think about your journey, can you talk about some challenges and give some advice to current students and faculty and staff that may have challenges in their roles and their journeying, that may help inspire them or inform them or motivate them?
Al Riley 13:36
Well, understanding that there’s always going to be challenges. I know one of the things people, because I’ve been on other forums and I have a great relationship with UIC, but I didn’t really have any personally at UIC. I know some have developed over time. I’ve talked to some of the students. But UIC is a great, great urban laboratory. I mean, it’s a lab. I mean we can talk about all the schools and I’ve been to them. You want to come here because Chicago is your test tube. And the only challenges I would say, I think everybody, there’s differential challenges faculty, staff, students, but everybody should should challenge orthodoxy. You know, the way stuff was, the way we always did it. That’s going to continue to get you…what was that old expression? If you always did what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.
Aisha El-Amin 14:40
Al Riley 14:40
You’ve got to challenge orthodoxy. Like I said, Metra was doing these things. And you know, the thing with one of their directors where he absconded off with $850,000 and golden parachute, and all that stuff. You got to challenge orthodoxy and make things work. And that is what, just like me all those years ago, that’s what UIC is still doing. Send people out there who are ready to make things right. In terms of the students, I remember, there was just a great professor Rob Mier, who was in the program at time. We would walk to, I don’t even know if it’s still there, Fontano’s Subs, and we [laughter]…would have these great policy discussions. You know, you want to be close to your students. You want to be close to them like that. There were, and I get it, it may still be that way. But there were sort of pecking orders. If you were good statistics, you were sort of up here. If you were, like I was, a research assistant, or a teaching assistant, you were up here. And then it was everybody else. For as those are great positions, there were an awful lot of people who had want to, and who had different backgrounds. You know, I came up with math and statistics through my father. Everybody didn’t do that.
Aisha El-Amin 16:18
Al Riley 16:19
But I used to teach out at Governors State University out here. And I used to tell people all the time, MBA students, MPA students, I can teach you all these techniques, and all this stuff, Mallows’s Cp statistic, and I can teach you all this stuff. If you’re a bad person, you’re going to be a bad professional. And so we have to understand that maybe not everybody has the background. But if they have want to, then these are the people who are going to challenge orthodoxy and end up making things work. And I think that is so important. Students, I would tell, of course, you know, all generations know it all. But they don’t, to be honest. And you can’t askew history. Now, you know, okay, Boomer, that’s great, that make you feel good. But there were things that happened in the 60s and 70s, and 80s, that if you don’t know about, then you’re not going to be able to ply your trade. You have to be students of history, we all rebelled against the prior generations. But you can’t do that. Can’t do that. Got to know history, urban planning, and all of the professions, all of the the things that we teach out at UIC, there is some historical perspective. There’s some kind of temporal perspective on everything. That’s why you go to school. So that’s something that students need to remember. I think, staff, you’re really the straw that stirs the drink. You’re there to support everybody. Without you, then we couldn’t…just the sine qua non. You need staff. Staff needs to be sure that they’re providing all the support that all the other entities need. Everybody else needs to support staff. Because without them, you’re not going to succeed. So those are the things I would say just right off the top of my head.
Aisha El-Amin 18:39
I appreciate that. And I think our faculty, our students, our staff will also appreciate learning about your journey, being inspired like I am. Just hearing about the things that you were able to do so far. And we’re looking for many more things that come from you. And your words, the sage advice. Thank you.
Al Riley 18:59
Well, thank you. Like I said, I still participate. I’m still on a couple of boards and so forth. And I was on something last year talking to some students in the CUPPA program. So if there’s anything I can do, just please let me know.
Tariq El-Amin 19:20
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.