Black Excellence: Emanuel “Chris” Welch
Emanuel “Chris” Welch has served as a State Representative in the Illinois General Assembly since January 2013. Welch became the first Black lawmaker to become Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives in January 2021. As State Representative, Welch focused on improving classroom education, creating jobs, helping the most vulnerable and streamlining government.
Prior to joining the General Assembly, Welch served 12 years on the Proviso Township High School Board of Education where he served as Board Chair for ten years. He is a graduate of Proviso West High School.
Welch is a partner in the local government law firm Ancel Glink. Prior to that, he served as a partner at Sanchez, Daniels and Hoffman, LLP from 2007 to 2018 where he represented local school districts and municipalities. He earned his law degree from the UIC School of Law (formerly The John Marshall Law School) and his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University.
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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 00:35
Hello UIC family and friends and welcome to UIC Black Excellence series. I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin and I serve as the associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. And I am honored to bring to you excellence, a legacy of excellence, of black excellence at UIC with some informative and inspiring conversations. Because if we don’t know where we come from, how do we know where we’re going? So I am really, truly honored today to bring to you speaker Welch, Chris Welch, who has done some just phenomenal things, graduated from UIC Law in 1997. And so I’m gonna hand the mic over to him to kind of tell us a little bit about himself, who he is and his journey from 1997 to his current role and what he’s been up to. Welcome.
Chris Welch 01:24
Well, thank you. Thank you for having me, doc. And it’s a pleasure to be here with you and talking about black excellence and to be considered black excellence, truly an honor and a privilege. You know, I’m proud to be a UIC law alum. When I went to school there, it wasn’t UIC. So we’re really proud to be a part of the family now. I graduated from the John Marshall Law School in 1997, and immediately started practicing law. But a few years later, I also got involved in my local politics by running for the school board. Little did I know that 20 years later, I’d be sitting here with you as our first black lawmaker serving as speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. And so I’m truly blessed and fortunate and proud to represent our alma mater and, you know, hoping that, you know, we can make room for others to follow.
Aisha El-Amin 02:20
No, absolutely. You know, if you are not black excellence, I don’t know what it is. So you represent so much and yes, I’m, I’m so happy to have you as part of UIC, that we have you now. Tell us, are you from Chicago are you originally?
Chris Welch 02:39
I am born and raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, the district that I represent the seventh representative district, House District, I’ve grown up in my entire life. I grew up in west suburban Maywood and my family moved to Bellwood, and my wife and I, who was also a UIC undergrad and law alum, grew up in Hillside and we were raising our two kids in Hillside now.
Aisha El-Amin 03:06
Wow. I love it. I love it. So you have some deep roots and deep history. Tell me what got you into politics, you say, you know, you went into politics, what inspired you to kind of transition into kind of the political realm.
Chris Welch 03:21
I’ve always had a love of being involved. I was heavily involved in student government at every level, whether it was grade school, high school, college, I was always involved in student government. So I always knew I wanted to be involved in some way, because that’s how you solve issues. I’ve never been a person that just complains, I like to be a part of the solution. So I’ve always done that no matter what space I’ve been in. And then when I bought my first house, two years in the practice of law, in 1999, my high school district was in the midst of a lot of union turmoil, a lot of strikes were going on. And so I looked into how do I help resolve these issues and wanted to join my local school board. I applied for an open vacancy, and I felt like I was mistreated during that process. They didn’t like it. If you don’t want a local homegrown talent on your board. I didn’t understand that. So I looked into how I would go about getting on the board the regular way, which was by election. In the suburbs, school boards are elected. And so in 2001, I had put my name out there to run for the local school board. We only need 50 signatures from registered voters. Oh, that’s nothing I can get on the school board. I file my paperwork, and about a week later I get a letter from the school district saying they were not going to submit my paperwork for the ballot because I turned them in late and I was like, what? That makes absolutely no sense. So the feeling I got when I tried to get an appointment. I was starting to get back at that moment, and I decided I’m two years in. I’m one of them young, arrogant attorneys, I’m like, “I’m gonna sue ’em!” And we come all the way to the appellate court. And I was constantly in the community saying, “what does the school district have to hide?” Why don’t they want a local kid on the school board, and we won in court, and we won at the ballot. And that was, last year made 20 years, November of 2001, is when I was sworn into office. So I am really proud of that fight, because that case that we won in appellate court is still precedent to this day. You can’t take someone’s paperwork and give them a receipt, acknowledge that they turned it and then turn around and send them a letter saying, you turned it in late. If it was late, you wouldn’t have been open to take the paperwork. And that’s still the case law on the books today. So I’ve been a fighter my whole life. And I didn’t realize I was stepping into politics, but I wanted to serve on my local school board. And I did that for 12 years. Ten of those years as the board president, and then I was like, “Okay, three terms on my school board isn’t enough.” And lo and behold, my state representative at the time decided to go become a county wide elected official, and everyone in the community was calling me and say, hey, you know, you should you you would be a great state representative. And I was just looking forward to just practicing law and being done with the school board. And I decided after so many calls to run for state representative, in March of 2012, almost 10 years, my election that year was the closest election in the entire state. I won by 36 votes. And here I am, almost 10 years to the day later, the first black speaker of the house. And I tell ya, when people tell you that every vote doesn’t matter. Look at me, every vote does matter. When I left my party that election night I was up by six votes. And a week later, they declared me the victor by 36. And here I am almost 10 years later, the first black speaker of the house, 70th speaker in state history, and every vote does matter. And now we’re not on the menu, we’re at the table driving policy conversations.
Aisha El-Amin 07:27
Exactly where we should be. I appreciate your work in paving the way. It’s very interesting as you talk about your school board history because I served on Sauk Village. I’m a suburbanite as well. I served on Sauk Village School Board and I had to go through that process. And I had to, you know, hand in my signatures. And so you know, it is because of things that you’ve done, that have made a pathway for me that I was able to serve on the school board, right, and so many others. And so thank you for that work and all the work that you continue to do.
Chris Welch 08:01
Oh, my pleasure.
Aisha El-Amin 08:02
It is absolutely phenomenal. And as you think about your journey at UIC, which was of course we know back then was John Marshall Law. Tell me about some of the fondest memories that you have, and some of the challenges even, you know, because we all face those as we journey through our education process.
Chris Welch 08:23
Well, I think, you know, my memories of John Marshall Law School, the UIC law school now, were very fond, I really enjoyed the process. I learned, I enjoyed being a law student. And that love of learning was certainly there. I thought the teachers were excellent, professors were excellent. I got involved. I was in moot court competitions, it seemed like every year. I think, John Marshall really trained lawyers well to practice. I tell people every day that I’ll go up against one of those big Ivy League lawyers any day of the week, because we were trained to go into court from day one. But I think the struggle, you know, the struggle is what, you know, Black people, people of color experienced every day and you know, you know, wondering how he’s going to meet the next tuition bill and having to take out loans and graduating from law school in tremendous debt, which really limited the type of profession you can go in, because in the amount of debt that I had, you know, you couldn’t really go and be a public sector lawyer. Not with those loans that I had, I think I was in excess of $200,000 in student loan debt when I was done with law school. And so that’s an enormous challenge. And, you know, my wife and I today, we’re blessed to be graduates at UIC law and we’re trying to create a system where our kids hopefully will graduate college or graduate school and be debt free. Because, you know, it was a real struggle. You know, we joke now that we had a whole lot of ramen noodles, you know? A whole lot. You know.
Aisha El-Amin 10:14
I’m familiar with the ramen noodles. So I completely get you, I have to, I have to connect with your queen as a UIC alumni as well, I know, you know, the strength in the family. I know that you have great support and a great partner at home because of all the things that you’re doing out in the world.
Chris Welch 10:33
Well, I definitely believe I was elevated while I’m married my wife. You know, I was, I was okay. But I’m really okay now. Because I think you know, my wife certainly took me to another level. And she is, I tell people every day, we had been married two years, when I ran for state representative in 2012. She’s from a big family. I’m from a big family. But she was baking cupcakes for everybody. Everywhere we went, she’s baking cupcakes. And she was very pregnant with our first kid. I make no bones about it that I got elected because everyone was voting for my wife.
Aisha El-Amin 11:12
So as you kind of talk to faculty, students and staff, and they listen to this, Are there words of advice that have both helped you in getting through your, your education, but also, you know, you talked about your art, you’ve been a fighter for a long time. What drives you? What inspires you in hopes that it will inspire others?
Chris Welch 11:34
Oh, you know, I think if you asked me that question, in any setting, I think I’m pretty consistent that I tell people, no matter the age, when I’m speaking to grade school, or high school or college, I think the biggest thing is to never give up. I’m a big believer in doing the work. Winners do the work, if you put in the work, and you’ve got great work ethic, success isn’t an accident. Success comes to those who worked for it. And so, never give up. You know, roll up your sleeves and do the work. I tell our caucus every day. You know, winners do the work. And and that applies in any setting. And I think that was something I learned from my parents who, my entire life, they always work two or three jobs, they worked hard to pay for our family. And I think I also learned in sports. You know, sports teaches you that discipline. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant didn’t wake up, you know, the greatest athletes in the world. They worked at it. They practiced, practiced and practiced. You know, the legend of Kobe Bryant has it he was in the gym at 4 a.m. in the morning. And what am I saying? They put in the work. And so don’t give up, just work harder. And you’d be surprised at what you do when you putting that work in.
Aisha El-Amin 12:56
I truly appreciate that. And I want to thank you for what you continue to do. And for sharing this space with me. I want to ensure that folks know that they are here. They belong here. They come from a legacy of folks that are doing phenomenal things. And you are one of those. So thank you for being part of our black excellence series and for doing all the work that you do in the world.
Chris Welch 13:25
Well, thank you. It is a tremendous honor. And I’m here to help pave the way for the next UIC law alums. So it’s a pleasure to be with you.
Tariq El-Amin 13:38
Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC along with faculty and staff and blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu