Athens is a town like many others in central Illinois. With a population of about 2,000, it’s rural, and encapsulated by fields of crops like corn and soybeans. Visitors driving into town off the interstate are ushered in by numerous American flags and a welcome sign listing several area churches.
Aaliyah Kissick calls Athens home and at 18 years old she is a bit of a local celebrity. In 2016, she was Miss Jr. Teen for Illinois in the Miss United States National Pageant. And even though she just started college this school year, she’s already a business owner. Her mom Cheryl is a nurse who chips in and helps as she can, but Aaliyah’s clothing store, AK Boutique, is her own.
The reused clothing she sells goes well up into plus sizes, as she makes a point of being inclusive. What she doesn’t or can’t sell at the store, she donates.
“My three values are self competence, sisterhood and sustainability. So I feel like with the store, I'm really able to lift women up, have them come together to form a community and then we can make a difference in the planet by reducing our carbon tracks and all that fun nerdy stuff,” said Aaliyah.
While politics was rarely a topic of conversation in her family, Aaliyah's interest started in grade school and she's excited to vote this year in her first general election. That enthusiasm is tempered by a field of candidates for Illinois governor who she said she doesn't particularly identify with. Several recent polls show businessman and Democratic nominee J.B. Pritzker holds a lead over incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner in the race for governor. But a notable percentage of voters remain undecided or say they’ll vote for a third party candidate. Aaliyah counts herself among the "undecideds."
Political interest not a family affair
Aaliyah’s store is located on the town square — near a tavern, a funeral home and the post office. Of the people who live in this town, the vast majority are white.
Aaliyah, who was adopted as an infant, is not. She has a black biological father and a white biological mother. Cheryl says adopting Aaliyah changed her way of seeing things. “It changed everything about my life. Just naturally. The racism was one of the big areas, you know, and the lack of equality in political offices.”
Cheryl’s own parents never thought highly of politics. To this day, her mother’s view is that most politicians “are crooks.” And Cheryl said they weren’t ones to make a point of voting. “They were like, oh no, no, no. We don't discuss politics, you know, because it only starts arguments.”
But for Aaliyah, who said she was sometimes bullied about her race, politics came into view at a young age. She said it was the 2008 presidential election that first piqued her interest. She was eight.
Even though she still was too young to vote eight years later, she said she was eager to see the outcome of 2016’s presidential election. “I remember I stayed up all night waiting to see who won and I was just so excited to see how it turned out and to see if my predictions came true, which they did.”
Aaliyah, a self-identified moderate, said she’s wary of publicly showing support for candidates. She doesn’t want to alienate opinionated customers. But she also seems genuinely open-minded when it comes to exploring all her options this election.
She said she looked forward to voting for the very first time this year, in the primaries, even though she won’t say who she voted for. And she takes it seriously. “I do my research mostly by, this is going to sound really dumb, but I Google search and then I click on links. I click on the supporting people, what they have to say. Then I also click on what the opposing party has to say about them,” said Aaliyah. “And then I also like to dig back, searching their names to see if what they're saying is consistent based on what they're saying now.”
She said the Illinois gubernatorial race has been impossible to ignore. It was this spring when she started noticing political ads ramp up.
“Right around March, every time I opened Youtube I would always see Bruce Rauner riding on his motorcycle.” At that time she said, “I didn't even really pay attention to the ad. I was just like, what even is this. He was just riding his motorcycle, and it would cut to him to speeding down the highway. Like he was some sort of cool kid.”
The political battle being duked out between Democrat J.B. Pritzker and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is on track to be the most expensive statewide race in U.S. history. Pritzker is a multi-billionaire, and Rauner’s worth is estimated to be at least several hundred million.
Aaliyah said as an entrepreneur herself, she supports other business owners running for office.
“I actually think that it's a good thing. I mean, maybe not necessarily a bunch of multi-billionaires that have money in their family, but business owners as a rule are very good at being multifaceted. Business owners, especially if they're entrepreneurs and they start their business, wear all of the pants or skirts in their business, so they learn how to interact with people. They learn how to be diplomatic. They also learn how to manage money,” said Aaliyah, who talks in a way that makes it easy to imagine her own bid for office someday. She’s calculated and cool, with an easygoing laugh that pairs well with her contemplative answers to questions.
Finding her voice, weighing her options
In between classes at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield where she’s pursuing a business degree, she’s reading the book Sisters of the Yam by bell hooks, an academic and author who blends issues of race, sexuality, gender and culture and is considered by some the godmother of “intersectionality.”
Aaliyah’s ideologies are not easy to pin down, and that’s okay with her. She has her whole life to choose a political party. For now, she said she’s open-minded and undecided.
She does think that overall, candidates underestimate the intelligence of voters. As one example, she points to J.B. Pritzker’s support for legalizing recreational marijuana.
“If you are assuming that people are only going to vote to get weed, you are underestimating the population,” Aaliyah said. “Like, yeah, some people might think weed is cool, but they also think there are more important issues like the economy or specific rights when it comes to being a citizen.”
Lately, she’s been looking into the two third-party nominees, Kash Jackson, the Libertarian candidate, and Sam McCann of the self-established Conservative party.
“There's not as much information online about them because they don't have as much of a standing financially to put their information out there. So it's been harder to do. And the Republican and Democratic parties definitely saturate all forms of the media, so it's been a little bit of a challenge, but it's a challenge that I've enjoyed because I liked the idea of the underdog and just giving them a chance. I love that. I think it's so cool.”
Aaliyah says she’ll stay open to hearing from all sides.
“I definitely want the divisiveness to lessen over time, and this is me being a little bit of an idealist, but I do hope that eventually the two-party system is eliminated. Because with the two-party system it's so divided and with the advent of social media causing echo chambers, it's going to be even more divided.”
It remains to be seen if Aaliyah will ultimately cast her first vote for governor with a third party candidate, but as she weighs the best outcome for her future, she says all offers remain on the table and will get well-researched consideration.