Updated: Jun 6
James Cappleman is currently Chicago's 46th Ward alderman. We met him at the New Acropolis school for a short interview about life.
What is philosophy for you?
I actually minored in philosophy, while I was studying to be a Franciscan priest. Philosophy helped me look inward to see what my motivations are when I do things. It also helped guide my values.
You mentioned you studied to be a Franciscan priest but I'm assuming you're not one?
No, I left the order in 1986 and remained in Chicago afterwards.
Do you feel some of the values you live with today are a result or part of that training?
I think it was part of the path I needed to go on to discover more about myself. There are things about being a Franciscan Friar that will always be a part of me. I liked the sense of community we had. I took a lot of theology and it surprised me and changed the way I viewed the world. I think that's a gift that I received from the friars.
Do you still have questions about life? Questions about the nature of life?
I do, all the time. I'm always reflecting. When I was a Franciscan Friar, I started questioning some of my core values, even about God and about Christianity, and what does it mean? I have had questions about life after death... Later I worked in hospice care with children who were dying. They would ask me questions about what happens afterwards, and I learned to explore with them what they believed happens... and I still do that all the time with myself. I mean, is there an afterlife? I believe there is but it’s okay for that not to be true. The other thing I'm reflecting on right now is the state of our planet and what does it mean to live a fulfilled life. We are very polarized, and I think the core of much of that has to do with unresolved shame many people experienced as young children. An additional component of shame is rooted in institutional racism that has had a crippling hold on this country. We have to find a way of addressing It.
As a child, I experienced shame when I was labeled a sissy and if I didn’t deal with that label, I would be tempted to subconsciously exert that shame onto other people. As a politician, there are people who get very angry with me, as is the nature of being in politics. Some of that anger projected onto me is due to someone’s unresolved sense of shame in their own life, so it’s important how I respond back to them. I could give into my past issues of shame, and attack them back, but I believe I'm called not to return it. I need to somehow listen to that person and look at where we have some shared values, and absorb some of their pain. I read something from Gandhi that had a powerful impact on me: “Be truthful, be gentle, and at all times be fearless.” I try to incorporate those three values when I respond. I don't always do it well, but being in politics has been a deep awakening for me; it's been very soul-searching.
In what sense?
When I was a child, my dad was a physician and he was a very important man in the community; everybody referred to him as Dr. Cappleman. But emotionally he wasn't doing well and he hid it. He had PTSD from being in World War II, and I later learned that he had bipolar disorder. He committed suicide when I was a kid, and that left a mark on me. I realized that having a position of power does not make one happy, and that was probably one reason why I was attracted to the Franciscans. The Franciscans are an order of friars which literally means “order of small brothers”. They rejected all sense of power, and to this day, I still reject that sense of power, yet now I'm an alderman and I have a lot of power. I had to question why did I seek an office that lent itself so much power? I came to the conclusion that I still had a lot of things to work out about my dad's death. The truth is, when we don't work on our troubling past, we tend to repeat it. I don't think it was an accident I ended up gravitating towards a position of power, while at the same time, I was also rejecting it. But now that I'm in this office and I have power, I must accept the responsibility that comes with this office. For me, it's still going back to my days of being a Franciscan. I do not use my power to do things that are unethical, but instead, focus on what is good.
How do you know what is ethical and unethical? How do you define it within yourself? How do you make a decision if something is ethical or not?
Everyone has a blind spot. There was a book I once read that transformed my life. It was “Mistakes Were Made But Not by Me” and basically it said that people operate out of their own frame of values and beliefs and ethics. What I learned was that I have to surround myself with people who hold a mirror up to me and who are willing to speak truth to me. When I hire staff, that's one of the things I ask: would you be willing to disagree with me? There are times when I get defensive, and I have to let it go and just hear that person, especially when there's two or three people saying the same thing and I'm not hearing it. When I first became an alderman, I made some horrible mistakes and learned the hard way that I needed to listen more to people who could see my blind-spots.
When you have dialogues with yourself about these kinds of decisions, what are you trying to do in order to make the right decision? What kind of guidelines do you use? What part of yourself do you connect to?
I listen to my dreams. My dreams tell me a lot of things; it's a way for my subconscious to communicate with me, and so I want to make sure that when that's happening, I'm listening to what's being said. I also bounce things off people.
When making a decision I look at 3 core things that are very important to me: is it fair? Fairness is a very strong attribute in my family. If you want to communicate something to another family member, you talk about fairness to get their attention. Many years ago as a social worker, I had a client with HIV and my job was to advocate for him. He sodomized a boy and some neighbors attacked this man. My job was to help him get corrective surgery, but the hospital kept canceling the surgery. I had to focus on my sense of fairness to help him. Yes, what this man did was evil and he horribly harmed this child, but he was also a human and he needed corrective surgery. So I advocated for him even though I hated him for what he did.
The next thing I look at is if it’s founded in the use of evidence-based best practices. I want to know where something has worked well, so we can learn from that.
The final thing is something based on a quote from John Stewart Mills: “He who only knows his side of the case, knows very little of that.” I want to make sure that whatever good decision I make, I understand the negative repercussions so that the positive repercussions outweigh the negative ones. I can't tell you how many times in City Council when we will make a decision, and we're not aware of the negative repercussions. It just makes it worse off. The problem though is sometimes, if I point out the negative repercussions, I get people very angry with me. That's where I have to be brave and gentle and truthful.
Why do you think it gets people angry?
Sometimes a person’s beliefs gets wrapped up in their own sense of their identity; so when you question their belief, in a sense, you are questioning their identity. Rejecting their beliefs turns into a total rejection of them. As humans, we are always seeking after truth. I'm not sure we ever find it, but it's a journey.
Are we seeking for the truth or are we settling for a truth? You describe it as if I have my truth, and I want to protect it and I’m not really seeking for the truth...
I find that there are times when I seek after a particular truth, it ends up becoming a part of my identity and it's hard to separate my sense of truth from my identity. But when that happens, my mind becomes closed to other pieces of the truth. I don't think any one person has all the truth. I think it's dangerous for anyone to think they have the true grasp of what truth is. I also like the idea that my faith and my understanding of my spiritual beliefs are always evolving. I don't want to be afraid to question my beliefs.... I want to be open to making changes.
You told us that you were on the path of becoming a Franciscan Friar, and then as a social worker you worked with different people, also as a politician... How do you see the connection between these different paths or different roles that you had? And also what brought you from being on a faithful path of religion to politics?
When my dad died, my brothers, sisters and I were just devastated. The news of his suicide made the front page of the newspaper, and it was embarrassing. We lived in a town outside of Houston, Texas. My mom was a nurse and the following Christmas, she had us adopt a family. We gave them Christmas gifts, a tree and dinner. What it taught us was that although life was awful, other people suffered just as much, and I need to be cognizant of that, and I need to keep giving of myself. When I was 21 years old, I lived in a commune. In the commune, we took in people living off the streets. We pooled our money together and we fed those who were hungry. We lived very simply. Our motto was “live simply so that others can simply live”, and I believed it was important to keep giving back because it helped me through my grief of my dad’s death. What I later learned is that it’s not our grief that should motivate us to give back to others, but rather, it’s our very nature that has us doing so.
I joined the Franciscan Friars to change the world but also because it was my way to reject the need for power. However, while taking many theology courses, I began to question everything about religion. As I did, I also began to gravitate toward something else — politics. Ironically, through the years, I finally leaned that the way to really change the world to make it better wasn’t through religion or through politics; instead, it was through being authentic to myself.
As I’ve become more authentic, my motives for helping people has changed. It used to be a way to deal with my pain and my shame of being gay, and now I help others because that is aligning myself with being more authentic to who I am. I believe our true nature is obtained by tapping into our quest of helping others.
It reminds me of a concept from Hinduism, did you hear of Karma Yoga?
Karma Yoga is to take action because it is the right action, regardless whether you’re going to get the fruits of that action or not.
Being authentic to ourselves is no longer about doing something for a reward. When I was a social worker, ironically I was counseling people who were at risk for suicide, and I had to learn that I had to work through my own grief to be a better counselor. I learned I cannot bring my pain into a situation. I can't have this motive that I’m helping others for the purpose of working through my past pain. I had to let go of that. It doesn't matter if it helps me or not. It’s just what we're called to do. Helping others is being true to the nature of who we are as humans.
What do you think it is? After many years of working with faith, with philosophy, with yourself and with people...
There was a New York Times article I read on Sunday that talked about the presidential election, along with the polarization that exists and the need for people to fight. This writer said that's not who we are, we're not here to fight. Our true essence has us focused on how we must live together and build a sense of community with one another. I recently met a young man who started a restaurant called Tesfa; it’s Ethiopian cuisine. Tesfa means Hope. He talked about his community. He lived in a small rural Village in Ethiopia and often electricity would just turn off. We take electricity for granted, but he did not. He said that in his village, when the electricity went off, things were just quiet, but when all of a sudden the electricity turned on, not only in his little hut but in all the little huts around his village, you could hear cheers and people shouting with joy. He said that from that experience, he learned the true sense of community. It was what really brought him true joy. It wasn’t from lobbying verbal quips at one another, but rather, from building community; that's what we're supposed to be doing.
What do you think we can do to enhance that sense of community and to create more Harmony in our community? What do you think is needed or required?
Getting to know ourselves better internally; knowing when we get defensive and/or embarrassed. It's harder to know sometimes when you're embarrassed, but it's easy to know when you're angry or defensive, especially for men. I keep on my desk a quote from Gandhi: “Be gentle, Be truthful, Be brave.” I keep that as a reminder so that when I respond back to people I'm not going to reinforce their past shame. That means when I notice someone not picking up after their dog or when they throw litter on the ground, I don’t point out their behavior for the purpose of shaming them. It only makes them angry and nothing is accomplished. I will still pick up after a dog or pick up litter, but I do it because it’s the right thing to do.
What do you think is the role of personal example in that sense?
I still pick up garbage but I don't do it hoping the person who littered notices me picking it up. For example, I’ve notice on my street that there is a person who walks their dog and it has a bowel movement while it’s walking, leaving a trail of feces that covers the span of about 30 feet. The issue is I live half a block from a daycare center and if this feces is left on the sidewalk, there will be young children who will trample on it. So I carry a plastic bag in my briefcase so that I can pick up after this dog. I don't advertise it. I just do it because these little kids don't need to walk in that.
You mentioned before that you were working with children who were dying, is this an experience that taught you something meaningful about life?
Children are not supposed to die. As a social worker, because we see such awful things and there are some things that I've seen that I wish I hadn't, I had to learn not to get too absorbed into their situation because it's just overwhelming. At the same time, I couldn’t become too distant because I must always display compassion. It's a difficult road to travel but I think I learned more about life by working with children who were dying. Life is short, and life is not fair. God has to be fair, I have to be fair, the mayor has to be fair, everyone has to be fair… yet it's not fair that children die.
If life is not fair, why do you strive for fairness?
I guess I want to fight that notion that life isn't fair. Here’s something that still haunts me: a young man who was 18, who was involved in gangs and was selling drugs; he was arrested a couple of times and he lived in poverty. He didn't live with his mom, but with his grandmother and he said something on Facebook that got another gang member upset with him. That gang member drove to the Uptown community and just shot him in the chest around six times. This kid was killed on the 1200 block of Leland. Had he lived three or four blocks west on that same street, he’d probably would have been exposed to a much different world and he would be alive today. But he was an African American kid living in poverty without his parents. He went through all kinds of awful things in his life, and it wasn’t fair. So I want to seek fairness because I think we owe it to kids like him. I think that's a shame on our country that we must own up to. There was a study done that showed the amount of property your ancestors had in 1860 has a direct correlation to the amount of education one has today. In 1860, slaves didn’t have property and let’s look at the disproportionate amount of them living in poverty today. That says something about the shame of our country that we never fully provided reparations to address the slavery we forced on African Americans. As a country, we must address this, and it’s going to be tough.
What gives you hope in what you see today?
I like that question because I often deal with people who are hopeless. When someone's hopeless, they are stuck. They could be living on the streets, they could be trapped in the cycle of addiction and people would say “they just have to try harder”... People who don't have hope; they're not going to try harder. There is a young man I know who lives a block away from here who believes with all his heart he'll be dead before he's 30, and he's been arrested many many times and he's been shot three times so far. He has no hope. I still have hope for him, and I still believe in Hope. I believe our world will get better in spite of the horrible things that are happening, especially with climate change and income inequality, and institutional racism. I think our world, in some ways, has gotten much better.
As a little boy growing up in Texas, my dad remembers seeing a lynching of an African-American man in his hometown. I remember Emmett Till. When he was murdered, his mother had an open casket for her son. We don't say enough about Mamie, Emmett’s mom, but she was a Chicago teacher. It was a very brave act she did by having an open casket for her son, because white people were forced to see the effects of racism, and that it was real. Mamie had hoped that by having an open casket for her son, she could shine a light on the evils of racism.
When I was young, schools were still segregated and then they later became integrated. To join a school club, you had to be voted in by your classmates. Our school had just become integrated and the African-Americans left their school to come to ours. White students weren’t voting them in. I knew this was unfair. A group of us students started a club called “The Human Race” club. The purpose of the “Human Race Club” was to integrate clubs, but every single white person who was a member of that club, without exception, had at one time or another, lived outside the state of Texas, including me. We had the opportunity to be exposed to something different, and that’s what caused us to fight racism within our school.
Today, we’ve come so far with addressing institutional racism. We didn't even use that term 10 years ago, and now we're starting to see the harmful effects of it.
I think we're moving in the direction of our world becoming more just and more fair and all of us have our part to play to keep moving it along. It’s not going to be perfect, but we have our roles to play. That’s my hope.