Former alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons remembers influential time as student

Every year, ETHS honors alums who have made an impact on their communities, both while at ETHS and later in their lives. The Distinguished Alumni Award is given to members of different graduating classes, honoring their achievements and reflecting on the impact ETHS has had on their lives. This year, the award ceremony was held on Jan. 31, where seven alumni members were presented with the award. Evelyn Alexander, Class of 1954, Coleman Brown, Class of 1952 and Lenora Moragne, Class of 1950, were honored posthumously. Michael Arrington, Richard Pildes, Robin Rue Simmons and Ben Wolf received the award and spoke to community members and students about the impact ETHS has had on their careers and lives. The Evanstonian was privileged to speak to Arrington, Pildes, Simmons, and Wolf about their experiences receiving this distinguished award.

In the 28 years since Robin Rue Simmons graduated from Evanston Township High School, the former alderwoman and current executive director of FirstRepair has championed the first US government funded reparations legislation, founded multiple businesses based in Evanston’s Fifth Ward and served as the president of the Evanston Black Business Alliance.

Simmons graduated from ETHS in 1994 and attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She began her career as a residential real estate broker before pursuing entrepreneurship, launching several businesses based in Evanston’s Fifth Ward. In 2017, Simmons was elected as alderwoman of the Fifth Ward, a position she held until 2021 when she left politics to found FirstRepair, an organization committed to furthering federally funded reparations for Black Americans.

Throughout Simmons’ accomplished and varied career, one constant has remained: her connection to Evanston’s Fifth Ward.

“I still live in the Fifth Ward. You know, my family is growing in the Fifth Ward. I live, work, play, worship and grow all in the Fifth Ward,” Simmons said.

It was Simmons’ experiences growing up in Evanston’s historically segregated Fifth Ward, as well as the lessons she acquired as the ETHS Student Council president, that inspired her career priorities, namely working to improve conditions for Evanston’s Black community and pursuing federal reparations legislation.

“In high school, I remember organizing student walkouts for various social justice causes. Being a Fifth Ward native, I saw our racial divide,” Simmons said. “I was certain that I wanted to improve the life circumstances of the Black community in Evanston because I recognized our divide but I also recognized the commitment and the will to do more, … and that is evident in what we’ve done in Evanston [by] passing the nation’s first local reparations initiative that is funded.”

Simmons experienced a major breakthrough for her goals in 2019 when she championed the nation’s first federally funded local reparations initiative. Resolution 126-R-19 committed ten million dollars of Evanston’s cannabis sales tax revenue to fund local reparations for housing and economic development programs for Black Evanston residents.  

“Federal reparations is the north star; it is the ultimate goal of our work in local reparations. But I will continue informing, and I’ll continue learning from other thought leaders in this community and beyond Evanston on how we can improve the models, how we can expand the funds, how we can not only repair in tangible ways, but also reckon [with] and heal the trauma that we experience as black residents in Evanston in the United States,” Simmons said. “I had no idea that my work would inspire the nation and that I would be part of such a historic time, but I was clear that I was committed to giving back to the community”

While her career has now led her to work on a national scale, Simmons maintains that the time she spent as alderwoman was the most valuable of her career and that she intends to continue living, working, and pursuing progress in Evanston’s Fifth Ward.

[Being alderwoman for the Fifth Ward] will probably be the most special experience that I’ll have in my community, life or my civic life. It was an incredible honor to be the voice of the Fifth Ward on city council, representing all families and constituencies and communities within our very diverse community,” Simmons said. “But moving on from that role, I believe that my commitment is the same…I fully expect that my work will continue being centered here in Evanston and centered here in the Fifth Ward.”

Simmons has received many recognitions and accolades for her trailblazing career, but she says that she is especially appreciative to receive the ETHS Distinguished Alumni Award.

“This Distinguished Alumni Award is incredibly special to me, because I credit not only my family’s values and their example of civic engagement and leadership, but how my experience at Evanston Township High School enforced those learnings,” Simmons said. “This award is meaningful. My children are graduates of Evanston Township High School. My grandchildren will likely be graduates of Evanston Township High School, and to be recognized by the very community that helped establish me as a civic leader is greatly appreciated.”