UI students run for Urbana City Council 

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Photo Courtesy of Jake Fava

Illinois student Jake Fava poses for a professional headshot. Fava is running for Urbana Ward 1’s city council seat.

By Karena Tse, Features Writer

Deborah Liu is a PhD student in materials science. Jake Fava is finishing his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. They came to Urbana as students—Liu in 2016, and Fava the year before. Now, they live and work as devoted members of the community.

“It’s a great town and I love it,” Liu said, “which is why I’m running for council.”

Voters in Champaign and Urbana have until Feb. 23 to participate in the 2021 primary election. Urbana Ward 1’s choice is between Fava and Maryalice Wu, while Liu is running against Shirese Hursey to represent Ward 3.

In these five years, Liu has built a life she holds dear. She has started a family; she has found daily delight in a 15-minute bike commute; she has come to love the way Urbana holds a city’s vibrancy within a small town’s warmth.

Voters will find Liu listed as a Democrat—a distinction she finds unimportant.

“What matters is what I feel about local issues,” she said. “The Democratic National Party doesn’t have any opinions on how the streets should be repaved, or whether or not these houses should be rezoned—they don’t care. But we care.”

Liu’s life in local politics began with the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC). She sought out BPAC meetings after noticing problems in how Urbana moved people through its streets. Liu has held onto her vision of safe and enjoyable transportation no matter the mode.

In April 2019, Urbana resident Shelly Taylor was killed at Main Street and Vine Street’s chaotic intersection. Liu watched as the city council dismissed Taylor’s death as an unfortunate accident. 

“It was infuriating to me,” Liu said. “We’re conditioned to think these are unavoidable tragedies, but that’s not true.”

To Liu, no social issue is simply a fact of life. Traffic deaths are the function of careless road design. Homelessness is a choice politicians make over and over again as they budget millions more into policing and away from vulnerable communities.

Liu believes these problems have solutions. Furthermore, she believes in Urbana’s capacity for creative, researched progress.

“If any community is going to take a leap—an ideological leap, a legislative leap—based on the data that exists, it should really be a town like Champaign-Urbana,” Liu said.

Fava shares Liu’s frustration with the sitting council. He started tuning into their meetings last summer, curious about how his local representatives would engage with the national conversation about anti-Black violence.

The meetings revealed to Fava a council that was quick to signal allyship but reluctant to act on it. He recalled one aimless quarrel about the 2020-2021 police budget.

“They couldn’t even commit to a four percent decrease,” Fava said. “They couldn’t figure out a way to reduce the police budget by even this tiny incremental amount.”

To Fava, the time for decisive action has long passed. This anxiety for change sits with him on a personal level. 

Over the past several years, Fava has worked to contextualize his own whiteness and privilege—a rigorous process that has given way to intense political energy. 

“The more understanding I have, and the more history I learn, the more fired up I get,” he said. 

Fava was eager to step up to candidacy after spending many joyful, important years in Urbana. 

His life in local arts has been particularly fruitful of love and learning. As a Canopy Club open mic regular and an actor at the Station Theatre, Fava found an artist in himself and friends of a lifetime in his fellow performers. 

“This is a very clear opportunity—this opportunity to run for council—to be able to help this community that’s already given me so much,” he said. 

Liu and Fava are invigorated by the momentum of the moment. As leftist challengers fill the ballots, and as public thought makes room for the radical, the young candidates cannot help but have hope.

“We have a moment here to make some big changes,” Liu said. “Some really progressive, really bold things that I think could change Urbana for a long time.”

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