From addiction to election: How to break the glass ceiling

Despite a rough start, Aaron Ammons became the first elected African American County Clerk in Champaign County

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Photo courtesy of Aaron Ammons

Champaign County Clerk Aaron Ammons speaks during a Black Lives Matter protest during the summer of 2020. Ammons talks about his journey to becoming the country clerk in 2018.

By Faith Allendorf, Features Editor

28-year-old Aaron Ammons was enjoying a day off from his job at the Lincolnshire Marathon on Kirby and Mattis avenues when he got the call that all waged employees dread: His boss asked him to come into work.

Ammons said he did not want to go, but something told him to answer the phone.

“I was like, I’m not going in, and then I heard a voice say, ‘Pick up the phone,’” he said.

The same voice also told him to take the book he was currently reading, “The Souls of Black Folk,” with him.

Ammons read his book while he worked, setting it down to serve the occasional customer.

One customer, in particular, saw what Ammons was reading. He was so intrigued that he came back to speak to Ammons 10 minutes after he had left. The man was Dr. Patrick Nizzi. Dr. Nizzi asked Ammons if he was interested in working with troubled youth.

Ammons then said, “It’s a dream of mine.”

In response, Dr. Nizzy said, “We want you to come and work for us.”

After that conversation, his life completely changed.

In 2018, Aaron Ammons became the first African American to be elected as the Champaign County Clerk. Official seats in Champaign had only been held by Black individuals twice before: Champaign County Attorney James Burgess Jr. in 1972 and Chair Woman Patricia Avery in 2000.

But Ammons’ life was not always in the limelight. Shortly after leaving Parkland College in his early 20s, he began battling drug addiction.

He explained that he had only occasionally smoked marijuana and drank. However, one day he smoked a joint he did not know was laced with cocaine. After, he sank into the depths of addiction. He also had several run-ins with law enforcement and was in jail a few times.

“I was ushered into hell for about 10 years, using, lacing, drinking,” he said. “I was in a bad space.”

During this time, Ammons said he used his love for reading and writing as therapeutic measures.

“I did a lot of reading and reflecting, just started reading all types of books that were opening my mind,” he said. “The Bible, or the Quran or Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, just reading and writing voraciously. It’s what saved me.”

Ammons wanted to recover, but reading was only the first step. One day, he bumped into Portland Reed, an alumna of the College of Law at the University of Illinois. The two talked a lot, and Reed made Ammons an outline detailing the steps he had to take to get clean.

“I kept that outline for years,” Ammons said.

Ammons explained that when he was working toward recovery, he re-enrolled in Parkland College. He mentioned that during this time, he was living with a woman whose sister gave him “The Souls of Black Folk.”

“Her sister brought me ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ to read the night before I met Dr. Nizzi at the gas station,” he said. “I believe that it was divine intervention. There’s no other way to explain it. I wasn’t even supposed to go (to work).”

Ammons, already on the road to recovery, became completely clean by the time he started working at Chanute Transition Center: a facility and program that helped ex-juvenile offenders return to society.

A year and a half into working at CTC, he met his wife, Carol. Carol Ammons has been a representative of the 103rd district in the Illinois House of Representatives since 2015. She said that Mr. Ammons is a huge people person.

“What I love most about him is that he truly loves people,” she said about her husband. “He will do whatever is within his power to help.”

Mr. Ammons’ service record extends far beyond CTC. He served on the Urbana city council, was the founder of Citizens with Conviction, the president of the Service Employees International Union local affiliate chapter 119 and a founder of an organization called C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice: a grassroots effort to work on criminal justice reform, environmental issues and political education.

Then, in 2018, he became Champaign County Clerk.

“He eats this stuff, breathes it, wakes up in the morning with,” Rep. Ammons said. “It’s part of who he is.”

Ammons said his organizing lead him to meet some inspirational pioneers in the fight for social justice. He once marched with the late Representative Reverend John Lewis.

“I got to lock arms with him and walk proudly in a marching demonstration to encourage people to go vote,” he said. “That was more memorable for me. It was just incredible.”

Holding an office as a pioneering Black man has not been easy for Ammons. He said it had been really rough being the first because of the racism that still persists, and that it shows up all the time in various different ways.

Angela Patton, Ammons’ chief of staff, recounted a time when she and Ammons were interviewing a man they thought they would bring into the office. However, Patton recalled that he would not look at Ammons nor answer him directly even though he was the one asking the questions.

“People start talking to me because I’m white and that’s comfortable,” she said. “Those microaggressions are happening all the time.”

However, Ammons said he will not back down.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Ammons said. “But I believe in it. I’m okay and I think I’m built for it and I’m ready for what comes.”

In an email, Alderman Chris Evans, and long-time friend of Ammons, said the Clerk’s use of education and discipline to get out of addiction is inspiring.

“His story shows what decisions must be made, what help is needed, what disciplines need to be adopted to walk away from the addictions, habits and the poor philosophies and thinking that must be replaced with accurate history and proper self-esteem,” he said.

Similarly, Patton thought that Ammons’ utilization of his past is an important story to tell those who have been through what he has.

“He believes it can help people, and I’ve watched him utilize what people would consider something to be ashamed of,” Patton said. “I think that’s really powerful.”

Rep. Ammons said that she was proud of her husband, also mentioning that mistakes can be overcome and moving forward is not completely unattainable.

“People make mistakes,” she said. “And whatever that mistake is, hopefully, you have an opportunity to correct that mistake. From that point, moving forward in your life in a positive direction is a story that I think all people should tell.”

Looking back on where he came from, Mr. Ammons is both proud and sentimental. He believes all of the things he went through strengthened him to break glass ceilings. He was meant to help others shatter them too.

“I felt proud, I really did, to be able to shatter such a glass ceiling, and I do want to be an example for folks that, especially that look like me, and people who come from the experience that I come from, that you can change your life around,” Ammons said.

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