Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Clare Killman is an organizer, mediator, and city councilwoman in Carbondale, Illinois. Alongside the town’s first Black Mayor, Carolin Harvey, Killman made history this spring as the first openly transgender city council person in the history of the state.

Carbondale is a university town in my home region of southern Illinois. Since its peak in 1990, the town’s population has fallen by about 20%, to just under 22,000 people in 2020. Despite that population decline, and like in many college towns, the area around Southern Illinois University feels quite urban, and distinct from its outskirts and the smaller towns that surround it. In 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and paved the way for statewide abortion bans to pass in parts of the country. Afterwards, two reproductive healthcare clinics offering that service relocated to Carbondale from southern states, making the town the southernmost abortion access point for many in the Eastern United States. In July, Killman sought to protect those clinics and their patients. She spearheaded the push for municipal protections for people seeking reproductive and gender-affirming care, which passed unanimously. With that bit of recent news in mind, it’s easy to see how the city served as a beacon to a young progressive with a rural sensibility. 

Enjoy our conversation about small-town activism, multiculturalism, and ungovernability, below. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Let’s start with your bio: who are you? Where are you from? How’d you end up in Carbondale?

Clare Killman: I came to Carbondale a little over a decade ago, fleeing what I consider persecution upon the basis of my gender and sexuality, out of Missouri. My parents put me through conversion therapy when I was 14.

I was on my own by 17 and made it here that same year. Illinois, and Carbondale within Illinois, is a lot more hospitable than where I grew up in southern Missouri. So I packed everything I could into my little ’99 Chevy Silverado and trucked it over here. And luckily I was able to self actualize and become the person that I am today. I married my husband and built a life here. Now I work in Illinois First Judicial Circuit as a mediator. I also run a couple of statewide programs that are funded through the federal government every year for the state of Illinois. And then I was elected in April, as the first transgender city council person in Illinois.

Clare Killman speaking at the Southern Illinois Pridefest, 2023. (Photo provided by Killman)

DY: Can you tell me about the statewide programs that you run?

CK: Yes, I run the Illinois agricultural mediation program, which services all areas of Illinois. So if any agricultural producer is involved in a dispute, I can have their dispute mediated for free.

DY: What kinds of agricultural disputes do you mediate?

CK: For the statewide program, any disputes involving someone who is an agricultural producer. So it could be anything in their life, really, the language is very broad. But I also do eviction, community, and family mediation in the First Circuit.

DY: How did you become a mediator?

CK: I have a background in criminal justice reform and advocacy. I worked on a U.S. congressional campaign in 2019 and 2020, and then before then I was a proponent of a divestment plan that basically wanted to downsize Carbondale’s police budget and reinvest those monies into community-led social programs.

In June, Killman helped break ground on the Southern Illinois Multimodal Station, which will replace the town’s current Amtrak location. (Photo provided)

That was a very complicated system of advocacy and organizing, but there were a bunch of pilot projects that got developed out of that. I became affiliated with our local State’s Attorney’s Office, and ultimately was on the steering committee and set up the Citizens Advisory Board for the Jackson County State’s Attorney’s Office. Once I was involved in the legal community and the political community, there’s a lot of overlap. So that’s how I made the connections that built the inroads for me to become a mediator.

DY: I’m from nearby West Frankfort but always felt like I’ve never really understood what’s going on in Carbondale. So it’s interesting to me that you say it seemed like a safe place in comparison to southern Missouri, because I think of Southern Illinois as being quite conservative. What made Carbondale feel like a good place for you?

CK: Well, I’m a rural American who grew up in a rural community and Carbondale sort of fits within that for me. So it’s a pace of life that I’m used to, but there’s a very progressive sort of ethos that permeates the culture here. And that was just appealing from the outside. I think it was recognizable because of either the university or the collection of individuals that we have here. It just tends to be more open minded, broadly speaking, and so I was able to see from the outside that there was opportunity, even for someone like me, in Carbondale. 

Regarding the political aspects of Carbondale and Southern Illinois more broadly, we’ve always represented some measure of ungovernability to the rest of the state of Illinois. Southern Illinois University was a bit of a domestication project on the part of the state for the wild Southern Illinoisans. And it worked to some degree, but there’s still this sort of rowdy impulse here that I love. I’m from remote areas that are not metropolitan in their sensibilities. So, that’s a portion of what it means to be a Southern Illinoisan, and by extension a Carbondalian. But Carbondale is also multicultural and multiethnic. We have people who are here from Cherán and Oaxaca, and a Hindu temple and multiple mosques. And we have a Jewish Faith Center and more community organizations per capita than just about anywhere, even being as small as we are. So I think it’s very reasonable, especially having lived here for a while now, to think that just about anyone could come here and build a life worth living.

DY: If you’re coming to work in these super local community organizations, you’re immediately invested in a kind of city politics, but when did that start to take a more formal track for you?

CK: So 2018 was when I started really seriously thinking philosophically about what it means to live in a place, and about leaving places better than I found them, and taking ownership of a place even if it’s only a small corner of it. I think that was the year that I really had this deeply reflective epiphany around place-based organizing, and then that morphed into a more regional focus with a couple of board appointments that I’d had, and then I was on the executive committee for a U.S. congressional campaign. That sort of transformed my own sense of political identity here into something that extended beyond me. And then I was very lovingly harassed by everyone I knew to run. So, I ran.

DY: Can you expand on the epiphany about place-based organizing?

CK: Yes, so, philosophically speaking, I identify as a Bookchin municipalist in the philosophical vein of Murray Bookchin. I would prefer that power be centralized at the lowest possible level, all things taken into consideration, including people’s tendency to offload the burden of governing on to others. Because, even in the most informal, directly democratic sort of spokescouncil models, there are still preclusions for people to, say, hold a referendum on anything. Otherwise, we would be voting all day, every day and wouldn’t have time to do anything else. And there will always be people who don’t want to engage with the democratic process, so it becomes necessary, even when you’re decentralizing power and making it accessible and recallable and localizing it, that people still be in the position of governing. And so that’s how I sort of rationalize my own political nature.

DY: Was there any one experience that brought you to that philosophy, or did it just come from reading and pondering?

CK: Well, I hung out with a lot of cool people, people who are a lot smarter than me and had thought about it much longer, since the Occupy Movement in 2011. And I took a big trip to New York. I was living with a woman there who I was romantically involved with and she and I were pretty radical. We lived in some shitty subdivided flat in Bushwick. We were poets, and she was a dramaturge, and we were radical feminists, and it was just this whole other world. And that definitely influenced my frame of reference. But that matured over the years between 2018 and 2020, when I traveled throughout the United States, meeting up with like-minded individuals who felt similarly about the state of the United States, and the way in which power is distributed here, from a critical perspective.

DY: Well that definitely makes sense as motivation for getting involved in city politics. Does that philosophy manifest in your day to day work and in the priorities you have as a city councilperson?

CK: Oh, yes. My first priority is for the public good. But my second obligation is to my own principles, and so it affects every decision that I make as I move through the politicized landscape of Carbondale and beyond.

DY: What are the major issues and decisions to be made right now?

CK: In July, I got a Human Rights Title passed that outlined multiple measures by which people cannot be discriminated against, or put in a position of a pejorative. I also enumerated a chapter on bodily autonomy, which safeguards people’s ability to seek abortion related services or health care related to gender affirming care. I delineated those as protected here in part because people are coming from as far away as Florida and Texas to seek abortions and gender affirming care in Illinois, specifically in Carbondale. And I didn’t want to comply with any extradition attempts by states who would be maybe hostile to their own residents coming to Carbondale and seeking the services that we provide. 

So looking into the future, there are two successive pushes that have been reserved, I guess that’s the appropriate phrasing. So in the Human Rights title, we reserved a push for housing rights and then a push for workers rights. And we intend to have the two of those voted on by winter.

DY: What was it like as a citizen, and potentially as a politician, to observe the way that Carbondale adapted after Roe v. Wade was struck down?

CK: So I don’t necessarily identify with the word citizen, but I do identify with the word resident because there are plenty of people that I serve, who are not citizens of the United States that live in Carbondale and are simply just residing here. And some of them can’t even vote for me. So it’s my obligation to serve all of Carbondale’s residents, whether they’re citizens or not. 

It has been interesting and, I think, important for Carbondale to remain flexible in its identity. I think it underpins what it means to be an Illinoisan to some degree, to stand firmly in a progressive legacy. Beyond that, I think it’s very illustrative of how hospitable Carbondale can be to people who are seeking a better life for themselves.

DY: Has there been a lot of pushback from people within the town or from southern Illinoisans outside of Carbondale?

CK: No, I’m a southern Illinoisan and just like them, and I don’t hold their opinions against them. It doesn’t mean that I’ll change mine or my vote.

DY: I guess I’m just wondering about how, on a national level, municipal politics have gotten a lot more fraught and a lot more difficult in the past few years. Has that been a part of your experience?

CK: No. That could change, you know, the future remains uncertain. They still got me for three and a half more years. So, who knows? However, that has not been my experience thus far. And I will say that a lot of the partisan drift that seems to be happening at the macro level really dissolves when you get down into interpersonal relations and sitting across the table from someone and having a conversation. Because there are many people in my life who support me and my candidacy who are conservatives. And I don’t think that just because we’re surrounded by conservatives here means that there’s an us-versus-them mentality. We’re all a part of the same broader ecosystem in southern Illinois. I would hate to ever add to the tendency to see the region as us-versus-them, because I feel fundamentally interconnected to, and a part of, Southern Illinois. I’m a Southern Illinoisan. It’s just as much a part of me as I am of it.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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