While his background spans a variety of industries and sectors, Jonathan T. Swain has always been a strategic thinker driven to solve problems, specifically those that affect the individuals and communities in Chicagoland.
After receiving his undergraduate degree from Duke University, Jonathan earned a Juris Doctor degree from Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. Immediately after graduating in 1999, Jonathan started his career in government, serving as Chief of Staff for Alderman Terry Peterson and Alderman Latasha R. Thomas. He then moved into the Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, as an Assistant to the Mayor, before being appointed Deputy Commissioner for the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development—the youngest person to hold that position at the time. Simultaneously, Jonathan was working toward getting his MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
In 2007, Jonathan transitioned into an active role as a board member, and later Chairman, of City of Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals, serving under both Mayor Daley and Mayor Emanuel, before being chosen for his current role as a Commissioner of the Chicago Board of Elections.
In addition to his government work, Jonathan was recently chosen to lead LINK Unlimited Scholars as CEO—tasked with taking the over 50-year-old institution into a new phase of innovation. Jonathan also serves as President of Kimbark Beverage Shoppe, his family’s 50-year old business in Hyde Park, and Director of Eat Drink and Be Events, a company responsible for the success of Chicago Bourbon and Barbeque Fest, Hyde Park Brew Fest, Lincoln Park Wine Fest, and Whiskey by the Water.
When he’s not serving as president, director, commissioner or CEO, Jonathan is a husband and father. He lives in Hyde Park with his wife Angela and their three boys, and remains deeply committed to the concept of proactive, strategic community and economic development in Chicago.
GO BANG! Magazine: Growing up, you took your education very serious and pursued learning with a vigor. What was it about your childhood that motivated you to focus on education so fiercely?
Jonathan T. Swain: My parents honestly. They didn’t have as many options growing up in the Jim Crow south. So, as they starting having kids, they wanted to make sure that all of us had every opportunity educationally. I had the good fortune of following in my sibling’s footsteps too, so that made it easier.
GO BANG! Magazine: The Swain family has successfully owned Kimbark Beverage Shoppe since 1974, and it’s currently under your leadership as President and Principal. What do you think is the secret to its success over the years and do you plan to expand to other neighborhood locations?
Jonathan T. Swain: I think the secret sauce is keeping the customer first in mind. Hyde Park is extremely diverse so there are a lot of customer segments. That leads to a diverse product mix. But that aside, we are a business that relies on repeat customers, so the better they feel when they leave the more often they will come back.
GO BANG! Magazine: You are quite a dynamic person. In addition to being an entrepreneur, you have an extensive career in several government divisions. Currently you’re the Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Board of Elections. With this being a pivotal election year, with Trump up for re-election and Covid-19 wreaking havoc and fear, there’s going to be unprecedented interference with people getting their vote out in November. It’s being proposed that voting be done early and by mail. Trump is spewing that voting by mail can easily be hacked and tampered with, trying to scare the public. What can you say to assure citizens of Chicago that their votes will be counted and that the voting by mail system is secure and reliable?
Jonathan T. Swain: That’s very kind. The Chicago Board of Elections is a three member panel that oversees all of the elections in Chicago. It’s our responsibility to ensure that every eligible voter can register and that every registered voter can vote. Our current vote-by-mail system is very reliable, but we are introducing safeguards to ensure every vote is counted. That includes the creation of drop-off boxes to ensure we receive your vote on time and handwriting experts making sure signatures on the ballot match.
If you are interested in voting by mail, go to our website to apply. If you enter your email address you will be informed via email during every step of the process.
GO BANG! Magazine: Your involvement in the African American community with LINK Unlimited Scholars is commendable. Why do you feel the need to be involved with the community and how does LINK facilitate that need?
Jonathan T. Swain: My parent taught me that doing well is not mutually exclusive with doing good. Said a different way, to whom much is given, much is required. So, civic activity is really part of my DNA. Serving as the President and CEO of LINK Unlimited Scholars affords me the opportunity to develop and lead an organization that combines three of my passions, Chicago, the Black Community, and Education/Learning. I don’t think there is anywhere else that I could serve that allows me to have that sort of impact on all three passions at once
GO BANG! Magazine: Eat, Drink and Be Events is extensively involved with festivals in Hyde Park, Lincoln Park and other prominent neighborhoods. As the Director, what is the company’s primary mission and goal?
Jonathan T. Swain: When we started the company, we wanted to bring events we saw on the North side of Chicago to the South side. Why shouldn’t we be able to enjoy events in our own community? Of course at that time the Chosen Few Picnic and the African Fest were the only events on this side of town. So that’s why we started the Hyde Park Brew Fest. As it grew from 500 people in its first year to over 50K in recent years, the event developed into an economic engine for our community. Not only did the local businesses benefit, but we were creating an economy for our vendors, merchants, and other Black-owned companies. That doesn’t include the jobs we also created for the weekend.
GO BANG! Magazine: As a young, black, entrepreneurial male you are an inspiration and motivation to people, especially people of color. How does it feel to know that your success inspires others to succeed and what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Jonathan T. Swain: Thanks for the young part… I would give two categories of advice, one technical and one inspirational. From a technical point of view, every business is solving a problem or filling a need. If you can’t answer the problem you are solving or the need you are fulfilling then you need to rethink your business. Just because you are good at something or passionate about something doesn’t mean it solves a problem or fulfills a need. If you focus on those two things, you have a greater likelihood of success.
From the inspiration point of view, what you see is more important that what you feel. Entrepreneurship is like being on a ship in rocky seas. The only way to really stay steady and not get sick is to keep your eye on the horizon. Your legs may be wobbling and you may be listing left and right, but if you keep your eye on the horizon, you will be steady.
GO BANG! Magazine: The COVID-19 pandemic has caught the world off guard. How are you dealing with it personally?
Jonathan T. Swain: My wife encourages me to reframe challenges. The response to COVID is challenging to everyone, but it also has been a great time to hit the hard restart button. Every assumption has been turned upside down, so traditional rules don’t apply. This has been the time to do something new and that’s what I have been doing.
GO BANG! Magazine: On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down, begging for his life and repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.” This incident has caused civil unrest and massive protests across the world. How do you feel about this unfortunate situation and call for police reform due to the horrible treatment of minorities by the police?
Jonathan T. Swain: George Floyd’s murder was a public lynching in my mind. The officer’s goal was to break the spirit of everyone watching, especially Black people. It didn’t work. There is a passage in the Bible that says for life to come forth a seed must first fall to the ground and die. Unfortunately, Mr. Floyd was that seed, but I am encouraged by all of the life that has sprung from it. People are organizing and acknowledging the racial inequity and injustice in America. Conversations that were buried have now risen to the surface. Cities are reevaluating their budgets to ensure they align with the priorities of the people. So a lot of life is arising from his tragic death.
GO BANG! Magazine: Most businesses had to temporarily close due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some businesses even went out of business. During the pandemic the George Floyd murder took place in Minnesota, which caused protests and riots across the world, including here in Chicago. Kimbark Beverage Shoppe was extensively affected by looting, which caused it to close and lose income. How did that make you feel, being a black owned business, as well as give your opinion on why you think there was rampant looting in general?
Jonathan T. Swain: The break-in at my store wasn’t tied to the protest. A crew of people used protest as a cover to commit crimes in our community. The people that hit my store weren’t the only ones. That activity drove a lot of the criminal destruction on the South side. With that said, I had my initial feelings about it, but the outpouring of support from friends, customers and community more than made up for the negative feeling we experienced.
As to the question of looting, I don’t agree with it, but I don’t judge it. In fact, I understand it. Looting was driven by the same racial and economic frustration as the crime and protests. Yes, people were taking material goods, but I also saw people taking groceries and diapers. So, I’d rather focus on eliminating the cause of the frustration than commenting on how people displayed their frustration in that case.
GO BANG! Magazine: In conclusion, as the father of three boys that have witnessed the brutality being committed by police officers on Black and Brown males. What advice can you give them and other young males to help them navigate safely through these volatile times?
Jonathan T. Swain: This is a tough one for me, my sons and Black people in general, not just males…and it’s not over. We will have to deal with this again during and after the verdict. With that said, I would tell them what I tell myself every morning. Find your hope, anchor it in something secure, and ground yourself in it. Once hope is gone, then the fight is over. So, hold on to hope!
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Pierre A. Evans is a freelance writer of Entertainment, Music, Art, Culture, Fashion and Current Events, and previously for SoulTrain.com, NDigo.com, ChicagoDefender.com, EmpireRadioMagazine.com, and UrbanMuseMag.com, an author, singer/songwriter, actor, model, poet, dancer, and DJ. He is also the owner of Pinnacle Entertainment Productions. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and on Instagram