In the summer of 2017, Rev. Linda Slabon and her partner both retired. Slabon was a Unitarian Universalist minister and social worker, while her partner was a professor at Northern Illinois University.
Like many retirees, Slabon used her newfound free time to do more gardening. They threw a Disney Frozen-themed birthday party for their granddaughter.
Then in November, a year into retirement, Slabon won an uncontested election for a spot on the DeKalb County Board. On this week's Friday Forum, we learn more about Slabon's background.
This is her first foray into politics, and she's been learning a lot as she goes. "Probably like most people, I didn't know anything about what the DeKalb County Board does," said Slabon.
Despite her lack of political experience, Slabon's community work with her congregation gives her confidence going into this new position.
"Probably partly why I said 'Yes' to serving as a member of the DeKalb County Board," she said, "is that connection to social justice, and feeling that civic duty was part and parcel of serving your community as a whole."
She's been an activist for many issues over the years, including in 2011 when she helped lead a rally for the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act.
"We had one of the largest pro-civil union rallies at the Sycamore courthouse and marched around the courthouse, and had I think 150-200 people who turned out in support. It was a beautiful event," Slabon said. "We had 10 couples on the courthouse lawn. So we’re activists."
She was the first-ever minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in DeKalb. Unitarian Universalism is a faith group where members gather from all different religious backgrounds. Slabon says you can think of it as a sort of United Nations of faith.
They were also one of the first religious groups to accept LGBT people as ministers. That was the reason Slabon and her partner Toni left the Lutheran church. She grew up there and went to a Lutheran seminary in Chicago, but knew they couldn't be "out" if she wanted to be in the clergy.
"Folks were not out," said Slabon. "There was the understanding that if I was out, basically those who graduated who were my age or in my class, if you were discovered you were put on trial and you were defrocked."
Slabon was in one of the first Lutheran seminary classes that allowed women at all; she was one of about a dozen women with 150 men.
The 2018 midterms were a breakthrough for many women, LGBT people, and people of color. A record number of each were elected nationally and locally.
"I don't know the statistics. I understand I am one of a huge statistic of women who ran and women who won in this last election,” said Slabon.
Slabon has also been told that she's the first open lesbian to serve on the DeKalb County Board.
“That’s a good step. Just again, that strengthening of diversity is powerful for all of us,” she said.
The board is currently comprised of 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats. She says local examples like that can be an antidote to the gridlock and division she sees at the state and national level.
She's also inspired by Michelle Obama's now-famous phrase, "When they go low, we go high."
"It can be true for any candidate for any political commitment," she said. "You can choose the road of respect."
Once she takes her seat on the board, she hopes her ministry and social work experience will help, especially since she'll be on the Health and Human Services committee.
"So, one of the areas of interest for me would be mental health and mental health services," she said. "I know that has been in some ways a struggle in DeKalb County because we don't have, in our county, hospital beds or a unit that is specifically for mental health services."
Healthcare, in general, is a topic she'd like to focus on, having experienced a sliver of the challenges the system can present with her own family.
"Toni and I are very blessed, very fortunate people," said Slabon. "And my brother had resources, and yet like bam-bam-bam, all of a sudden loss-loss-loss, and you know the bills skyrocketed and I could see how quickly you could, as a family, be devastated and left with nothing."
Her experience as a listener and communicator in both of her past careers also will be useful on the county board. She says listening is going to be key, especially for her first few months.
"Many times, when you listen, you’ll find that people have said, in essence, what you perhaps wanted to say," she said.
When she was first elected, she received a small gold pin from the county board adorned with the DeKalb County seal. And she says the words she found at each point on the seal's cross motivated her to serve in her new way:
"If we can each demonstrate service, pride, courage, and integrity, I will feel that I have been part of a strong organization, and I hope to lend those qualities as well."