4 Days Before Christmas

By Jordan Esparza

In the beginning of December, my dad contacted our apartment building ownership to let them know we would be looking to extend our lease. We decided that, at least for another 6 to 12 months, we would stay put and reassess our living situation at some point in the next coming year. At the time, we were renting a two bedroom apartment in the 7th ward of Waukegan, Illinois. It wasn’t much. Like most apartments and housing these days, you don’t even really get what you pay for. 

On December 21st–ten days until the end of the month, and four days before Christmas–building ownership responded to my dad letting him know that if we chose to extend our leasing agreement we would have to increase our rent payment by nearly double. As you can imagine, this wasn’t possible. Not only was it outside of our financial means, we had less than a pay period to come up with double the money for our home. 

It was devastating. We spent the next week endlessly searching for a place that we could afford and would approve our application in a rapid fashion. Luckily, we found a place on the 30th and began the move that night. 

My family has always been way closer to poverty than we have been to affluence, throughout my life. And, in this instance, we were genuinely a couple hundred bucks away from being homeless. The reality that, “it could happen to anybody“ hit me that day of the 21st when I was told our rent would double if we wanted to stay put. How is this just?

Much of America is aware that we are in a full-blown housing, encompassing all forms of housing–home ownership, homelessness, rent disputes, and more. In America, ownership is the bottom line; the end-all-be-all. If there is ownership, there is no need for humanity. Thankfully, my dad and I were able to handle this situation–barely, but we did. What about the others, though? What about my downstairs neighbor who they informed on the same day as us that they would no longer be accepting her section 8 voucher? What is to happen to her and her family?

At the bottom of this article you will see no GoFundMe account, Cash App, Zelle, or any kind of fundraising effort. That’s not what I’m here for, and I particularly do not need saving. I want action. As a people, we need to demand rights and protections for renters. We need this information to be abundant and we need a humane relationship between property owners and renters. If anyone knows of any policymakers currently working towards this I would love to extend my lived experience in advocacy for the cause.

A nation with mass homelessness is not a strong nation. A nation of mass poverty is not a strong nation. A government set up to only work for big business is not beneficial to the people. I ask that you all just meditate on the situation that I’ve explained and ask yourself “how much longer are we willing to wait for change? How much longer are we willing to wait for a better opportunity at a good life?” We cannot wait. These are things that we must seize. Our lives, collectively, depend on it.

Between Worlds

By Caleb Dunson

In the summertime, music blares from cars and homes. Songs from the Isley Brothers and Chief Keef mix together to envelop your ears in a new, chaotic soundtrack, its bass rattling the ground you stand on. The smell –– a mix of car exhaust, weed, and liquor –– thickly coats the air. The warmth brings seniors out onto their porches and young folks out onto the block, both groups with nothing good to do. In the morning, working adults dressed in suits, scrubs, and fast food uniforms find their way onto the elevated train that screeches by every seven minutes. They don’t return until the sun has nearly set.

At night the street lamps and illegal fireworks create beautiful constellations, and the moon shimmers in the background. The train still shrieks and the music still blares, but now the chatter of evening conversations floats through the air. Gunshots echo sometimes, but with the fireworks, it’s hard to tell just how often. 

Go a couple of blocks westward, though, and it’s quiet. The mornings are filled with birds whispering, squirrels scurrying, and runners panting. The elderly move in packs on their morning walks, gossiping and judging the quality of their neighbors’ massive lawns. The air is fresh, the trees and grass pristine, the houses glistening in the sun. On one block, a kaleidoscopic BLACK LIVES MATTER mural is plastered on the pavement. It was defaced last summer, but no one talks about that. 

In the afternoon, teenagers, mostly white, spill out of the local high school. Some wander about, and others rush to sports practice, all of them talking about everything and nothing. The night returns to quiet as the perfect four-person families settle into their homes to have dinner together and watch evening tv shows. The idyllic life in the idyllic neighborhood. 

There are two worlds, and I live on the threshold between them. My house sits on the street that separates Austin –– one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago –– from Oak Park –– a white middle-class suburban paradise. It’s a wide street, the buses run on it, the train perpendicular to and above it. Potholes riddle the pavement on the city-side, but the suburb side is always freshly paved. 

Oak Park was first settled in 1835 as a small rest station for travelers. But after the 1848 construction of the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, settlers began moving to the town in droves. In 1865, one of those settlers, Henry Austin, purchased 470 acres of land just east of Oak Park to establish a settlement he would call “Austinville.” He envisioned the town as a quiet, greenery-rich, temperance community, and built it into exactly that, incorporating the area into the collection of suburbs known as the Cicero Township. 

Among other amenities, Austinville’s elevated train service ––– developed in the late 1880s –– drew people to the town, and by the 1890s Austinville had become the largest settlement in the Township. When Austinville looked to extend its elevated train through Oak Park, the Oak Park residents refused, but because of its sheer population size and political power, Austin steamrolled the smaller suburb and got the extension approved. Just before the turn of the 20th century, Oak Park and the other small suburban towns retaliated by voting Austinville out of the Township, and it was soon annexed to Chicago in 1899 under the name Austin. Thus began the tension between the two neighborhoods.

Today, that elevated train runs westward from the business district in downtown Chicago, through Austin, and straight into the heart of Oak Park. It transports white-collar workers from the blissful suburb to the bustling city. It takes money straight from the heart of Chicago and sends it right out into the suburbs, skipping over Austin. 

The only time Oak Park residents and Austin residents interact, if you could call it that much, is on that train. During morning rush hour, they crowd onto the elevated platform, waiting silently next to one another. Once on the train, they ride in silence. The only exchanges they share are “is this seat open” as they pile onto the train cars, and “excuse me” as they quickly brush past one another. And they exit in silence too, the Black Austin residents trickling off the train as it travels eastward through the neighborhood and approaches downtown, eventually leaving train cars full of white workers.

When Oak Park residents decide to venture into Austin, they often do so to exploit and extract. In March of 2021, when the City of Chicago was beginning to distribute the COVID vaccine, they decided to vaccinate adults in “underserved community areas” before allowing all adults across the city to get vaccinated. Austin was one of those community areas. And yet, as I stood in line outside of my neighborhood vaccination site, I saw several groups of white families trying to appear as if they lived in the neighborhood and not-so-subtly whispering about their post-vaccination brunch plans in Oak Park. They were never caught.  

Around the same time, the City of Chicago launched a capital program to invest in a list of “traditionally underfunded community areas,” and once again Austin made that list. Soon after the program’s launch, the city began awarding contracts for development projects in Austin. The crown jewel contract was a redevelopment project on the Laramie State Bank, a sprawling multi-story building with cream bricks and gold terracotta sculptures etched into its walls. Several Austin-based organizations applied for the contract. It was won by Oak Park Regional Housing. 

In the early 20th century, Austin turned into a refuge for middle-class European immigrants, and with those immigrants came expansive housing development projects. Victorian mansions, two-flats, bungalows, condos, and apartments, along with massive parks and green spaces sprouted up around the neighborhood. But by the 1960s, redlining had reached its height on the predominantly Black South Side of  Chicago, and middle-class Black families, frustrated with discriminatory housing laws, began moving to Austin en-masse. In response, white Austin residents, convinced that the influx of Black families would tank their property values, sold their homes and fled to the surrounding suburbs like Oak Park, taking their tax dollars and investing power with them. Real estate brokers took advantage of the mass exodus, selling newly vacant properties to Black families at exorbitant prices and offering predatory mortgages. Property values depreciated, and with manufacturing jobs disappearing throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the neighborhood was plunged into social and economic disarray. Businesses died, families left, crime rose. The neighborhood fell.

When my mom, fresh out of graduate school, bought our third-floor condo unit in 2007, Austin was framed as an up-and-coming community, and the idea of the neighborhood being re-annexed by Oak Park seemed plausible. But nearly 15 years and two economic crashes later, nothing much has changed. The Victorian mansions are hollow, as if their very essence has been sucked out. Their roofs are cracked, their paint is peeling, and their foundations are crumbling. Only their broken facades remain, offering a haunting image of what once was. Vacant lots line the streets, mixing concrete and waist-high weeds. The parks’ trees are infected with ash beetles, which eat away at the trees’ bark, leaving them smooth and weak. The grass in the park has died, leaving patches of dirt littered with liquor bottles, crack bags, and junk food wrappers. 

And yet, in spite of that, community persists here. When I was 6, my mom used to take me to the town hall building, a structure reminiscent of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, to play basketball. The local park district didn’t have jerseys for us, so we had to play shirts and skins. That same year I was in a summer program at the now-closed Marcy Newberry childcare agency. We ate cheap lunches, played on old playgrounds, and took one major field trip to a fast-food restaurant. I got my first haircut from an old childhood friend of my dad; they had grown up together in Austin. In fact, my parents first met while working high school jobs at a McDonald’s in the area. On special occasions, my mom would take me to MacArthur’s, a soul food restaurant that served huge portions and vowed to keep their prices affordable for the community. 

Backyard parties played stepping music and got the old folks dancing as if it was their heyday, and graduation parties showered young folks with gifts and praise to celebrate their success. When news broke of kids getting shot in our neighborhood, the entire community mourned. Vigils were held, and streetside memorials were made with pictures, stuffed animals, and flowers. 

I love Austin, despite its struggles. I love that my neighborhood has shaped me, showing me just how chaotic and messy and magnificent the world can be. I love that Austin’s relationship with Oak Park has opened my eyes to injustice and gifted me with a passion for building a better society. I love that thinking about home keeps me grounded as I sit in stuffy classrooms with sons of billionaires, waiting for my moment to build that better world. 

I love how the 100,000 lives in my neighborhood have been threaded together, how we find beauty as we cover those vacant homes with spray paint and turn them into art, how we find joy as we repurpose those vacant lots into playgrounds, how we find community as we congregate in those dying parks to celebrate holidays and family reunions. It’s not the idyllic life, but it’s beautiful.

Sources

Austin Coming Together. (2013). History – austincomingtogether.org. Austin Coming Together. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://austincomingtogether.org/history/. 

Chicago Historical Society. (n.d.). Austin. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/93.html. 

Chicago ”l”.org: History – lake street ”l” chronology (1888-1924). (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.chicago-l.org/history/chron_lake.html. 

Donnelly, G. (2017, May 22). Our neighborhood pick: Austin. Chicago Reporter. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.chicagoreporter.com/our-neighborhood-pick-austin/. 

Editorial Board. (2021, March 9). Saving Laramie State Bank. Oak Park. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.oakpark.com/2021/03/09/saving-laramie-state-bank/. 

Eltagouri, M. (2017, July 14). Austin population drops to no. 2 in City for 1st time in 45 years. chicagotribune.com. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-austin-population-decline-met-20170714-story.html. 

Hautzinger, D. (2020, June 24). Oak Park: Neighborhoods: Chicago by ‘L’. WTTW Chicago. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://interactive.wttw.com/chicago-by-l/neighborhoods/oak-park. 

Moser, W. (2017, August 22). How redlining segregated Chicago, and America. Chicago Magazine. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.chicagomag.com/city-life/august-2017/how-redlining-segregated-chicago-and-america/. 

PBS. (n.d.). Ask Geoffrey: The fascinating story of Antoinette Rich. WTTW News. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://news.wttw.com/2018/02/21/ask-geoffrey-fascinating-story-antoinette-rich. 

WBEZ Chicago. (2020, June 3). How the Green Line, a pink house and 12 cents changed how I see my city. Unequal Home Lending In Chicago’s Austin Neighborhood. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://interactive.wbez.org/2020/banking/pinkhouse/. 

Wingard, M. (2021, August 20). Austin: Neighborhoods: Chicago by ‘L’. WTTW Chicago. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://interactive.wttw.com/chicago-by-l/neighborhoods/austin. 

Cloud Envy

By Atlas Quest

CW // Suicide: This poem includes discussion on suicidal feelings.

I’m a lazy piece of shit

I don’t know why

My motivation often left without reply

Whole room be on fire

My mind says I’m fine

Playing video games till a quarter past five

Straight in the morning would you look at the time

Days being wasted

They lapse they go by

Stuck in this cycle for 3 65

Death on the mind like winter 15

With dreams of a king

But he ain’t have a life

He wanted stages to sing

But what would he write

No one wants to hear about a kid

Stuck in his room

Scared of the lights

Who hasn’t opened his eyes

Who won’t go out to live

But he’s too scared to die

Is this how you get your name shining in lights

Is this how you make sure that your family right

The kids stuck to the screen

Empty mind

Shallow eyes

Staring empty

The only thing on his mind

Is the kills on his team

Playing Call of Duty

And when he gon eat

AYE you listening?

Yeah but can we just watch the clouds fly by?

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, there are a number of prevention resources available including:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Crisis Textline: text NAMI to 741-741-24/7
Text message support for those in crisis

CARES800-345-9049
Mental health evaluation and services, including a crisis hotline, for youth as well as adults with Medicaid.

Being Black in America

By king Moosa

Being Black in America, I preserver but I swear it’s barley bearable 


Don’t worry you won’t have to break down parables 


They talked building walls but never broke down barriers 


Cigarettes can even get you choked out for carrying


Beware of the court house those streets will try and marry ya


Kidnap you, slave you ,then raise you! Then once it’s done throw you back to your family to burry ya!


Attempts at redemption blocked by never ending restrictions 


These permanent punishments of being Black in this prison 


Detaching from living in order to see tomorrow 


“Surviving”


Lost find their way to a church just to get gunned down

 
She ignores her son’s  cries as if she forgot how her son sounds 


This is how it feels being Black from these trump towns.

13 Summers

By King Moosa

Swollen throat, rusted chain attached to the handcuff of my left wrist,

Me and my mama a mental mess, that’s when a detective walks in saying, “Sorry, Ms. Harrington but transport is here, Please say yo final goodbyes.”

We screamed; we yelled out; and we cried all out of fear of an uncertain tomorrow,

That night I seen a grief from my queen never before seen, only fourteen!!!

I began to play a game with the Devil Of Confusion (d.o.c.), and by time I came to and was already losing I was already lost,

Seventeen sitting in Menard, a maximum security prison at the bottom of Illinois,

The cell had a strong basement smell, walls was sweating, it felt like I was placed in hell, hot!

Yet we had to learn how to sleep through the most chilling noise, nightmarish screeching schrills you shouldn’t have to hear as a boy,

Empty soul so mama sent pics to fill in the void, but sometimes seeing good times can be like what I imagine it would be like sitting in hell hallucinating that u hear a sickling noise.

Somewhere

By King Moosa

Some where in America grief paints the pavement of a kids playground, once bright smiles have turned into slight grins, somewhere in America!

There is a Black woman pouring fear into her sons psyche, as nightly clips on the news display a thousand ways to lose her son,

Policy stagnates the potential of our tomorrow,

Designed oppression has turned my preschool into a funeral home,

Somewhere right now there is man attempting to raise his child through a prison phone, 

Somewhere in America there is a city where cops shoot first, and without second thought, judges sentence children  like they are adults,

State lined with people who served state time, seeking  relief from this permanent punishment,

These hate crimes, somewhere! 

Somewhere in America, Willie’s residue is sticking to a kids rib, alive and well but rears his head only once he becomes a man inside a jail, with no voice they try and yell, but Willie knows No Vote means That he can thrive in cells.

Support for SB 0563: The Judicial Quality Act

By Elijah Gelman, an undergraduate intern with Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts and a fourth-year History major at Northwestern University with a background in philosophy.

Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts urges legislators to pass the Judicial Quality Act (SB 0563). The Act, sponsored by Senators Aquino and Hunter, mandates the “develop[ment] and implement[ation]” of “an ongoing education and training program for judges and relevant court personnel” that focuses on bias-prone topics, including “domestic violence or intimate partner violence, child abuse, racial bias in sentencing, cultural competency, transgender and gender nonconforming, and the impact of trauma on youth brain development.” Currently, the training requirement for Illinois judges totals 30 hours every two years and covers a myriad of topics; the Judicial Quality Act is a major step in creating a more fair and unbiased Illinois court system, where judges have access to the most up-to-date evidence-based, anti-racist best practices and procedural justice training.

Extensive evidence shows the existence of implicit bias, in which unconscious thoughts and stereotypes lead to purposeful or automatic discriminatory actions, and how it can affect judicial decision-makingStudies continually show that “much of human cognition can and does occur without introspective access,” and that there is substantial “evidence that implicit attitudes produce discriminatory behavior.” Legal scholars like Jeffrey Rachlinski have concluded that judges are not immune to implicit bias, with research showing that “judges, like the rest of us, carry implicit biases” and that “these implicit biases can affect judges’ judgment.”

The first step to address the discriminatory effects of unconscious biases is equally well documented: make the implicit explicit through ongoing training and anti-racist, anti-sexist education.

Psychologist Dr. Patricia Devine notes that the effects of implicit biases are reduced when one is “aware of one’s implicit bias” and “learn[s] to replace…biased response[s] with non-prejudiced responses.” Similarly, Rachlinski’s research confirms that education reduces the effects of implicit bias, as he found that “when judges are aware of the need to monitor their own responses for the influence of implicit…bias, and are motivated to suppress that bias, they appear to be able to do so.”

All participants in the legal system must actively work to address the unwarranted assumptions that they, like all people, harbor. Implicit biases form and operate in subtle and insidious ways – they are the product of personal experience and social learning – but with ongoing anti-racist and anti-sexist education, these biases can be addressed. The Judicial Quality Act is a great first step. 

The Judicial Quality Act translates years of scientific research on the effects of overt racism, sexism, and ableism in the courts, and the pervasiveness of implicit biases, into a policy that will significantly improve the Illinois’ judiciary’s access to evidence-based training. By emphasizing topics that are most prone to racial, sexual, gender, ageist, and other biases, this act provides an opportunity for Illinois judges to confront the biases they may not be consciously aware of in order to better deliver justice.

As our nation remains stunned and appalled by the recent murders of Asian American women in Georgia, the consistent police murders of unarmed Black youth, like Laquan McDonald, and the Chicago Police Department’s raid on the home of Anjanette Young, we can no longer deny that the perverse effects of biases, prejudices, and cultural misunderstandings are prevalent in and disastrous to our institutions. We must take action to counter these corrosive influences threatening the integrity of our entire legal system.  

The Illinois legislature has the opportunity to make further reforms to our criminal and civil legal system by helping curb the effects of implicit biases on Illinois’ judiciary. The Judicial Quality Act not only helps judges identify the subconscious prejudices they may hold, but also educates judges on how to prevent those implicit assumptions from unjustly affecting the Illinoisans they serve.

Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts strongly urges the passage of the SB 0653: the Judicial Quality Act. We hope the Illinois Supreme Court and all other stakeholders will join our active support.

Contributor: Elijah Gelman is an undergraduate intern with Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts and a fourth-year History major at Northwestern University with a background in philosophy.

Prisoners or Pariahs: Why HB 1872 Should Be Passed

By Sidney Davis III

The proposed House Bill 1872 (HB1872) seeks to strike from the IL Elections Code the rules preventing people currently serving time in prison from voting in elections.  There are several reasons why this provision should be stricken from our state laws.

While we have agreed in the social contract that a felony conviction is a determination that an offender has committed a crime against the state–which requires compensatory penalties up to and including the loss of freedoms, certain privileges, and in some cases life itself,–voting is a right of citizenship in the USA. That should never be lost, regardless of the actions of a citizen.

Section 1 of the 15th Amendment clearly states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Because a citizen becomes a prisoner, do they become a pariah?

Section 1. of the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The United States’ constitution is clear. States can take many rights from citizens as a result of their criminal conduct, even returning them to a state of slavery or involuntary servitude. But, nowhere is it stated or implied that the commission and conviction of a crime is sufficient to revoke the basic right of citizenship, voting. 

These two clauses of the United States constitution make enforcement of 10 ILCS 5/3-5 as currently written problematic for a host of reasons.

  1. The Constitution of the State of Illinois allows people with convictions to run for and hold office, but disallows them to vote in the election in which they are a candidate.  Does that make sense? 

While the rule bars holding office while under the control of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), it also leads to a situation where my recently released cellmate can be placed in a position to harm me—a fellow citizen–and I have little to no recourse against his actions. If someone in prison can be released on a Monday, and be elected the following Tuesday, where is the sense in denying incarcerated people the right to vote? What is the subtle difference that makes it fine for me to run for elected office as a freed person with a previous conviction, but denies my still serving former cellmate of a week ago to reject my petition to serve the people? Unless the sole purpose of the provision is citizen disenfranchisement. To reiterate a problem with 10 ILCS 5/35 and its intention to disenfranchise, it allows me, someone with a previous conviction, to run and be elected but prevents me from voting for myself in the election.

  1. The voting process in Illinois is not restricted to only officeholder elections. Illinois is a voter referendum state, allowing ballot initiatives at the state, county, and municipal levels that will affect the environment of a newly released individual. In a sense, 10 ILCS 5/3-5 prevents an incarcerated person from exercising his rights as a citizen to voice his opinion on a “quality of life” issue that can affect his future incarceration prospects, deny her housing, or prevent their children from receiving a proper education, which will keep them out of the prison pipeline. 

A brief list of recent initiatives which affected the post-incarceration lives of citizen-prisoners and will have a profound impact on their post-release lives.  

In 2014, these initiatives were on the ballot: 

  1. Right to Vote Amendment: Provided that no person shall be denied the right to register and vote. My testimony on HB1872 is prima facie evidence of the proof of this need.
  1. The Minimum Wage Increase Question: If I went to jail because my minimum wage job only gave me enough money to launch my “pharmaceutical sales” business but not enough to support my family, would it not be in the interest of all citizens of IL that my citizen-prisoner voice be heard on this issue? Could not a higher minimum wage help dilute my chances of recidivism, provided that the stigma of a felony conviction doesn’t prevent me from getting hired?
  1. Millionaire Tax Increase for Education Question: If my underfunded, underperforming education system was a contributing factor in my becoming a prisoner, why should my incarceration preclude me from using my voice as a citizen to change the way the system is funded?

In 2020, the graduated income tax initiative was on the ballot.  This initiative would not only affect my quality of life as a currently incarcerated individual, but also create a new economic environment upon my release as a citizen. I know prisons are meant to be a harsh deterrent, but no one deserves ground beef stew with “six-legged almonds”–neither the people in prison, nor the citizens of Illinois who annually pay between $25,000 and $75,000 per person in prison for their upkeep. 

We won’t even mention the 2018 Marijuana Legalization Advisory Question. I’m certain that the over 700 IDOC controlled people with marijuana convictions in 2017 would have loved to have a say on this ballot initiative. This becomes especially apparent when you consider that House Bill 1438 subsequently decriminalized marijuana in the state, leading to over a half a million criminal record expungements for marijuana convictions.

I return to the question of Prisoner or Pariah?

If Christianity allows a deathbed confession to wipe away the sins of a lifetime; if the purpose of incarceration is punishment, prevention and redemption; the commission of a felony should not allow the creation of pariahs to the social contract. If the purpose of incarceration is to throw away the person forever, then we may as well move to capital punishment for all offenses.

However, if reformation of the citizen and reduction of prisoner recidivism is a goal of the Illinois penal system, then disenfranchising citizens because of their current incarcerated status is clearly a bad idea. The status quo will further exacerbate the incarceration problem in our state and those that are caught up in it will have no chance to affect the broken system which set them on the path of self and social destruction. What better time and place than prison to properly educate citizens on how to behave like one.

This is the supreme benefit of the passage of HB1872. It will allow people convicted of a crime to serve their time, while at the same time, learn how to use their voices as citizens of the United States and the State of Illinois to shape the world to which they will return. By giving the most affected the opportunity to use their voices in a way that can reduce future costs to the citizens of Illinois through the reduction of our prison population, all the citizens of Illinois will benefit.

Prisoners or pariahs? The choice is yours.

I strongly urge you to support HB1872.

Hope

By Caleb Dunson, Chicago Votes Inaugural Brian Sleet Fellow

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope lately: what it is, how it affects us, what it can do. In particular, I’ve been thinking about what it means to hope in the political sense. 

On one hand, the COVID vaccines and the upcoming federal stimulus bill give much reason to hope. It feels like a return to normalcy is close. On the other hand, America’s “normal” has been so harmful to so many for so long. So what reason would there be to express hope if a return to the oppressive status quo is imminent? 

This perspective extends beyond the pandemic’s expected expiration. For a long time people have gone without a reason to hope because time and again our traditional political processes don’t seem to have a significant effect on people’s everyday lives. Did Barack Obama’s election bring about the sweeping progressive reforms it promised? Did Lori Lightfoot’s? Have the years of hand-wringing, pithy campaign slogans, and generic calls to vote addressed the deep-seated issues our nation faces? It’s easy, if not logical, to be apathetic. It is only reasonable to argue against engaging in a process that so rarely yields good results. And though I understand that point of view, I feel the need to push back on it. 

Sure political work is daunting, and sure it doesn’t have a high success rate. But, I don’t think the work is the problem. After all, we are all perfectly content working forty hours per week for nearly two-thirds of our lives, oftentimes in jobs we don’t care about. The problem is that many of us do not see a good reason to dedicate our time and energy to politics. Our decision to work makes sense because our actions have a clearly defined and worthwhile reward: labor leads to money. But the political calculus isn’t as clear. Organizing, protesting, and voting lead to… the person you hate the least getting elected, maybe? A small city ordinance being passed? It’s confusing. But if we are going to address political apathy we need to make the math make sense; and we do that with hope. 

It no longer suffices to try and sell people on a general idea of getting involved for the sake of getting involved. We need to reframe our approach to politics such that it centers on a vision for society that is better than the status quo. It should be a vision that people can dream about and strive toward; a vision that, even if unrealized in an individual’s lifetime, makes that person proud to have helped move us closer to our goal. 

To make this change we need to better articulate what we want our society, country, and world to look like. Currently, our language has a tendency to use negatives: we fixate on what it takes to hold corrupt politicians accountable, how to stop corporations from exploiting workers, and the best strategies for dismantling oppressive institutions writ-large. These are admirable goals, ones I wholeheartedly believe in, but they are means to an end –– creating a just society. We need to be clear about that end, and we need to remind ourselves and others that our work goes beyond simply fighting injustice. It may seem like two sides of the same coin, but it’s important that we frame this debate in the positive realm, –– that we talk about our visions. Otherwise we will find ourselves aimlessly addressing society’s ills, and we will be about as effective as people endlessly plugging holes in a rotting boat.

To this point, I have been vague about what that positive vision of society should be, and that is because it is not my place to answer that question. Engaging people who are indifferent to politics means asking them what their vision of a good society looks like. As activists and organizers, we’re used to meeting people where they’re at and learning about the struggles they face. But the problem is that that’s often where the conversation stops. We find a problem and work to address it, but we don’t dig any further. We don’t push people to imagine their ideal world. The hope we give them is tied to easing their suffering, not pursuing their utopia. All it takes is challenging ourselves to create a vision in collaboration with our community.  

The one danger, however, in this vision-centered activism is that it has the potential to overpromise and underdeliver. Thus, it is critical that we continually reassess our visions as political events unfold. For example, if our goal was to create a police-free society by the year 2050, the summer of 2020 and the political weight our goal gained during that period might convince us to move our timeline up a few years. Similarly, if our goal is to strengthen voting rights and we observe how the Supreme Court is poised to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we might move our timeline back a few years or focus on state voting laws. The specific goals of our visions should be malleable, but their underlying values should remain. In each of the previous examples, the ultimate goal was unaltered, but the pathway to its realization was, and that flexibility is what will make our visions all the more powerful.

Once we’ve encouraged people to create their positive visions we can motivate them to use politics in pursuit of it. And that will be the ticket to creating movements that transcend boundaries and pull off impossible political feats. Hope will be the ticket to creating change unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Chicago, It’s Time to Take Advantage of the Political Moment

By Caleb Dunson, Chicago Votes Inaugural Brian Sleet Fellow

When I took United States History as a high school freshman, I was inspired by the periods in time where the government enacted enormous change. The Radical Republicans were able to start post-civil war reconstruction, Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the New Deal to pull the US out of a depression, and Lyndon B Johnson led Great Society reforms that included the passage of the civil rights and voting rights acts. Each of those points in history stood out to me as examples of how the government could protect the rights of marginalized groups and advance the interests of the American people. Now, with the Biden administration beginning and Democrats retaining control of the House and Senate, the government once again has the opportunity to improve the lives of its people. Our nation is on the precipice of transformative change, and that has led me to wonder if Chicago’s government is positioned to extend that change to the local level.

It’s no secret that our city is in a predicament, with rapidly rising debts that burden local government, severe racial inequality that harms Black and Brown communities, and a declining population that indicates Chicago’s fall in stature. In this climate, our city’s elected officials must consider how they plan to maximize the support of a now friendly federal government to resolve some of Chicago’s most pressing issues: economic inequality, ineffective policing, and education disparities.

Economic Opportunity

Economic inequality in Chicago is disgraceful. For a city that was one of the major hubs of the Great Migration and is home to some of the world’s top companies, economic mobility for Black Chicagoans is disappointingly stagnant. The racial wealth gap is equally disparaging, with predominantly white neighborhoods often serving as centers of economic abundance and predominantly Black neighborhoods often crushed by high poverty rates. To make matters worse, the pandemic has exasperated worldwide economic inequality,  placing a disproportionate amount of financial strain on minority households.

To date, the City of Chicago has largely focused on capital investment programs like Invest South/West, which earmarks hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for economic development on the city’s south and west sides. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, local politicians have engaged in awe-inspiring acrobatics  –– including allowing restaurants to open for indoor dining and establishing several small business grant and loan funds –– to keep Chicago’s local enterprises open. True, small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy, and investing in their development and sustenance is important, but people should be prioritized ahead of capital in economic development efforts. 

Economic equity is a known priority for Mayor Lightfoot, and to live up to that commitment she must put money directly in the hands of Chicagoans. That means increased funding for the existing rental assistance program as we continue to grapple with the pandemic. And in a post-pandemic economy, that means more job training programs for high growth sectors, an increased effort to establish affordable housing, and a renewed focus on empowering intra-community entrepreneurship. The Biden administration will likely be open to granting federal assistance for the nation’s top cities, and Chicago’s elected officials should use that to obtain the funding necessary to finance these economic revitalization projects.

Policing

From Jon Burge to Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) has a grisly history of racism, abuse of power, and lack of accountability. A US Justice Department investigation held the CPD responsible for a pattern of racially targeted civil rights violations, which led a federal judge to establish a consent decree demanding substantial reform within the department. This action came in the aftermath of LaQuan McDonald’s death, but as of late nothing has really changed. 

In the summer of 2020, George Floyd’s murder returned Chicago’s inaction on police reform to the spotlight as cities across the country reflected on racism within their law enforcement ranks. What became disappointingly clear was that, though Mayor Lightfoot had vaguely promised accountability and reform in her mayoral campaign, she (perhaps unsurprisingly) failed miserably at producing substantive change. A June examination of the city’s progress on the consent decree found that Chicago “missed more than 70 percent of the deadlines” set in the court order. The city’s rationale was, in essence, that change takes time. Reasonable enough, unless you consider the city’s attempted coverup of a disturbing police raid and its continued inaction on the consent decree’s mandates. It seems like Chicago’s elected officials aren’t even trying to learn from their mistakes; and in a city that has long struggled with crime prevention, the last thing we need is an inept, inhuman, and insolent police department enabled by complacent politicians.

Police reform in Chicago is difficult, especially because of high crime rates and the need to negotiate labor agreements with a stubborn police union. Some have called for defunding the police, a task that proves complicated when one considers the plethora of challenges the proposal has already faced. Others have been adamant about abolishing the police, but without a politically acknowledged alternative to law enforcement, conceptualizing such a reality proves difficult to many I will not pretend to know the best course of action for the city, but I know that the Chicago Police Department needs to be radically transformed to meet the needs of our city’s residents. At the very least, that means being proactive about implementing the mandates of the consent decree, better training officers in de-escalation tactics, and establishing a system of accountability that holds officers to the highest possible standards of conduct.

Education

The current state of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is not a complete disaster, but it leaves much to be desired. CPS struggles with a racial achievement gap, as majority Black and Latinx schools consistently underachieve compared to majority-white schools, likely due to disparate funding and resource allocation.

In the Lightfoot era, Chicago Public Schools has faced high debts and political pressure from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), all while trying to rebrand as a school system committed to equity. Clashes with the Chicago Teachers Union are well documented, and though they occur over seemingly different disputes, each conflict follows the same formula. The Chicago Teachers Union demands more resources from Chicago Public Schools (and rightfully so), who in turn are unable to extend support without jeopardizing the school system’s financial future. The result: teacher’s strikes that lend themselves well to political opportunism and petty squabbling on both sides, all the while students are left to suffer.

Unfortunately, Chicago Public Schools continues to overpromise and underdeliver in its educational mission. And though educational attainment metrics were ticking up for the school system pre-pandemic, that progress is now all but lost, and there isn’t much anyone can do. For the time being, Chicago Public Schools should continue in their efforts to extend technology access to all of their students for the remainder of the pandemic. In the long term, CPS must use the Biden administration’s favorable view of public schools to lobby for increased federal funding and distribute that funding so that the most disadvantaged schools can purchase new learning materials, hire additional staff, and complete essential capital improvement projects.

What Comes Next

Big government is back in style, but for that to mean anything to Chicagoans, our local elected officials must use the country’s political momentum to change the city for the better. Like the Radical Republicans, FDR, and Lyndon B Johnson, Chicago politicians have an opportunity to be a part of a movement that will end up in the history books, and they must not waste it. Young people also have an important role to play in the next era of political reforms and must continue their advocacy work, standing firm in their commitment to holding elected officials accountable. Inaction and indecision are unacceptable; now is the time for results.

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