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.

Breaking Down Barriers

By Caleb Dunson, Chicago Votes Inaugural Brian Sleet Fellow

I spent an hour and a half lying on a dusty, stained futon, a computer at my side for research, bubbling in answers like I was taking a multiple-choice exam. After I finished, I carefully sealed my freshly filled out form in an envelope and stepped into the New Haven drizzle, and dropped the envelope in the mailbox just outside of my dorm. My arduous mission was finally complete: I voted in my first presidential election. 

This election season, millions of young people voted in a similar manner, helping to propel Joe Biden to the White House. Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) estimated that voter turnout among people aged 18-29 was between 52%-55% –– a significant increase from the 2016 election. In battleground states like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania –– where the margins of victory were razor-thin –– Biden won the youth vote by over 100,000. 

In a year where democracy was vulnerable, young people showed up in a near-unprecedented fashion to uphold our most sacred institution. But to sharpen our democracy and guard against future threats, our country must consistently include young people in civic processes. That requires all of us to commit to dismantling the barriers that reduce youth civic engagement: inadequate civics education and elaborate voting laws. 

In the country that brought democracy into the modern era, one would expect our civics education programs to be among the best in the world. But with only 39% of Americans able to name all three branches of government, civics education in the U.S. is in dire need of reform. According to the Center for American Progress, “only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S government or civics” and many state civics curricula fail to adequately build skills for active civic engagement. Education inequity only exacerbates the issue by creating additional obstacles to civic engagement for poor students, rural students, and students of color

We cannot expect our democracy to work if we do not prepare young Americans to engage with democratic institutions. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, says it best: “the resilience of our system of government is best protected by an informed citizenry.”

One such way to ensure an “informed citizenry” is to create a national curriculum for high school civics education, much like the common core, that emphasizes experiential learning. By teaching students about civics through an action-based curriculum, our schools will help instill in them the positive habits necessary for consistent civic engagement–conscious media consumption, for example–and equip them with the tools they need for a life of active citizenship. But simply imposing a blanket curriculum will grant those with the most wealth and privilege access to the most robust civics education. The federal government and state governments must also work together to rectify the inequitable distribution of funding in schools across the country and ensure that access to a good civics education is not contingent upon race, class, or region. 

Excessively complex voter registration and voting laws have also proven harmful in the effort to increase youth civic engagement. According to a FiveThirtyEight report, young people (aged 18-34) were more likely to face barriers to voting –– like missing voter registration deadlines, not receiving an absentee ballot in time to vote, and not being able to access their polling place –– than any other age group. Prior to the November election, Republican legislators increased their efforts to suppress the youth vote under the guise of election security by closing polling sites and implementing convoluted voting laws, which disproportionately affected college students. Though these efforts did not yield the presidential election result right-wing lawmakers had hoped for, stories still abound of young people becoming discouraged by the election laws of their states –– and that is dangerous. A young person scorned by the election system is a voter lost to the electorate and a voice potentially lost to our democracy. 

Reforming voting laws requires powerful advocacy work. Because states have the power to set election laws, to address this issue civics organizations across the country must collaborate in their fight to make voting more accessible for young people. Lobbying work and issue awareness campaigns both lend themselves to joint efforts, and sharing resources in those efforts can prevent wasted time and energy. Volunteers can also utilize the tools of social media and extend the influence of each organization’s advocacy work beyond their traditional networks.

If we are to commit to democracy as a nation, we have to be diligent about ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard. As a new year brings an uncertain political landscape, we must uphold our commitment to breaking down the barriers that keep young people from engaging our democracy.

After the Election

By Caleb Dunson, Chicago Votes Inaugural Brian Sleet Fellow

After weeks of constant election news coverage, non-stop ballot counting, lawsuits alleging voter fraud, and election memes, the American people elected Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States in a record-breaking fashion. Though our nation’s people worked tirelessly to avoid another four years with an anti-democratic demagogue in power, Joe Biden is not a political leader that garners a lot of enthusiasm, especially among progressives, and rightfully so. 

Joe Biden has a troubling political history, having authored the 1994 crime bill that disproportionately incarcerated Black and brown people, mishandling Antia Hill’s sexual assault allegations against now Chief Justice Clarence Thomas, opposing court-ordered busing aimed at integrating schools, voting for an amendment that would have allowed states to overturn Roe v. Wade, and supporting the war in Iraq. Still, for many, a vote for Joe Biden was a vote for damage mitigation and a vote to preserve the integrity of democracy, with the hope that activism and organizing would push Biden (and other centrist politicians) left.

Well, the election is over, which means it’s time to get to work. But far too often calls to “get involved” are vague and unhelpful, and for young people that is especially harmful. Young people are constantly combatting attempts to disenfranchise and exclude our generation from the political arena. So, in response, we need a wide range of methods for engaging in politics. 

In my Op-Ed for the Chicago Tribune, I wrote about how I got involved in politics as a high schooler. I mentioned how I took civics classes to learn how to effectively advocate for change, how I participated in study abroad programs to gain a global perspective on activist movements, and how I volunteered with different groups to orient myself with current movements for change.

However, I wrote from a position of immense privilege, having attended a school with resources that are not, though they should be, available to all. For those who stand in a similarly privileged position, take advantage of the opportunities you have to learn about politics, then use your access to resources to signal boost and support experienced activists and organizers. But regardless of the privilege you hold, there are universal ways to meaningfully and effectively participate in politics beyond the vote. 

Developing your own set of politics and moral values is a necessary prerequisite to getting your hands dirty. My life experiences have shaped what I value as important, and thus have shaped my morals. My politics have been shaped by what I believe to be the best way to stay true to my morals in the political arena. To develop my politics, I spent some of my free time in high school reading works from Michel Foucault, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, and others. As I read, I took note of the writers’ theories that resonated with me and incorporated them into my politics. I also took the opportunity to listen and learn from the activists and organizers who had more experience than I did. Hearing about their work and their politics expanded my perspective on pursuing change and helped me learn how I could best contribute to existing movements. And as I enter new spaces, I have sought out opportunities to reevaluate my morals and politics in order to ensure they align with my ultimate desire to make a positive impact on society.

After finding a set of politics that works for you, the next step is to find organizations and groups whose politics align with yours.  For me, this has been a continual process as I have reevaluated my politics and reprioritized the issues that matter to me. Even so, my strategy for finding organizations that are compatible with my politics has remained the same. Taking the time to research an organization’s mission vision, leadership, current projects, and open positions has allowed me to get a strong sense of whether or not my values align with theirs, and helped me envision how I could potentially fit into their organizational structure. When I see a position that I may be interested in, I always apply knowing that the application process, and the role itself, will be an opportunity to further explore, examine, and develop my politics while helping others.  

The final step is to engage with the organizations you have found in a humble and open-minded fashion. It is important to remember that the fight for justice is a long and continual one: there are scores of activists that have preceded you, and there will be scores of activists that succeed you. You should approach your work with an understanding of how you can use your unique skills to contribute to an expansive and interconnected movement and an eagerness to learn from those who have been doing the work long before you got involved. Find ways to generously give your time, energy, and resources to the organizations and groups you value. But above all, remember to consistently challenge your beliefs and reexamine your place in the movement with each new experience you have.

Staying engaged in politics is challenging work, but our communities are counting on us, so let’s “get involved.”

Dear Mayor Lightfoot

By Alex Boutros, Organizing Manager

Greetings, 

My name is Alex Boutros and I am a resident of the 46th ward in Uptown with Alderman Cappleman. 

Did you all know that the Inspector General of Chicago’s Public Safety data on CPD paints a clear picture that CPD is undeniably racist? 

Since 2016 our police have pat-down over 182,000 people. What’s your guess on the percentage of those folx that were Black? Close to 75 percent. Latino? 20 percent. White? 4 percent. 

Do you want to know the percentage of time where the police found something in those very traumatizing pat-downs? It was less than 8 percent. 

Our police are trained to arrest people–and that’s it. Our police are traumatizing our people in school and on the streets. Their presence is oppressive. An excerpt from Stop and Frisk in, Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, helps paint the picture:

I knew whatever was in front of me was happening and then the police vehicle came to a screeching halt in front of me like they were setting up a blockade. Everywhere were flashes, a siren sounding, and a stretched-out roar. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew. 

And you are not the guy and still, you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.

Our police won’t provide housing. Our police won’t provide food or mutual aid or facilitate COVID-19 testing during a pandemic. Our community members and aldermen have started doing that out of their own pockets when you, Mayor Lightfoot, shut down food pantries early and used the looting as an excuse. 

Alderman Cappleman and I sat down and agreed that our community needs real affordable housing, mental health clinics, and resources for folx experiencing domestic violence. We need the funding that is going towards police in our neighborhood to be diverted to what the community truly desires and needs.

It seems, Mayor Lightfoot, that you’re choosing not to listen. You’re not choosing to listen to Alderman Cappleman and I when we tell you where we need this funding diverted. You’re not listening to Alderman Jeanette Taylor when she has asked too many times for the Sherman Park Library to get necessary funding for improvements. And, you’re evidently not listening to the 87 percent of Chicagoans that decided to defund the CPD budget in the budget survey that you pleaded folx to fill out. In that survey, we also told you exactly where we want the money to go. 

If police kept our communities safe, we’d be the safest city in the nation at $1.7 billion spent annually.

That budget survey is the recipe to end violence and crime in the city. We handed it to you on a silver platter. 

Tell the FOP that it’s out of your hands. This is what your city is calling for. 

A Message to Chicago City Council on the 2021 Budget

By Alex Boutros, Organizing Manager

Greetings, 

My name is Alex Boutros and I constituent of the 46th ward in the lakeview/uptown area.  Firstly, I stand in solidarity with the Caitlin, the 13 year old constituent who spoke at the beginning of this meeting. 

I am here today to say that no matter how much you fund the police department, it will not stop this virus, nor the economic impact that it is causing our community members and our small businesses forced to close their doors forever. We need a major shift in priority as you, Mayor Lightfoot, announced that the city is averaging 1,900 new cases of Covid a day with some areas seeing positivity rates of 25%. Mayor and Aldermen this is a public health & safety issue and should be treated as such. 

Our office of emergency management has 1,672 people–that’s barely an 8th of the CPD employment. Our department of public health has only 488 people. That is 1/26 of the number of employees in CPD. There are 13,411 people that work for the police department that haven’t even–at the least–been trained to provide necessary aid during this pandemic. Not only does CPD’s bloated budget drain so much funding from other city programs, their officers’ inability to wear masks and high COVID-19 cases would indicate they cause multiple forms of harm, without any meaningful protection for our city.

I ask the city council to vote “no” on the Mayor’s budget until the overfunding of the police department and the lack of funding of our other city departments is addressed.  By defunding CPD, the city’s current reliance on cannabis tax revenue to avoid layoffs could be avoided. We could direct those funds to the Department of Public Health, Human Relations, Office of Disabilities, Family and Social Services, and the Chicago Public Library; or we could even go so far as to invest in a reparations program like is being done in Evanston and Will county. 

I have attached to my submitted written testimony a graph from the inspector general of chicago’s data portals that further illustrates the overfunding of the police department by comparing the personnel expenses next to that of our fire department and our other less funded services.  

City council, we don’t need to raise property taxes, we need to readjust our priorities. Vote no on this budget.  

Thank you,

Alex Boutros

On Voting

By Caleb Dunson, Chicago Votes Inaugural Brian Sleet Fellow

It takes no stretch of the imagination to realize that 2020 has been a profoundly difficult year, and disproportionately so for people of color. A pandemic is raging across our country, now reaching new highs in infections and deaths. Black people are being murdered without consequence by agents of the state. California wildfires signal just how close the impending danger of climate change is. Economic turmoil has struck the vulnerable, while billionaires continue to accrue wealth and Congress remains stuck in a stalemate on the provisions of their economic stimulus bill.

In that sense, it feels insensitive when ads and social media posts inundate us with calls to vote. The ads and posts come across as a claim that voting is the absolute solution to the problems we face, and that once we vote, our challenges will magically disappear. But we know there are problems casting a ballot will not immediately fix. 

Voting is by no means the end-all solution to the bevy of issues that plague our nation, and it should not be looked at as such. We should instead consider voting to be a tool amongst many in our expansive advocacy and activist work. There is an indisputable power to voting, and we cannot afford to willingly sacrifice it.

Voting Allows Us to Hold Elected Officials Accountable 

Our elected officials are tasked with representing our wishes in government, but they have no incentive to do so if we do not vote and affirm our position as members of their constituency. By voting, we hold our politicians’ feet to the fire. We force them to listen to us because we determine whether or not they have a job every election season, and that gives us the leverage we need to push for change. With a broad voting coalition, we can begin to demand the proper representation of our interests in the halls of government. 

In that way, our vote reinforces the power dynamic that should exist between citizens and their representatives, one in which the representative works only for the best interest of their community as the community members themselves see it. Not one where representatives are influenced by self-interest, personal ambition, and corporate lobbying. 

Voting Adds Teeth to the Demands of Activists and Organizers 

The power of voting extends to the organizing and activist spheres as well. When politicians, and body politic more broadly, know that activists and organizers vote consistently, the demands made through protests and petitions become key issues that can swing an election and are thus pushed into mainstream political discourse. Casting our ballots consistently ensures that the issues we care about will always have a place in electoral politics, and ensures that our demands of justice and equity will not go unnoticed or unheard. Pressure breeds progress, and the dual pressure of organizing and voting makes positive change more attainable. 

Voting in Local Elections Shapes our Everyday Lives

Because law is a reflection of our societal values and shapes the way we navigate public and private spaces, when we vote, we entrust our way of life to the people that take elected office. That is especially true on the local level. Judges, aldermen, state representatives, and state senators are touchpoints for justice in Chicago. They craft the legislation that governs our city and determine the penalties for violating that legislation. 

Thus, our decision on whether or not to vote is ultimately a decision on whether or not to reclaim our power as democratic citizens who can determine how we wish to live our lives. The Fair Tax proposition on the ballot this year is case in point; the decision on whether or not to implement a progessive income tax is ultimately a decision on how you would like your wealth to be distributed among you, your community, and your state. 

By not voting, we cede power to the interests of those who vote most often, disproportionately white, old, and wealthy people, who likely have values that are in direct conflict with ours. And with issues like legal system reform, policing, income inequality, and climate change up for debate, we cannot afford to allow our voices to go unheard. 

Voting is a Symbol of Our Hope and Our Will

This election season has been discouraging, and there will always be reasons not to vote, but there is something inherently powerful in not allowing the challenges that have plagued this year to reduce our resolve and dampen our desire for change. 

Despite the political candidates that leave much to be desired, despite the pain our communities continue to endure, despite all the horrible and discouraging events that have occurred this year, I will vote. I will vote as an act of resistance because I refuse to let the circumstances of this year deter me from engaging in politics. I will vote as a symbol of hope for the future and a symbol of my unwavering commitment to fighting for change. I will vote to preserve the integrity of our democracy and ensure that all who have a voice will be heard. Will you join me?

In the Wake of Sunday’s Looting, A Call to Elected Officials from a Chicago Teen

By Caleb Dunson, Chicago Votes Inaugural Brian Sleet Fellow

After a night of looting on Sunday, Chicago was trending on Twitter in a matter of hours, the thread rife with videos of people breaking into stores, snatching clothes, and fleeing police. Everyone had an opinion. Some people attributed the riots to the democratic leanings of the city, while others leveraged the moment to call out the economic inequality Chicago has been plagued by for decades. Some people just marveled at the destruction, using it to confirm their belief that Chicago is an incredibly dangerous place. It seems once again, Chicago has become a chess piece, used by outsiders, to fit political ends and construct personal narratives. 

Donald Trump has had an obsession with Chicago since his 2016 campaign, and over his presidential term, Conservatives have swiftly turned Chicago into a euphemism for liberal-city-plagued-with-lawlessness. In recent weeks, Trump even deployed federal troops to the city to quell violence and preserve his strong man persona in the midst of his losing campaign

Democratic Chicago officials largely rejected protesters’ calls to “defund the police” and ignored consent decree deadlines intended to ameliorate the Chicago Police Department’s numerous civil rights violations, instead opting to hash out personal beefs in internal meetings and engage in media mud-slinging.

This naked ambition on both sides of the aisle has done nothing for the city I so deeply cherish. 

I am a Chicagoan, born and raised, and I have always had a profound love for my city. I was always there to celebrate when the light and warmth of the Christkindle Market cut through the cold bitter winters, stuff myself with fatty foods when the Taste of Chicago rolled around signaling the official start of summer, and march in the Bud Billiken Parade, savoring the last days of summer break and dreading my return to school. 

I loved my city even as I watched kids my age killed so often it was no longer surprising, even as I saw Black people gunned down by my city’s police, even as I saw my community––the Austin neighborhood–– and others like it go without capital investment or government funding when we desperately needed it. 

Though in recent years, Chicago has not gone for very long without making national headlines and efforts to address the problems in our communities have seemed to stagnate. It feels as if politicians, political pundits, and news media organizations are perfectly fine using the city to fit their narratives, but don’t want to do the work to help improve our city. No, that burden is left to the Good Samaritans in our neighborhoods. 

My Block, My Hood, My City, After School Matters, The Greater Chicago Food Depository, A Safe Haven, Chicago Votes, and countless other community organizations in Chicago have been doing the work themselves for years. Resigned to the fact that no one is coming to save us, our communities have relied on each others’ strength and shown tremendous resilience. But as much great work as these organizations are doing, we cannot rely on a few to save a city of almost three million people. 

It is time for our elected officials to step up and do the work they were hired to do. To Chicago’s politicians who have relied on organizations to do their jobs for them and to the news media organizations that have used Chicago’s violence to create sensationalized headlines, I have one request. 

Get out in the community and do the work it takes to make our city better. 


Caleb Dunson is an incoming freshman at Yale University and is Chicago Votes’ inaugural Brian Sleet Memorial Fellow.

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