Voting for racial justice means demanding more in the Chicago election

Chicago’s Voter Guide for Racial Equity reimagines the relationship between community and government by empowering residents to create policy platforms for the next crop of elected leaders.

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Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Voters fill out primary ballots at Shoesmith Elementary School in the Kenwood/Hyde Park neighborhood on March 15, 2016, the first election in Illinois where same-day registration was allowed.

Loving Chicago demands commitment, but it shouldn’t require us to settle for less than we deserve.

For nearly two years, my community at National Teachers Academy committed to a simple idea — that our future must include our voice. To many city officials, we already had a voice in town halls, where we plead the case to keep our high-performing, majority-Black elementary school open in two-minute segments, hoping that some perfect string of words might save our school from this closure.

But the truth is, we never really believed that these community meetings would save us.

When we started organizing, what we heard most often was how often people resigned themselves to the “Chicago Way.” They told me they agreed that the proposal to close our school was wrong, but that fighting wasn’t worth it – that this was already a “done deal.” Community engagement existed for optics, they said, but this was still Chicago politics, where decisions are made behind closed doors to benefit a connected few, no matter who was burdened. And always at the end, spoken or unsaid, they told me: I don’t have the power to change this.

This was always followed by a heavy sigh, whether I was speaking to grandmothers in public housing or members of the Chicago Board of Education. What we agreed was undesirable also seemed inevitable.

But then it wasn’t.

After more than 18 months of organizing, our efforts paid off. We won an immediate injunction to halt the closure of NTA because we proved a civil rights violation, the first time in the country that a race-based claim has stopped a school closure. More than 700 students who call NTA home will be able to continue growing up there as a result.

Imagine if our community had listened to conventional wisdom. Imagine if we had just settled for the status quo.

The thing about inequity is this – it doesn’t just show up in our food deserts and school closings and housing displacement. The most pervasive inequity is the one that allows us to believe that this is all we can expect from our elected leadership.

I know we can expect more from Chicago. I don’t say this through uninformed idealism. We do have some serious challenges as a city – but starting on Feb. 26, we also have a real opportunity to rewrite the Chicago Way.

Last summer, a collective of six organizations began working together to imagine what it would take to rebuild the relationship between community and government, starting with who has the power to start the conversation.

Elections remind us as voters that we have the power to decide who is leased power in our city. But for most of us, there’s still a wide gap between everyday voters and the candidates. They might hear us talk about the problems we face – but they decide what solution works best, what to prioritize, and what gets funded if they win on election day. Their policy platforms are inevitably set by a small group of people with the privilege and access to inform a candidate’s thinking. In this process, everyday voters’ needs are defined for them, often by people whose lived experiences are very different than their own.

The Vote Equity Project began with the belief that the people closest to our city’s challenges have an untapped, unmatched ability to find their own solutions. We started by asking Chicagoans one big question: How can we make our city work for all of us?

Through conversations with 100 organizing groups and submissions from individuals all across the city, we received 262 ideas. Many were similar, but 186 unique concepts moved to the next round, where 2,162 people from every ward in Chicago voted 52,271 times to set a list of priorities for our city’s next elected leaders. Then, we took the top-voted ideas in education, housing, health, justice, community development, and revenue to the candidates and asked them to state their positions. Their responses can be found in Chicago’s Voter Guide for Racial Equity released today.

We’re not under any delusion that we’ve reshaped the Chicago Way through this exercise. But our goal was simple: to ensure that everyday people believe their voices matter.

Where we go from here, like most of this project, is up to Chicago. Do we use candidates’ responses to decide who earns our vote? Do we use the research  to define what we expect from our next elected leaders? I’m looking forward to hearing what everyday people, like you, think we should do next with this work.

What does it mean to love Chicago?  Ask the 2,100 Chicagoans who voted to help us reimagine our future. If we’re grounded in courage, commitment, and a love for our city, we can build the future we deserve.