Can America Learn From Chicagoans’ Post-Election Resolve?

A protester holds a sign during a Nov. 10, 2016 rally against President-elect Donald Trump in Chicago. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
A protester holds a sign during a Nov. 10, 2016 rally against President-elect Donald Trump in Chicago. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

Can America Learn From Chicagoans’ Post-Election Resolve?

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In anticipation of Donald Trump’s presidency, Chicago community activists say they are strategizing new efforts to thwart potential acts of racism and bigotry.

Some Chicagoans think how they go about these efforts to build coalitions and promote racial healing could offer lessons for the rest of the country.

“This is the moment to really be organized and really be loving, hold everyone in love and bring people in,” said Luna White of the Chicago-based Black Youth Project 100.

University of Chicago political scientist Cathy Cohen said the country could do well to employ Chicago’s brand of movement-based organizing.

The city has a history of rallying around marginalized groups through the time-honored tradition of community organizing. Some recent successes involving young activists include a reopened trauma center at the University of Chicago, city council’s approvals of reparations for police torture and new policies focused on police accountability. 

“Chicago’s a very, very good example for waiting for the right moment and being very, very organized about what kind of actions we do and when we do them and why and with who,” said White, who moved from Los Angeles to Chicago because of the city’s strong community organizing. 

White said there is confusion and anxiety as organizers transition from the election. What will a Trump presidency mean? What is the best way to strategize if Trump makes good on campaign promises of deportations, attacks on Muslims and rolling back LGBT rights?

Last Sunday, Scott and Erin Shea Smith hosted about 50 people in their Morgan Park bungalow. Children ran throughout the house. Adults mixed cocktails. Shea Smith cooked spaghetti.

It was a racially mixed crowed in a racially mixed neighborhood, a chance for families to commune after their election heartache. 

Shea Smith said opening her home seemed like the simplest thing to do.

The Smiths are part of the Southwest Chicago Diversity Collaborative, a group of families in Morgan Park, Beverly and Mount Greenwood who advocate for diversity within their communities, places that have had integration but not always inclusion.

Before Election Day, residents said they felt anxious after several racially charged protests this month in the mostly white Mount Greenwood neighborhood after police fatally shot a black man following an altercation as he left a funeral. There are multiple versions of what happened, but demonstrations highlighted racial divisions. 

Blue Lives Matter protestors hold up signs in Mount Greenwood earlier this month. (Sarah Karp/WBEZ)

It’s part of why people like Shea Smith want to pay attention to neighborly connections and local healing first. She said that’s more important right now than sending money to organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union or Planned Parenthood.

“I’m not diminishing that. Ultimately right now we’re looking at sustainability and the only way to do that is invite people in your home, attend community meetings, go beyond wearing a pin or posting something on Facebook,” Shea Smith said. “You have to give people the space to say their own stories and listen to them. From an activist perspective, especially white woman activist perspective, oftentimes we think because we’re on the side of the right, whatever the right is, we think we have all of the answers. One of the things people should be learning is my job is teach other white people and then space for everyone else to tell their stories. 

Cohen compared Trump’s election to that of Ronald Reagan during a time when globalization and job loss caused fear and entrenchment. 

“The tropes that would develop around ‘others.’ Whether it was the welfare queen back then or Donald Trump’s ‘others’ of Mexican migrants coming across the border to steal jobs,” she said.

Cohen said now there is motivation to organize.

“There’s a clarity now about the enemy and about the necessity to mobilize to literally protect our communities and to save people’s lives,” she said. “I do think the urgency of now is clear.”

Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, said that although it’s clear race is in the national conversation, it has to begin at home. 

“In the Chicagoland area I feel even more compelled to speak openly, honestly about the festering racial wounds in this city,” Nashashibi said.

Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s South Side Bureau reporter. You can follow her at @natalieymoore.