New Coalition Seeks A Bottom-Up Approach To Transform Chicago’s South And West Sides

Pulaski Road at Washington Blvd and Madison St
An aerial view shows Pulaski Road where it meets Washington Blvd. and Madison St. on Chicago's West Side. The Woods Fund has awarded $500,000 to six grassroots organizations to collaborate and develop strategies to transform South and West side neighborhoods. Nitram242/Flickr
Pulaski Road at Washington Blvd and Madison St
An aerial view shows Pulaski Road where it meets Washington Blvd. and Madison St. on Chicago's West Side. The Woods Fund has awarded $500,000 to six grassroots organizations to collaborate and develop strategies to transform South and West side neighborhoods. Nitram242/Flickr

New Coalition Seeks A Bottom-Up Approach To Transform Chicago’s South And West Sides

For decades, bad public policy in Black neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides shows up as visible scars on the landscape: empty lots, boarded-up buildings and a lack of retail.

Historically, local and federal government officials have made deliberate choices when setting public policy — from redlining to deciding where to build public housing to plunking dollars into splashy investments. A new coalition called Just Chicago seeks to interrupt how investment decisions in Black communities are made.

“The notion of public policy has always been that the best public policy comes from the bottom. It’s informed by the individuals who are closest to the issues, and when you take that approach it means that the policies are much more relevant and effective,” said Amara Enyia, a public policy consultant and 2019 mayoral candidate. “The critique in Chicago has been for such a long time, under the previous mayors, that there’s been a disconnect between the policies that the city has developed and the communities that are supposed to be served.”

Just Chicago wants to build what’s known as a “solidarity economy.” Elements include community land trusts, worker cooperatives, participatory budgets and public banks — in other words, an anti-capitalistic approach that centers workers.

The Woods Fund has awarded $500,000 to six grassroots organizations that comprise Just Chicago to help them work together and figure out how to bring transformative change to Chicago.

“Fundamentally, it’s a movement building that focuses on the most marginalized — Black, indigenous, trans women — with an understanding that, if we build power in Chicago, there’s greater capacity needed to change the conditions for those who are most marginalized,” said Stacey Sutton, an urban planning professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and part of the Resist. Reimagine. Rebuild. coalition (R3).

Often grassroots advocacy focuses on resisting oppression, such as police brutality or the prison system. Just Chicago seeks to tear down but also to rebuild using self-determination and a guiding light.

“The city that I envision is to rebuild a Black feminist abolitionist solidarity economy,” Sutton said. “We’re talking about equity. We’re talking about cooperative ownership, collective ownership. We’re talking about true participatory democracy. The [city] budget shouldn’t be led by the top; it should be led by the grassroots. We understand that if we improve the conditions for the most marginalized, for those formerly incarcerated for a Black, queer, trans, poor people, Latinx, indigenous folks then the city will be better off for everyone.”

Renee Hatcher, a UIC law professor and director of the Community Enterprise & Solidarity Economy Clinic, is also a member of R3. She said the current political moment can lean on global examples.

“Practices around the solidarity economy are most potent and numerous when in moments of crisis,” Hatcher said. “For example, Greece, in the wake of austerity, saw an explosion of mutual aid and community health clinics. Folks on the ground from the bottom up creating institutions and the kinds of things that actually addressed their needs.”

Just Chicago sees the pandemic and persistent racial injustices as a ripe time for solutions. The Woods Fund grant will allow the groups to come together, build alliances and map out how to proliferate the work. The work is also about the journey, not just the destination, while building a democratic process within the vision.

For Enyia, driving west on Madison Avenue in the Austin neighborhood paints a clear picture of what’s not working: people hustling wares out of their trunks as part of the underground economy and beauty supply stores as the most common retail activity. There was a time when the commercial strip exuded vibrancy.

“This would create space for folks who live in the community to build their own enterprises and own those collective enterprises, where they are patronizing and creating public spaces that are safe and inviting. That’s what I envision when I think of Madison and Pulaski,” Enyia said.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.