With recent 2020 Census numbers showing that Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in Chicago, some advocates and community organizers are saying this is the year to fight for a majority Asian ward in City Council.
Between 2010 and 2020, Asian residents grew in number from about 145,000 to 190,000 — a 31% increase. They now make up about 7% of Chicago’s population.
“We have been pushing for a ward that has [an Asian American majority] for the past two census cycles … but now we’ve finally reached the point where we know that we have the numbers, if we draw the shape and the size just right,” said Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC).
McKibben said the best chance at drawing a majority Asian ward is in the greater Chinatown area, including parts of Armour Square, Bridgeport, McKinley Park and surrounding communities. A WBEZ analysis of 2020 Census numbers shows that the Asian population grew in each of those three community areas over the past decade.
McKibben says there are about 35,000 Asian Americans living in the neighborhoods that make up greater Chinatown — more than enough for a majority in a single Chicago ward.
Justin Sia, the democracy, voting rights and redistricting counsel at Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, said a ward map that better represents the interests of Asian residents is long overdue.
“Asian Americans represent 7% of Chicago, but they currently represent 0% of seats in the city council,” Sia said.
The Chicago City Council’s first and only Asian American alderman, Ameya Pawar, stepped down in 2019, honoring a self-imposed two-term limit. Pawar had served in the city’s 47th Ward on the North Side.
Sia said Pawar’s departure left a void in City Hall. This year, Sia’s group and others are crunching the data, drawing maps and soliciting aldermanic support for a majority Asian ward — all in service of consolidating voices and seeking better representation.
“When a community’s split into two different wards, that means that the community members have to advocate for the issues that they want to two or more aldermen,” Sia said. “[That] can be really confusing … but also really exhausting and time intensive.”
With more than one alderman representing a community, it allows each of them to “pass the buck of responsibility to act on behalf of those communities,” Sia added.
Community members from greater Chinatown have voiced their support for a majority Asian ward, too. They have appeared at public hearings in recent months to ask for a consolidated ward. Some have brought up issues like the Chinatown community’s decades-long request for a nearby high school, support for small businesses and language access problems when seeking city services.
Residents, advocates and organizers have been here before. In 2011, during the remapping of Illinois state legislative boundaries, groups successfully lobbied to bring most of the greater Chinatown community into one state representative district. And those efforts have produced results.
“The first consideration [then] was to not have the Asian American population be split up between three state rep districts and to consolidate voices or power, if you will,” said McKibben, with CBCAC.
A few years later, that district helped Theresa Mah become the first Asian American elected to the Illinois General Assembly. Since Mah’s win, more Asian Americans have been elected to the state legislature, resulting in some key legislative wins such as the recent passing of the TEAACH Act, which mandates an Asian American history curriculum in every public school in Illinois.
This year, in the city’s remap, the best chance at a majority Asian ward may be through a citizen-drawn map led by CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan, good government nonprofit. The group convened a 13-member Chicago Advisory Redistricting Commission, tasked with holding public hearings, incorporating community members’ input and drawing an independent Chicago ward map.
Sravan Suryadevara, a South Loop resident and software developer, is one of the commissioners. He says initial census numbers and feedback from the greater Chinatown community make a compelling case for drawing a majority Asian ward there.
“We have a strong imperative to make sure that Chinatown stays as one community within one ward,” Suryadevara said.
He acknowledged that the City Council has already begun its closed-door remapping process. “I’m not totally in tune with what the aldermen are doing, and that’s part of the problem,” he said.
Another commissioner, Chris Kanich, who lives in Bridgeport, said one way to get the citizen-drawn maps to become a reality is to lobby for at least 10 aldermen to vote against the Council-drawn map. That would trigger a special election next year April, in which Chicago residents would choose the map they may want.
Kanich said another route could be a legal challenge using the Illinois Voting Rights Act. A decade ago, groups like CBCAC lobbied for the law, which says voting boundaries must be drawn to protect the rights of minority populations.
However the process shakes out, Sia with Advancing Justice says the time is now for a majority Asian ward.
“It’s a bit of a game-changer in [how] the Asian American community [perceives the] City Council, which is why it’s so important to not let this moment go,” he said.
He added that such a consolidation of Asian voices will lead to better representation of their interests, greater civic engagement among Asian voters, and maybe someday, an Asian alderman or two in City Council.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.