5 Issues That Matter in Chicago Right Now

5 Issues That Matter in Chicago Right Now

Editor’s note: This story is an update of the article “5 Issues That Matter Most to Young Voters” published on February 22, 2019, to reflect changes in the political landscape since the 2019 mayoral election as students begin the school year. 

Chicago is a city of young people, and they’re determined to have their voices heard. 

In fact, 35 percent of Chicago’s population is between the ages of 20 to 39. In the 2018 elections, Chicago saw record high numbers of people ages 18 to 35 casting a ballot, driving overall voter turnout in the city to its highest in decades. 

Although mayoral elections took place five months ago, Chicago’s young people still play a major role in fighting for a better city.  

Dr. Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor in Political Science at the University of Chicago, noticed the power held by Chicago’s young voters and posed the question: What issues matter most to Chicago’s youth?

In her published report, entitled “Race & Place: Young Adults and the Future of Chicago,” young people were given the chance to answer.

The survey was conducted by interviewing 50 people ranging from ages 18 to 29 in a variety of neighborhoods across the city, including Englewood, Albany Park, Chinatown, Bridgeport and Pilsen, and North Side neighborhoods including Lincoln Park, Near North Side, Lakeview, Wicker Park and West Town.

The responses were gathered canvassing-style, meaning that the researchers approached young people on the street and in public spaces in each of these neighborhoods and simply asked for an hour of their time for an interview. The study focused specifically on the way that race and ethnicity shape young people’s experiences in Chicago. The report outlined several issues of main concern for young voters, with specific policies and ideas highlighted in different interviews.

At a roundtable discussion event on January 21, 2019, organizations from neighborhoods across Chicago with a focus on youth and politics in the city gathered for a discussion on the findings in Cohen’s report. The event was hosted by Chicago Votes, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that focuses on empowering young voters of color in Chicago. 

There, organizers and youth who are working on the ground in real time voiced their thoughts and shed light on the work they’re doing to make Chicago a better, more equitable, more accessible place to live.

Education and Equity

In the report, young voters said that they wanted the spaces they learn and grow in to be more equitable and accessible. Fewer selective-enrollment schools, an elected school board and improved resources for non-English speaking students in Chicago Public Schools were some items highlighted in interviews.

And although your aldermen don’t have a ton of direct access to the school board, they still have a lot of influence in policy-making and community organizing, as well as control of their allocated $1.32 million a year infrastructure budget. Aldermen can use this budget for anything in the realm of “capital improvements,” which usually results in a range of projects from public parks to housing developments per that alderman’s discretion.

Education is also directly tied to other issues regarding inequality and segregation in the city.

“There’s a very intentional divestment from the local government and schools and communities of color,” said Tony Alvarado-Rivera, a representative from Chicago Freedom School. “In many ways, it’s a symptom and a root that leads to a lot of other issues.”

Jonathan Mendoza, a representative with Pilsen Alliance, also touched on this idea of the relationships between education and other systemic issues.

“I think there is a lot of overlaps with housing and gentrification [and education] at this point,” Mendoza said. Pilsen Alliance focuses specifically on displacement and gentrification in the Pilsen neighborhood. “The school issues are very much a by-product of what happens with displacement. So with school closures and funding and even bilingual programming…I think  there’s a particular irony with fighting for bilingual programming in schools that are emptying out of neighborhoods that are becoming more white.”

On the subject of elected school boards, mayoral candidates were divided into two main camps: those in favor of a “hybrid” school board in which the majority of members are chosen by the mayor, the remainder being left up to the voting public — and a fully elected school board. 

Since then election…

Since then, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has appointed former state Sen. Miguel de Valle as head of the Chicago Board of Education, despite earlier campaign promises of an elected school board.

Other members of the appointed school board Vice President Sendhil Revuluri, a local school council member who had previously worked in the Office of High School Teaching & Learning. Other members have experience with education broadly  or CPS as either alumni or parents. 

Racial Capitalism and the Politics of Economic Distribution

Fiscal empowerment was a main thread in survey responses regarding the relationship between race and financial issues. 

According to the study, young people said they wanted job creation in their neighborhood rather than far outside their communities. Some of the areas of the highest unemployment, including Fuller Park, Englewood, East Garfield Park and North Lawndale, are all neighborhoods on the South and West Sides with over 90 percent African American populations. Job creation in these neighborhoods would support continued economic growth, rather than a temporary fix.

Another big part of the current dialogue around this issue is TIFs. For those new to TIFs (Tax Increment Financing), Ben Joravsky of Chicago Reader breaks down the function of a TIF: “[It] freezes the amount of property tax dollars the schools, the parks, the county, and other taxing bodies get from that district for 23 years. If the schools were getting $100 from a TIF district when it was created, that’s roughly all they’ll get until the TIF expires. Any extra tax money, generated by rising assessments or new development, goes into the TIF fund.”

TIFs have been an area of heavy debate since their inception for a variety of reasons, ranging from lack of oversight to their misallocation to already affluent areas, but were of particular concern this past election cycle. As of 2018, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development stated that the TIF program had created jobs in Chicago, among other benefits. However, 2019 mayoral and aldermanic candidates argued that the definitions of “blighted area” and “conservation area” (two stipulations for an area to become a TIF area) were too broad, resulting in TIF money going towards areas that were well-developed, as opposed to the neighborhoods that were already underfunded — which wasn’t entirely untrue. In 2015, for example, nearly half of the $1.3 billion in TIF funding went to the central business district, rather than areas where schools and mental health centers have closed in recent years. 

Aside from TIF allocation, young people want to see financial education and literacy being more accessible and taught in schools so that the next generation of the city’s citizens can be prepared to not only make smart financial decisions for themselves, but feel equipped to take part in discussions about economic distribution and job creation in their neighborhoods. 

“With all of the young people we work with, financial literacy is huge. But specifically it’s transportation to job opportunities,” said a representative from the Invisible Institute. “A lot of our students are leaving the cities for job opportunities every day, with commutes of an hour to an hour and a half to work at places like LG in the suburbs, and then migration follows. The biggest goal in terms of their finances is just to secure a car, because they need to leave the city for their jobs.”

Since the election…

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called for more transparency, communication andcommunity input about the allocation of TIF funding, after Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office completed an inquiry in June found that the city had only partially followed through on development and budget plans. 

Gentrification and Displacement

Housing has historically been a much-contested issue in the city of Chicago and the Race & Place study highlighted the ways that young people experience housing issues today. The top issue that young people voiced was simply wanting affordable housing and to not be pressured out of their neighborhoods by developers. Specifically, Latinx youth had cited frequent occurrences of this type of bullying by developers, often resulting in their former housing being bought and sold to wealthier, non-Latinx individuals in neighborhoods like Pilsen and Humboldt Park.

Representatives from Good Kids Mad City, an anti-violence campaign organized by black and brown youth, cited similar displacement being instigated by the University of Chicago in neighborhoods on the South Side. University of Illinois Chicago and DePaul University have also been criticized for being agents of displacement in the West Loop and Lincoln Park.

“Another point of how gentrification and displacement in cities is how a lot of the art is really being affected. You see a lot of murals being taken down in black and brown communities that I know of,” said a Good Kids Mad City representative. “A lot of our art is literally being taken away from us for another building to replace it. Another thing I’ve seen is that people will gentrify these areas, and then replace buildings with restaurants that are based off the cultures that were there. What’s the point of coming in and taking away parts of who we are?”

“I think it’s also important to realize that gentrification is the new colonization,” echoed a representative from Chicago Votes. “There’s no more countries to take over, so they want to take the spaces you already exist in.”

In 2017-18, the mayor and alderman raised the amount of required affordable housing in new developments in several areas of the city, including Pilsen and Little Village two neighborhoods that have been fighting gentrification for the last decade or so. The location and impact of the Obama Library in Jackson Park was also a major point of concern for voters this past election.

Since the election…

The Obama Library project is still currently under federal review. A study conducted by the University of Illinois Chicago’s Nathalie P. Vorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement found “clear evidence” that rent prices are expected to rise and effectively price out members of the surrounding areas of Woodlawn and South Shore. 

And on July 24, Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th) and Jeanette Taylor (20th) introduced a community benefits agreement ordinance to City Council. 

Policing, Violence, Safety and Joy in Chicago

In light of high profile cases of police violence, such as the murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police Officer Jason VanDyke, the issue of police violence and feeling safe as a person of color in the city is ever present in the minds of young voters.

The study quoted interviewees as wanting alternatives to calling the police out of fear for their safety and the safety of their loved ones, as well as free access to mental health clinics and an overall increase in the feeling of safety in their own neighborhoods.

“It doesn’t look like some big thing against police, it just looks like not bringing them into your everyday life,” said a representative form Good Kids Mad City. “If your neighbor and their significant other are having an argument, it means not calling the police, not calling them if you just see someone there…we see all of these instances of primarily white people calling the police on a person of color. If you have a problem, talk it out because we’re humans. [The police] are like this force that’s trying to be there and make you aware of their presence. 

“It’s the biggest gang in the city,” they continued. “I think it’s really this opportunity for us to get to know each other and talk to each other. I hear people saying how they don’t know anyone in their neighborhoods anymore, and I think it’s because of the police –– they’re like this barrier. They’ll just be parked on the street for no reason. They leave empty cars on 63rd [Street] and Cottage [Grove Avenue] all the time, just to be there and just to scare people. They aren’t actually doing anything, so for us, not calling them at all makes us feel safe.”

Both Mayor Lightfoot and aldermanic proposed a variety of ways in which they plan to manage crime and policing in the future, but they are being most heavily scrutinized for their positions on former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s originally $95 million cop academy planned for West Garfield Park.

Since the election

The police academy has since been designed and is still pending finalization. Lightfoot announced that the budget would likely exceed the original planned $95 million and has proposed combining fire department and police training into the space to cut costs. 

So, during your time at DePaul…

There will be a lot going on. Between getting used to new classes, adjusting to a new living space and navigating a whole new city, figuring out what issues to pay attention to can feel completely overwhelming.

The best place to start looking is to the people who are there, on the ground, working on these issues every day. Below are organizations who are actively fighting for a better, more equitable future for the city of Chicago in the realms of education, economics, housing, violence and crime and access to the city’s resources and governing bodies. Check out their websites, events and social media platforms to learn more about the work they’re doing and the policies they think can best enact their visions for a better Chicago.

Header photo by Emma Krumpp.