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This could be the start of something big

New and old strands of youth, community, labor and peace organizing – voicing growing anger over the state of our economy and our democracy – will come together in a series of events here over the next week, with thousands expected for a major Columbus Day demonstration.

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‘Dangerously informed’ Mayoral Tutorial returns

With a new mayor installed on the fifth floor of City Hall, the incisive analysis and biting satire of the Mayoral Tutorial website is coming back.

A relaunch party featuring spoken word artists, comedy, live music, and “rabble rousing galore” takes place tonight (Tuesday, May 17, 7 p.m. to 12 midnight) at Heartland Cafe, 7000 N. Glenwood.

A new version of the website (mayoraltutorial.com) should be up imminently, and organizer Don Washington said he plans to resume monthly forums focused on public policy topics, probably this summer.

During the recent mayoral campaign, MT forums offered an entertaining and participatory approach to allow voters to dig into issues behind candidates’ campaign positions.  One featured a game-show format to elucidate the ins and outs of tax increment financing.

A couple mayoral candidates even participated, though not the eventual winner.

Washington has a basic community organizer’s analysis, which breaks things down to organized money and organized people.  Mayor Emanuel represents organized money, in this analysis, and his task is now to “create a new reality – this is the way things are going to be – which means he remains in campaign mode, and second to control the playing field so there’s more space for organized money and less for  organized people,” Washington said.

He’s “perturbed” that City Council members seem to be “lining up to follow” Emanuel and not countering with alternative policy options.  “If the mayor dominates the process” it’s going to yield “public policy that’s written for the upper class,” Washington said.

Emanuel talks about “shared sacrifice,” but “I don’t know where the shared sacrifice is for the guys at the Board of Trade,” he said.

Washington is focusing right now on budget policy, and worries that indiscriminate cuts in city services risk “turning [the city] into Detroit,” while privatizing services as a way of cutting salaries and health coverage represents a “salary bomb” that will drain the city’s economic vitality.

Joining Washington tonight are educator Amesha Patel of the Grassroots Collaborative, educator Bill Ayres, Harishi Patel of the Progressive Alliance, performance artist Nicole Garneau, Sage X Morgan-Hubbard, and Louder Than A Bomb champ FX SupremeDemocracy Burlesque will offer a Farewell to Mayor Daley.  It’s free.

New mayor — new Chicago?

Community organizers are hoping Rahm Emanuel will open up to their ideas now that his mayoral quest has ended in what he called “a humbling victory.”

Facing the first open mayoral election in decades, community groups across the city hoped for a broad debate on the future of the city and held candidates forums across town.

But the candidate who won yesterday – fueled by an enormous fundraising advantage, favorable media treatment, and tacit support from  City Hall and the White House – was the one who skipped out on almost all the community events.

“Emanuel didn’t come to the forums with the communities, so there hasn’t been an opportunity for a dialogue,” said Jane Ramsey of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, part of the New Chicago 2011 coalition.

“Our challenge as advocates who care about communities and the issues that have been neglected – housing, jobs, schools, health and safety– is to get the attention of the new mayor and get a process on track to address those issues,” she said.

Judging from the turnout, Rahm Emanuel won with less than overwhelming enthusiasm from Chicago residents.  That may have reflected the inevitability with which his election was treated from the very beginning.

In a remarkable analysis, Chicago Muckrakers touted up the number of times candidates were mentioned in the city’s two daily newspapers and it lined up almost perfectly with their poll rankings.  In the first three months of the campaign, Emanuel was mentioned 447 times, while Gery Chico got 227 mentions, Carol Moseley Braun got 210, and Miguel del Valle (a citywide elected official who was the first to announce his candidacy), 146.

Chicago Indymedia has a concise summary of Emanuel’s political career, from a highly critical perspective.

“Hopefully he’ll run Chicago with a little more grace, wisdom and competence than he displayed in the Obama White House,” commented a blogger at Firedoglake.

As the city and the new mayor struggle with a looming budget deficit – not to mention reorganization of a new City Council, with fourteen races headed into runoffs – New Chicago 2011 represents one major change in the landscape.

The coalition brought together dozens of community and advocacy groups to press a progressive neighborhood agenda. At a massive mayoral forum held by the group in December, one could imagine that the vibrant political culture and popular engagement of pre-Daley Chicago could be reborn.

With New Chicago, “there’s been a major shift in how organized communities work together,” said Amisha Patel of Grassroots Collaborative, which helped organize the coalition.  “Communities are coming together in a way that was not the case four years ago.

“They’re coming together across racial and ethnic divides for an economic and racial justice agenda,” showing that “we don’t have to be set up against each other,” she said.  “The possibility of organized communities coming together with organized labor to move the city forward is exciting,” she said.

With the budget crisis, “the question to us is what is the best use of available resources, and how can you use those resources to create some prosperity for the residents of the city,” Patel said.

“We understand resources are limited.  The question is whether community folks will have a seat at the table when the decisions are made so we can be sure the benefits aren’t concentrated downtown” while the pain is spread far and wide, she said.

Patel points to the Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, which would dedicate 20 percent of TIF funds to affordable housing, as an opportunity “to move available dollars into neighborhoods to create housing and create jobs.”

At one point the measure had the backing of a majority of aldermen, but Mayor Daley opposed it strenuously, and this month the council tabled it.

“There are a lot of construction workers who don’t have jobs because of the housing market – and there’s an even more serious need for affordable housing,” Patel pointed out. “And the money is there.”

One budgetary silver bullet will generate opposition: a city-owned casino, which was endorsed by Emanuel and the other candidates.

“We’re going to fight it,” said Ramsey.  “We know that casinos exploit the most vulnerable people, they prey upon low-income and elderly people, they’re counter to economic development, they drain away from local businesses and they drive down property values.”

Doug Dobmeyer, spokesperson for the Task Force to Oppose Gambling in Chicago, doesn’t think it’s politically feasible.  “It’s been introduced in Springfield every year for 22 years, and it’s been defeated every year for 22 years,” he said.

Dobmeyer thinks a city income tax has a better chance of passing than a casino.

He also likes the idea of a financial transaction tax, which could be small enough and targeted to products that wouldn’t disrupt the Chicago trading industry.  But for Emanuel to back that – he’s a former Chicago Mercantile Exchange board member and a top recipient of financial industry largesse – would be like Nixon going to China.

Still open is the question of whether a reform bloc will emerge in the City Council.  In 2007, labor donated heavily to help elect a dozen independent aldermen. “Expectations were high, but it was a mixed bag,” in part due to attention immediately diverted to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, said Patel.

In fact there were dramatically fewer contested votes in the current council than in previous councils under Daley, said Dick Simpson, a UIC professor and former alderman. “That may well change,” he said.

“It seemed possible that a reform bloc would emerge” but “it never came together on any kind of general reform agenda,” said political analyst Don Rose.   “Daley was quite willing to coopt and buy people up.”

Emanuel “will not have the clout that Daley had, and he’s facing a huge deficit,” said Simpson.  “He’s not going to have the resources to offer that Daley had.”

“We don’t know what he’s going to do,” Rose said.  “For all we know, he could come up with ideas that get the support of everybody.”

A convention for Chicago’s grassroots

It had the look and the excitement of a political convention, and indeed it was:  a convention of Chicago’s grassroots.

Markers identified sections for delegations from dozens of community groups, and most sections were filled with people wearing brightly colored, matching t-shirts—blue for Action Now in the back corner, Maroon for KOCO in the front, yellow for Lakeview Action Council, orange for Logan Square Neighborhood Association.  Green for Albany Park, orange for Brighton Park.  On one side was a group of young people from Woodlawn, near a section of people, many in wheelchairs, from Access Living.

At the beginning of the New Chicago 2011 mayoral forum, held Tuesday evening at the UIC Forum, members took turns calling out their organizations from the podium, and in turn each section erupted in cheers.

It’s likely to be the largest crowd for a mayoral forum all season – well over 2,000 people — but for some reason, you won’t hear much about it in the city’s mainstream media. (So far Mike Flannery at Fox News Chicago seems to be the only exception, though his report manages to focus on a candidate who wasn’t there; Progress Illinois has some video clips.)

***

Miguel del Valle drew the sharpest distinctions with the pundit’s putative frontrunner Rahm Emanuel — who had declined an invitation and was tied up at a hearing on his residency anyway — and Patricia Watkins emerged as a serious candidate with several specific proposals.

Carol Moseley Braun and Danny Davis stressed their experience with the groups’ issues; for Davis it stretched from his role as the original sponsor of living wage legislation in the City Council long ago to current sponsor of the DREAM Act in Congress.  James Meeks stressed TIF reform and his work for equitable school funding — but didn’t mention the call for vouchers at the heart of the educational program he released Wednesday morning.

Gery Chico drew boos when was asked about food deserts and started talking about Walmart.  He and Meeks left early.

In his opening statement, Del Valle drew the clearest line between his campaign and Emanuel’s, telling the audience, “You understand the need for a neighborhood agenda, not a downtown agenda, not a big business agenda, but a neighborhood agenda.”

When the candidates were asked about immigration reform, Del Valle drew the most sustained applause of the evening, attacking Emanuel as “the one individual most responsible for blocking immigration reform, as a congressman, as chief of staff,” continuing to a passionate crescendo over the rising cheers of the crowd: “How can we expect him to protect the residents of this city’s neighborhoods?”

He also made a clearest distinction with Emanuel’s program for schools: “We can’t continue to set up parallel systems of education, on one track selective enrollment, magnets and charters, on the other track neighborhood schools. It’s time to strengthen neighborhood schools.”

Watkins opened by referencing her background of community organizing, shared with the audience:  “I have marched with you for immigration reform, for criminal justice reform… We have done more as organizers than any politician that you know.”

She called for a program of social investment bonds to encourage “venture philanthropists” to tackle social problems and for a city effort to develop railroad industry jobs.  On immigration she demanded that “ICE stop trolling in Cook County Jail, because we have to keep our families together.”

The candidates were asked about youth issues, immigration, schools, the living wage, and an ordinance devoting TIF funds to affordable housing.

Asked about schools (and school closings specifically), Braun mentioned her sponsorship of school reform legislation that created local school councils, said no closings should happen without community input, and attacked Chico for his record as Board of Education president in the early days of mayoral control.

Chico gave a spirited defense, saying schools were on an upswing when he left his post, and “we built 65 new schools – we didn’t close schools, we built schools.”

Like Davis, Watkins backed an elected school board and an educator to head CPS. “Decisions are being made for us and we are not at the table,” she said.

Her position on school closings and “turnarounds” – “no school needs to close; we can turn around our schools from within” – seemed to contrast with her previous work with groups that turn around schools from outside.  (More here.)

***

It was the neighborhood activists who introduced the various issues who gave the most moving talks:  Jessie Belton of Southwest Youth Collaborative talked about a neighborhood youth who was attacked on the street after being turned away from a youth center that was closed.  Cindy Agustin, a University of Chicago senior whose family moved to Back of the Yards when she was three, talked about the impact of her undocumented status on her dream of teaching elementary school.

West Sider Takaya Nelson, representing Action Now, said that growing up, “I never though college was an option,” and now — as a CPS teacher recruited and trained through the Grow Your Own program — she encourages children to expand their ambitions.

Cira Isidiro, from Illinois Hunger Coalition, described her heartbreak explaining to her daughter why there isn’t enough to eat in the refrigerator, and Debra Geirin, a resident and activist with Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, talked about the joy of getting their own place after she and her husband had to live with her mother and her sister’s family for five years.  “A lot of families are doubling and tripling up because there is not enough affordable housing,” she said.

Massive mayoral forum (and who’s skipping it)

Nearly 3,000 activists from communities across the city are expected at a massive mayoral candidates forum on social justice issues, and every major candidate will be there – except one.

Gery Chico, Danny Davis, Miguel Del Valle, James Meeks, Carol Moseley Braun, and Patricia Watkins have accepted invitations to appear at the mayoral town hall at UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt, 6:30 p.m. (Tuesday, December 14).

But a representative of the putative frontrunner, Rahm Emanuel, told organizers he prefers to meet voters one-on-one.

The forum is being held by New Chicago 2011, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of over 25 community and civic groups.  They’ve issued a platform stressing housing, jobs, schools, violence prevention, budget reform and human rights, and collected quetionnaires from candidates.

Tomorrow night several community residents will take turns presenting statements outlining concerns in each issue area and questioning the panel of candidates.

Emanuel’s refusal to participate is “a missed opportunity for him to get to know the people who live in the city and the issues we are living with every day,” said Eric Tellez of the Grassroots Collaborative.  The audience will feature a cross-section of Chicago residents who are among the most active and involved in their communities.

After two decades of mayoral elections with minimal debate, “this election provides a critical opportunity that we haven’t had in a very long time to engage on these issues,” said Jhatayn Travis of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

“Not participating in a candidates forum and denying people the opportunity to hear your positions” — and how they stack up against those of other candidates — “doesn’t necessarily support the democratic process,” she said.

Unlike the other candidates, Emanuel also declined to fill out the group’s questionnaire, Tellez said.

“We’re urging people in our communities to participate more fully, and when you have people running for positions of power and they don’t engage communities in a meaningful way, it’s unfortunate,” said Travis.

The name of New Chicago 2011 was chosen “because we’re looking for a new way of dealing with communities and policies that would be more democratic and open,” said Ed Shurna of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.  “His not attending isn’t a good sign that there would be anything new about his approach.”

Day laborers mark Human Rights Day

Day laborers will host their supporters, including elected officials and allies from labor, faith, and community organizations, at a celebration on International Human Rights Day marking the tenth anniversary of the Latino Union – and the release of a new report on “excluded workers.”

The tenth anniversary fundraiser takes place tonight, Friday, December 10, from 7 to 10 p.m. at the National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th Street.

Latino Union organizes low-income immigrant workers, including day laborers in communities like Pilsen and Albany Park.

The unemployment crisis has exacerbated longstanding problems including wage theft and unsafe working conditions and “forced us to find new solutions,” said Jose Luis Guillardo, a Latino Union leader.

“We are very fortunate to have such a strong network of people that believe in workers rights as human rights,” said Patricio Ordonez, a day laborer who coordinates the Albany Park Worker Center.  “This is the product of ten years of organizing.”

The new report (pdf) comes from the Excluded Workers Congress, which the Latino Union helped found in June.  The group brings together organizations working across the nation with workers excluded from legal protections for organizing and collective bargaining, as well as minimum wage and health and safety standards.

That includes millions of workers, according to the report, including 1.5 million farmworkers, 2 million domestic workers, and 3 million tipped workers.  The report describes conditions, provides individual stories, and relates successful organizing campaigns in nine sectors, including day laborers, guest workers, workfare workers, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, and the formerly incarcerated.

The exclusion of sectors of the workforce from labor rights has its roots in slavery and racism, the report argues.  And it denies workers rights guaranteed under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, including “the most basic right: the right to organize.”

EWC is backing legislation that would bar employers from using immigration enforcement to undercut organizing efforts, and calling for a minimum wage that keeps pace with inflation.

COFI: A win on recess, and more

Parents who’ve been pushing for several years to restore recess in Chicago schools won a victory in Springfield last week when the General Assembly voted to establish a legislative task force on the issue.

Members of POWER-PAC, a citywide organization of black and Latino mothers, have worked in Springfield for four years for Recess For All, coming closest two years ago when the House and Senate passed a bill mandating recess in Illinois schools but failed to agree on final language.

Some 82 percent of Chicago elementary schools do not provide recess for their students, said Tracy Occomy of Community Organizing Family Issues, which provides training and support for POWER-PAC.  Those allowing recess tend to be magnet schools and schools serving higher-income children, she said.

Occomy said that a statewide search failed to identify any other school district beside CPS that doesn’t provide recess.

The push for recess grew out of POWER-PAC’s work to reduce “alarming rates” of suspensions in elementary schools.  They cited research showing children who are allowed to have recess act out less and learn better. In 2005 Newstips reported on a meeting between POWER-PAC and then-school board president Michael Scott, who abruptly walked out when parents started talking about the need for recess.

Since then a growing concern over childhood obesity has added to the concern.

Childhood obesity in Chicago is significantly higher than the national average, according to the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, and higher yet in communities of color, where recess is rarely available.  In Englewood, childhood obesity rates are twice the national average, according to CLOCC.

The new task force will include representatives of parent, health, and restorative justice groups, in addition to legislators, CPS, teachers unions, principals and the PTA.  The goal is to reach consensus on overcoming obstacles to recess and make recommendations for legislation in the next General Assembly, Occomy said.

It’s the latest victory for COFI, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last week.  The group uses traditional community organizing approaches but focuses on mothers in low-income communities of color.   Working with local community groups and social service agencies, COFI trains parent action teams which choose their own issues.

Currently parent action teams are working on a variety of issues in West Town, Humboldt Park, Austin, North Lawndale and Englewood.

On restorative justice, POWER-PAC members founded the Austin Peace Center five years ago to implement restorative justice in two West Side elementary schools.  Working with a citywide coalition, POWER-PAC pushed CPS to drop its zero tolerance policy and recognize restorative justice in its disciplinary code in 2007.  They’re also training parents in restorative justice at Reavis Elementary in Bronzeville. (More here.)

POWER-PAC has also led a citywide push to improve participation in early learning, training mothers in childcare centers to serve as Head Start Ambassadors and forming walking preschool buses in several communities.

The Austin-Wide Parent Network has worked on community health issues – including an exercise program for mothers – and parent teams in Englewood have hosted bike and walk to school rallies and won playlots at two elementary schools in the past two years.

Grassroots voices on Chicago schools

Fifteen years of mayoral control has failed to improve Chicago Public Schools, yet leading mayoral candidates are promising more of the same – or worse.

In January the Chicago Tribune reported that achievement levels are no better in elementary schools opened under Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 than in neighborhood public schools– and worse than average at his new high schools. (District-wide, according to Catalyst, “not much progress.”)

This despite millions of dollars pumped into new schools by Chicago’s business community – and “flexibility” which allows them to evade accountability and push out students they don’t want.  Catalyst and WBEZ reported last week that the rate of expulsions in Chicago’s charter schools is more than three times higher than other schools – and the vast majority of expulsions in charter schools are for misconduct that wouldn’t merit such punishment in general schools.

The business model that Renaissance 2010 followed has delivered widening achievement gaps, increased violence and fiscal insolvency, as Mike Klonsky writes. But it’s the essence of  Rahm Emanuel’s big, bold initiative – basically renaming the Renaissance Schools Fund (which, admittedly, is due for a name change) – which, PURE argues, would intensify the marginalization of schools serving the most challenging students.

So would the voucher schemes advanced by Gery Chico and James Meeks; in Meeks’s case, vouchers would benefit the private religious school he heads, which doesn’t accept students scoring beneath the 50th percentile on achievement tests.

But Renaissance 2010 also engendered an impressive grassroots movement to resist school closings and privatization plans that would create a two-tier school system.  That movement won several signal victories in recent months, including state legislation to bring transparency and accountability to CPS facilities planning, which has heavily favored Renaissance 2010 over neighborhood schools, and a victory for the Raise Your Hands Coalition and CTU when Mayor Daley freed up TIF surpluses, $90 million of which will go to schools.

Two more significant movement victories – the election of militant new CTU leadership committed to ground-level coalition organizing to bring teachers, parents, students and community groups together to defend schools, and the dramatic 43-day sit-in by parents at Whittier Elementary demanding a library for their kids – will be represented at the 10th annual curriculum fair of Teachers For Social Justice tomorrow.

CTU president Karen Lewis and Whittier leaders Araceli Gonzales and Daniela Mancilla will keynote the opening session of the fair, 10 a.m. (Saturday, November 20) at Orozco Community Academy, 1940 W. 18th.  In addition, spoken word artist Kevin Coval of Young Chicago Authors will perform with the Louder Than a Bomb All-Stars.

Six hundred teachers, students, parents, and community activists are expected at the fair, which will feature a series of workshops along with curriculum exhibits from Chicago teachers and presentations by teachers and students.

The business model of school reform may be stalled, but there’s no shortage of energy and creativity at the grassroots, and it will be on full display tomorrow.



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