The Call to Act Awakens: Residents Unite to Improve Their Community
Despite low numbers reflecting civic engagement, neighborhood residents are doing what they can to increase civic participation and set a platform for the incoming city leadership with the goal of tearing down the political fabric of corruption and lack of transparency
Neighborhood empowerment, governmental transparency, better education and more security are Federico Padilla’s biggest interests. Padilla, a Back of the Yards resident since 1991, does not wait for the next round of elections to let his voice be heard. Instead, he is uses his free time to gather up his neighbors and organize community meetings at his home.
At the meetings, according to Padilla, residents talk about their issues and their hopes for better education and more security in their neighborhood. With the city elections on their way, Padilla has expanded his leadership. He has partnered with the Illinois Hunger Coalition, a community grassroots organization, and the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. Together and with the support of other community residents, they organized an aldermanic forum for candidates of the 12th Ward.
Similar to Padilla’s group, south of Back of the Yards, an emerging neighborhood initiative called R.A.G.E (Residents Association of Greater Englewood) is also flourishing. R.A.G.E held a total of three aldermanic forums covering the 3rd, 6th, 15th, 16th, 17th, and 20th wards. The forums gathered a high number of residents and laid a platform urging governmental transparency as well as community involvement in decision-making processes.
Both groups argue that the current city leadership has spent too much time, money and energy downtown while neglecting communities like Back of the Yards and Englewood.
“The leadership, the mayor and our aldermen seem to only be focusing in downtown and they forget about our community,” said Padilla. “The community is also at fault. Us residents are not well-organized to demand what belongs to us. We pay taxes just as much as any other person in the city, but the services that we are getting are minimal.”
Padilla’s concern about residents’ unwillingness to hold elected officials accountable in the past and the lack of organized power is not an unusual one.
A recent study by the National Conference on Citizenship (based on a small sample size) shows that Chicago-area and Illinois residents are less likely to vote, attend community meetings, and participate in organizing with their neighbors, compared to national averages. According to the study, only 1.8 percent of Chicago residents contact or visit a public official, 9.4 percent attend a meeting where political issues are being discussed, and 3.7 percent take part in a march, rally, protest or demonstration.
Despite the low numbers reflecting civic engagement, groups like R.A.G.E., the Grassroots Collaborative and the Illinois Hunger Coalition are doing what they can to increase neighborhood participation and set a platform for the incoming city leadership with the goal of tearing down the political fabric of corruption and lack of transparency.
The process of bringing people together and developing trustworthy relationships with their elected officials is not an easy one, according to Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative.
“Some of the main challenges with city elected officials arise when the community is not clear about the decision-making process,” said Patel. “ The way decisions on budgets are made leave little time for questions or community input. The lack of community input means that community residents don’t have a say and in many cases the aldermen don’t even have a real voice.”
According to the 2010 Chicago Civic Health Index, there is a strong disbelief and rooted cynicism among residents due to widespread political corruption over the years. Challenges also arise when residents lack adequate education about the political process and are misinformed about the ways in which decisions are being made.
In efforts to increase civic engagement and change the culture of corruption, neighborhood groups are developing their own agendas; those agendas have been presented at community forums and some mayoral forums during this election season.
In sum, community groups and residents are asking the city to spearhead policies that include transparency of city finances and contacts, increase education and information on TIF (Tax Increment Financing) dollars and its effect on local neighborhoods. Residents are also particularly concerned about accountability.
“It’s very important for the aldermen to meet with the community at least once a month so residents can ask for a report of what the alderman is doing, why they are doing it and how [resident’s] money is being spent,” said Marina Alonso, community advocate and parent coordinator at Hedges Elementary. “There is money allocated for different programs, but does your community know what those programs are and where that money is going? Is the money being used equally in all the communities that you represent or is it going just one way?”
What Alonso refers to is something that is already being implemented by 49th Ward Alderman, Joe Moore. Over the past year, Ald. Moore has been asking his constituents to decide on how to spend over $1 million in tax dollars. According to the alderman’s website, each alderman in Chicago gets over $1 million a year to allocate for various infrastructure improvements in his or her ward. This so-called “menu money” is used to resurface streets and alleys, repair sidewalks and put in new streetlights. This menu money is spent at the total discretion of each alderman.
“This year, I ceded my decision-making authority to the residents of my ward through a process known as Participatory Budgeting in which all 49th Ward residents are eligible to vote directly on the infrastructure projects that are funded in our community,” explains Ald. Moore on his website. A process like this would allow residents within a ward to participate in determining budget allocations.
As for residents living in Back of the Yards and Englewood, this election season could be the start of a new culture of civic engagement and participation. Working together, both neighborhood residents and city officials could create a dialogue that would address the needs of the community. Understanding one another can be the first step in creating greater participation and engagement on both ends.