On Monday, Chicago will make history when Lori Lightfoot becomes the city’s first black female mayor. This victory sits alongside other firsts: her recent runoff against Toni Preckwinkle, a black woman and the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, and the 2016 election of Kim Foxx, a black woman, as the city’s top prosecutor.
Last year, when Rahm Emanuel announced he wouldn’t seek a third term as mayor, no one thought Ms. Lightfoot would win. In Chicago, activists have long understood that they may not get what they want in a mayor: It seemed to be an intractable problem, one among many others — like police violence, school closings, unfair wages.
But problems that once seemed intractable are changing. Ms. Lightfoot’s victory is part of a broader trend of black women emerging as the most influential political voices in the city. Black feminists, in particular, are securing progressive victories in a place where that long seemed impossible.
Consider some wins: In May 2015, Chicago became the first city in the country to award reparations to people who survived police torture during the 1970s and ‘80s.
That fall, black women organized citywide campaigns to unseat Mr. Emanuel and the city’s top prosecutor, Anita Alvarez, for her role in the delayed charges brought against the police officer who killed a 17-year-old, Laquan McDonald, by shooting him 16 times and the mayor’s role in the surrounding misconduct.
It is widely believed that these movements led to: Ms. Foxx’s defeat of Ms. Alvarez with nearly three times as many votes in the 2016 Democratic primary, which had record early turnout; Mr. Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term as mayor last September; and the murder conviction of the police officer last October, the first in 50 years for an on-duty shooting.
This February, Ms. Foxx charged the singer R. Kelly with 10 counts of sexual abuse, alleging he preyed on young women. The charged followed decades of allegations of misconduct. And that month, Illinois became the first state in the Midwest to approve a path to a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
The work happening in Chicago should be seen as a model for how to build progressive movements across the country.
Here is how these Chicago activists solve intractable problems:
Blend activism and the academy
There is an intellectual intimacy between organizers and professors from local colleges like DePaul, Northwestern and the University of Chicago. “Many of these scholars feel a strong sense of obligation to the community,” for example, holding forums only if community activists and young people can participate, Beth Richie, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me. “We learn from them, and they learn from us.”
One outcome of this fluidity is when scholarship leaps off the page and into the real world. In 2005, Cathy Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, began the first nationally representative survey on the political attitudes of young black people. Her findings confirmed that they felt alienated by traditional political institutions, which they believed to be hostile to them and their communities. Significant numbers of these young people believed they were not full citizens. So she hosted a conference in 2013 for young black activists from across the country during which the group Black Youth Project 100, or BYP100, was born, a member-based organization of young activists.
Work across generations
As young activists like Charlene Carruthers, who became the first national director of BYP100, turned this scholarship into practice, Ms. Cohen did not give orders or dictate an agenda, although she has decades of experience as an organizer. Instead, she focused on encouraging these activists, Ms. Carruthers said.
According to Ms. Cohen: “We have to appreciate the expertise that young people bring to the issues that define their lived experiences. I wanted to support Charlene. I wanted to learn from her. I wanted BYP100 to be successful.”
Young people are at the forefront of much of the activism, but older feminists, steeped in histories of the feminist and civil rights movements, provide invaluable guidance.
These women are also effective because are not beholden to a single charismatic, messiah-like figure who shapes the politics or trajectory of the movements, Barbara Ransby, a historian and the author of “Making All Black Lives Matter,” explained to me. “There is a break with the sort of Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson personality that might otherwise have dominated this moment,” Ms. Ransby said. That allows many local leaders to emerge and thrive.
One of them is Page May, a founder of a group called Assata’s Daughters. “I have been part of so many massive citywide initiatives, none of which any organization can claim sole credit,” Ms. May said. “People here really show up for each other’s campaigns in ways that are helpful.”
Work on several issues at once
That collaboration happened in November 2015, when Black Lives Matter Chicago organized a rally outside of a McDonald’s with 150 fast-food workers striking for a $15 minimum wage. The workers, along with staff members from about 10 local groups, later marched to the Chicago Police Department’s headquarters nearby, demanding the firing of the police officer who carelessly shot Rekia Boyd, 22, an innocent bystander. The intertwining of police violence and fair wages at the rallies conveyed that these issues ought to be understood together.
At the end of the day, these women are fighting for something simple: freedom. “We are disproportionately poor and disproportionately sick,” said the noted organizer Mariame Kaba, who now lives in New York. “If you unravel all the compounding ways we are discriminated against, you do that for everyone else, too. If we’re free, everybody else is free.”
This is personal for me. My sister, Scheherazade Tillet, and I run an organization, A Long Walk Home, that helps to empower girls and young women to end sexual violence in their communities. One of them is Danielle Nolen.
She is proud about Ms. Lightfoot’s election and even the renaming of a highway and a forthcoming monument after Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the pioneering newspaper editor and women’s rights activist.
Yet, “When I think of Chicago’s problems, the first things that comes to mind are the recent murders of black women and girls,” Ms. Nolen said to me.
These days, she knows whom she can turn to for help. Speaking of Chicago’s black feminist activists who already have mentored her, she said, “They’ve definitely made a path for me and my generation to be able to do the work that we do.”
Salamishah Tillet (@salamishah), a professor of African-American and African studies and creative writing at Rutgers University, Newark, is a founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to empower young people to end violence against girls and women.
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