Debra Fricano is from Little Neck, NY and attended Brandeis University. As a Chicago Corps member, she is a Community Organizer at Lakeview Action Coalition, which is an organization acting to sustain racial and economic diversity in the Chicago communities of Lakeview and North Center and to build bridges between community members.
In the community organizing world, we are told that there are two kinds of power – money power and people power. We often have to spend a lot of time and energy fundraising, applying for grants and soliciting donors, to barely make a dent in accessing money power. Instead, we pride ourselves on our leadership development, on strategic actions, and on our web of relationships – people power. The People, united in shared values, strive to hold corporations/politicians/”the system” accountable to serving the interests of the community.
Okay, so what does this ACTUALLY look like? This year, Chicago politics are truly windy, as Mayor Daley, who has been in office for the past 22 years, is stepping down. There is a vacancy in the most powerful position in one of the most influential cities in the country, and democracy can finally take root. Within the past two months, 27 community based nonprofit organizations formed a coalition called New Chicago 2011. A relatively small group of like-minded individuals collaborated to plan a Town Hall Mayoral Candidates Forum for December 14th where we would ask the top six candidates about the things that we care about. Our platform of shared social justice issues was: affordable housing, jobs and economic development, education, violence prevention, financial accountability, and human rights. Each group of the coalition committed to bringing out one-hundred community members. The candidates in attendance, who received the most, or more than 35,000 nomination signatures were: Gery Chico, Danny Davis, Miguel del Valle, Carol Moseley Braun, James Meeks, and Patricia Watkins. The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs was gracious enough to give the AVODAH Corps members tickets to come see the event.
I played a role in ensuring my placement organization’s turnout; drawing upon my existing relationships within the organization, I had constant communication with leaders, helping them to actually become leaders- with followers. We advertised for the event, emphasized the logistics, and got people excited about politics. The most important part of the event, for me, was making an impression on the next Mayor Elect: demonstrating our people power. Halfway through the program, after the candidates introduced themselves, representatives from each organization introduced the coalition. They announced how many people each organization brought, and in a sea of our paraphernalia, in waves of uniformity and diversity, we cheered. It doesn’t even matter that my organization sat front and center or that I was handing out our banana yellow shirts, because I was proud of ALL of the organizations and felt like I wore all of the colors. The room was filled with groups that I have met through campaign meetings, one on ones, and rallies in City Hall throughout the past few months. It is a small world in the Chicago nonprofit community, and there was a distinct feeling of “all of us” verses the “them” in the hot seats.
In that moment, there was power: the audience was not a passive observer, and we weren’t satisfied by cheap political jargon. We cheered when candidates jabbed at each other, and booed when they mentioned controversial policies like Walmart; we applauded when their own experiences sympathized with our own, and there was silence when comments were awkward, brief, or empty. There was a physical energy in the room, and the candidates were forced to respond to The People. We literally set the agenda from start to finish. We turned the microphone off when they spoke beyond their time limit. Even the fact that they were present demonstrated our power. They felt it was important to make time out of their day to convince us that they are worthy. (It should be noted that much to our disappointment, Rahm Emanuel was in court addressing his residency challenge. We’re actually not sure if he would have been at our forum if he could attend, since he is so far ahead in the polls, which gives him the power).
This forum set us up for future-oriented power: the stars of the show were the leaders who developed public speaking skills as they presented speeches of their experiences and concerns. They inspired others with their powerful and emotional rhetoric, teaching us about the injustices in the community, and we will remember those stories as we continue to fight. This event was also just one moment in the middle of a larger plan. The questions that were asked to candidates were actually alluding to the campaigns groups have been pouring their blood sweat and tears into. The answers the candidates gave would show where they stood, and if elected, we will remind them what they said. This whole event was premised on the fact that all community members can engage intellectually, and form their own opinion about who they should vote for to preserve their priorities- and we did this in a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 friendly way.
The candidates (hopefully) know that we will get out the vote in targeted communities, and we will hold them accountable to following through on loose promises made. We are beginning a relationship with them that holds a lot of potential thanks to the democratic process. We have to continue to fight for our ideas and push them, and be their conscience to follow through on our issues. It is a fresh start, and it is going to be a long haul. I am excited to navigate through these politics, learn from people who remember decades ago when democracy had a chance, and to join them in building people power for the future.
To view coverage of the entire event, watch the video below: