I have been lucky enough to work with community organizers and politicians throughout the Midwest, as well as in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and South Sudan. As a result, I have helped craft and implement to a wide variety of community development initiatives from the “usual” (building roads and schools, providing health care, fostering employment opportunities for youth) to the “surreal” (addressing python infestation currently tops the list). Part of the process in developing countries is teaching people about key principles for civic education and engagement, which is something Americans all know about, but we sometimes forget. The Chicago Tribune recently asked readers to submit ideas about a plan for Chicago, and while drafting my plan to address crime and violence, I put together some ideas about civic engagement and government, and how we can re-engage in city decision-making.
We need to talk to each other more and be aware of our larger community. The decline in civic engagement is not specific to Chicago, and there are volumes written about why we are “bowling alone,” so I will focus on the easiest way to re-engage, which is simply to start talking to each other again. When we don’t know our neighbors, we cannot work with them to create a stronger city. When we don't know our neighbors, we can’t say to the family down the street, “Your kid might be hanging with some people you wouldn’t like.” When we don’t know our neighbors, it’s harder to recognize that your favorite solution may impact someone else negatively. We can engage in these conversations on our front porches or by volunteering for churches, political campaigns, and nonprofits. And we need to remember that our neighbors are not just those on our street, but in other wards, and on the opposite side of the city. What happens in one ward can, and likely will, affect another ward. For example, closing schools and clinics in one neighborhood affects the entire city because it weakens our ability to present an educated and healthy workforce to potential investors. Chicago is a sum of its neighborhoods and ignoring even one hurts our community.
We need increased government transparency and to hold our government accountable. Although increased communication is a good first step, the more decisions are made in the public space, the more we can hold our aldermen and mayor accountable. We are in the middle of the 2014 budget process right now one new line item that shouldn’t be overlooked is the funding an Independent Budget Office which would be instrumental in increasing transparency in city budget and contract decisions. Another important piece of legislation is the Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance which would require a committee hearing before any services are privatized in try to avoid another parking meter debacle. The ordinance has been stuck in the Rules Committee for almost a year. We need to tell our aldermen that we support these two initiatives to increase transparency in the system, and we need to hold our aldermen accountable if they do not act.
We need to be specific about our solutions and we need to compromise. Once we have community solutions and increased transparency, the hard part begins. We are very good at proposing broad solutions. “Don’t close the schools and clinics and create more jobs and there will be less violence.” We need to remember that like our own pocket books, the city’s budget is not bottomless. Which schools? Which clinics? What are we willing to give up to increase the safety of our streets? I would gladly give up Divvy bikes (I don’t use them), but I love the Taste of Chicago – the fried food, the overpriced beer, and the people watching – which means that summer has arrived. But I would give up the Taste if it meant significantly more police on the streets to make our neighborhoods safer. With more communication and information we can develop more specific solutions and engage in compromise.
We need to think beyond short-term fixes and develop long-term, multi-issue plans. Although there are many good sides to electing public officials, the election cycle can perpetuate the use of short-term fixes over long-term solutions. Politicians need to show they are effective in order to be re-elected and as citizens, we have a tendency to demand change faster than is sometimes realistic or sustainable. Both of these reinforce the urge to rely on short-term fixes. But we need to remember that big changes require big plans and more time to implement. For example, if we want to reduce violence, we need to address not only policing, but also education and job creation, all of which might take years. Plans need to be multi-issue, vetted by the community, and as citizens, we need to be vocal about support for long-term plans so if elected officials do change, the agreed upon plan does not.
I know I haven’t reinvented the wheel here, but I have tried to frame a path by which we can be more engaged and solution-oriented as a city. I used the word “we” to remind us that we are in this together and we are responsible for electing public officials (and worse, for re-electing them when they are don’t act in our best interest). The Tribune’s challenge for “A new plan of Chicago” exhibits exactly the kind of mentality the city needs to affect real change in our communities. By engaging its readership in the conversation, we are sharing different points and developing new and creative solutions. It’s up to us, as citizens, to take this conversation out of the newspaper, into our communities, and demand our politicians to work with us to create a better Chicago.
September 15th is the International Day of Democracy. If you didn’t know that, don't fret, I consider myself a democracy nerd and I didn't know. But, having spent the better part of my career working in new democracies, I thought it would be a good occasion to give credit to Chicago, the place that taught me about democracy.
The more cynical among you are expecting jokes about voting “early and often”, political dynasties, or corruption in general. But that is not what I see as the roots of Chicago politics. Chicago politics boils down to three important tenants: politics is local, organizations are about people, and communication is key. This holds true at a community meeting about the local park or at a city council, and yes, it even holds true when politicians are using them to benefit the Machine.
Politics is local... and it’s about public services.
People care most about what is in front of them – schools, roads, security, public spaces, etc... I have worked with civil society and local government leaders in the Chicago, D.C., the Balkans, Afghanistan, and South Sudan. No matter where I am, after my first community meeting in a new place, I come out considering the same public services. Potholes, soccer fields, street lights, water systems, teacher salaries, local markets, vocational training, community centers –are some of the projects I have worked on over the years. But the root of each of these was helping citizens and governments work together to make their communities a better place.
Chicago has a municipal structure where people know to go to their alderman and talk about these issues. A descent alderman will get his/her hands dirty removing graffiti and filling potholes. A great alderman will be a proactive community leader, represent the local needs of the ward to the city council, and promote the community to the rest of Chicago and the state. Don't get me wrong, Chicago could be improved. There are too many alderman who they have too much power (or not enough checks), but a system in which everyone knows who is their first stop if they want something fixed in their community, is a good system.
Organizations - whether political, civic, ethic, or religious - are about people.
Whether a human rights group, a refugee association, or a neighborhood council, organizations are about people - how they interact, what they need, and how get what they need. From Jane Adams and the suffrage movement to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition to Chicago's “political machine”, Chicago has a history of organizing people to make a difference. People working together to help each other and their communities.
Because of Chicago’s deep history of organizing, great Chicago politicians always have people at the front of their mind. And if they forget, they are reminded. Great Chicago politicians are proactive in reaching out to neighborhood groups and gathering input before they make decisions. Whenever I begin working with a government official or civic group in a new democracy, getting them to put people, not egos, first is always the biggest struggle. The cynical among you can now make a crack that this also happens in Chicago (I know I laugh every time the Mayor welcomes me at O’Hare) but Chicagoans are good at organizing and reminding politicians where their priorities should be, which makes all the difference.
Communication is not overrated.
One of my favorite stories of a politician “not getting it” took place in Bulgaria. I was helping a local nonprofit to organize the first-ever parliamentary debate in their small town. The group toiled to find a nice space and develop polite questions, and just after the candidates were introduced, a cell phone rang. One of the candidates not only answered the phone, but then turned his back to have a 15-minute conversation. He was not elected. I generally feel that elected officials can never give the citizens with too much information. Transparency is vital to citizens holding their government accountable and without communication, there can be no transparency.
“Please, let me know what you think about the stadium project so that I vote accordingly.” “I am sorry, I tried to work with the committee to get a better deal on the schools, but I got outvoted.” Newsletters, town hall meetings, Saturday office hours – there can never be too much communication. I learned this in Chicago too. Unfortunately we only have a few great, proactive, communicators in our city. Although I doubt that even the bad ones would take a cell phone call in front of a group of potential voters, Chicago politicians (and our state and federal representatives for that matter) need to get better at proactive communication.
But even though communication can be better, our politicians know how to keep it local. They remember it’s about people – and when they don’t, the people remind them. All in all, these are all foundations for a great democracy, and all of this, I learned in Chicago.
Includes professional topics, as well as thoughts about Chicago politics. I also keep a blog on Medium that includes these, as well as more personal posts.