Reclaiming Democracy through Co-Government: A Recap of Reclaim Chicago’s North Chapter Meeting

The North Chapter of Reclaim Chicago holds monthly meetings where members discuss important issues of the day, reflect on how these issues impact local communities, and plan how to address them through organizing. Last month, about three dozen people met at the Sulzer Public Library in Lincoln Square for the August North Chapter meeting. Among the topics discussed was the need for internationalism in foreign policy, the importance of civic education to building a diverse community organization, and strategies for holding officials accountable to progressive values once they are elected.

Ryan Keating, co-chair of Reclaim Chicago’s North Chapter, opened the meeting by talking about the relationship between nationalism and terrorism. He reflected on how he and the country reacted to 9/11, and his feelings about the U.S. response to terrorism since that time: “I remember being in fifth grade and our school’s strong patriotic response to 9/11. I remember the words in the patriotic songs about pride and freedom. Nobody questioned this response or what America’s mission should be at that time. Nationalism is a natural response to acts of terror. People came together after 9/11, which was a good thing,” said Keating. “But when nationalism should be questioned is when our policies as a country are taking the humanity away from others and innocent people are affected.”

Keating criticized the reflexive tendency to respond to any foreign threat with military force. He questioned the strategy of the post-9/11 War on Terror, noting the lack of constructive change after 16 years of war in Afghanistan and an ever-growing list of countries the United States is bombing (currently up to seven: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya). “We must have the courage to admit that U.S.-led wars and bombings to combat terrorism are not working,” he said, “I don’t feel anyone in our country feels any safer because we are bombing other countries.”

Keating elaborated on the importance of keeping foreign policy as part of our discussions on a local level: “It seems to be a belief in this country that we have to be tough on foreign policy. Our politicians feel they can’t be elected without this stance, and the media perpetuates this idea. But I feel that many people in this country are ready for a different approach.  I think we need to question what’s being fed to us by the politicians and the media, and that should happen not just on the national level, but on the local level.  Progressives need to discuss this. We can search for different solutions to terrorism and still respect nationalistic feelings of respect for veterans and our history.”

Andre Vasquez, co-chair of Reclaim Chicago’s North Chapter and Executive Director of Chicago Progress, was the next to speak. He called his topic of the day, “Civics 101”, which he explained as the importance of knowing how local government works and getting to know local officials. He recalled his first days in community organizing, “I would attend community meetings where the people involved were college educated in politics, and I would have to google much of what was talked about following the meetings. This made me aware of how so many people are unaware of how local government works and are maybe intimidated to become involved. This has to change, and it starts with all of us. We must find out who are local politicians are and engage with them. There will not be any fundamental change on the local level without our direct involvement with our politicians. I also felt determined to create spaces where people can discuss local government and the issues. It’s up to us to grow these groups by bringing neighbors and friends to our meetings.”

Several speakers referred to “co-government” as a model for the relationship between elected officials and grassroots political organizations like Reclaim Chicago. Vasquez explained this concept as changing the power dynamic between elected officials and their constituents. “Politicians need to realize that we are their bosses. Their policies have to be in line with what their constituents want. It’s up to us to keep an eye on our local politicians. Elected officials with the power of the people and organizations behind them could make great progress.”

As an example of how national policies need to be addressed on the local level, Vasquez talked about President Trump’s reversal of the Obama-era policy that banned the sale of certain types of surplus military equipment from the federal government to local police departments, an action that would further militarize the police. “I don’t think about this issue on a national level, I look at how it will affect our local community, and how it would particularly affect the South and West sides of our city. We must protest this on a local level. It’s the only way our voices will be heard to stop this.”

Vasquez then asked attendees to discuss what they think our local government should look like.  After discussing this question in small groups, participants shared their ideas on how to make local government more transparent, participatory, and accountable. Participatory budgeting—which involves constituents directly in the process of identifying and prioritizing needs for public spending—was an idea that several groups cited.

The final speaker of the night, Marta Popodiak, Field Director of Reclaim Chicago and Director of United Neighbors of the 35th Ward, also emphasized the importance of co-government, and talked about her experience as Field Director for Carlos Ramirez-Rosa’s campaign for 35th Ward Alderman: “Rosa’s win against an entrenched incumbent was due to grassroots organizing. It took serious ground effort knocking on doors and making phone calls to go up against someone with money and who had served multiple terms. Also, we spoke about things that actually mattered to the constituents such as potholes and graffiti, and addressed the root causes of these problems.”

Popodiak spoke about how the Rosa campaign evolved into the creation of the United Neighbors of the 35th Ward, a neighbor-led independent political organization working to ensure local families are engaged in local government, and that elected officials are accountable to the neighborhoods, not special interests. “Following his election, Rosa wanted to create an organization that would work with the alderman’s office on a shared mission of making sure   people’s needs in his ward were being met. This was how United Neighbors of the 35th was born,” said Popodiak.

“Following Rosa’s election win, we campaigned for Chuy Garcia’s mayoral run, and through this we gained even more volunteers,” Popodiak added.  “When a campaign ends, the volunteers usually disperse.  It’s wonderful to have an organization that motivates people to stay involved in local politics. United Neighbors’ first meeting consisted of 20 people. We now have an organization of 1,000 people, a few hundred of that group are active on a regular basis.”

The relationship between Alderman Rosa’s office and United Neighbors is an example of co-government at its best. Popodiak said, “We have succeeded in electing six people in the northwest side alone. So the organization serves as a springboard for creating leaders. It also creates a positive working relationship between Rosa and his constituents. When he is pushing for more affordable housing, he can refer to the fact that he has an organization behind him supporting him in his effort. It also holds him accountable to that organization and its people.“

The meeting concluded with breakout sessions focusing on local issues and strategies for the future. Reclaim Chicago usually holds its monthly meetings on the last Wednesday of the month. For more information on these and other upcoming events organized by Reclaim Chicago, visit www.reclaimchicago.com or follow their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/reclaimchicago/.

Thanks to contributors to this article, Peter Fugiel, Allison Tenn, and Paul Aguilera, Jr., for photos

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *