Helen Shiller has been a champion for progressive change in the city of Chicago and the country for over forty years. First as a member of Students for a Democratic Society, a radical anti-war activist student group, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; then as a member of the Intercommunal Survival Committee, a revolutionary white solidarity group working alongside the Illinois Black Panther Party; later as a political organizer with Mayor Harold Washington, and as a City Council member from Uptown until 2011.
In her new autobiographical book, Daring to Struggle, Daring to Win, Shiller writes about her experience fighting on behalf of the most marginalized Chicagoans on issues such as housing, economic justice, and police brutality since the 1970s. After her political career ended, she was instrumental in co-founding the Westside Justice Center, a legal office and clinic in East Garfield Park that provides free legal services to the poor on the West Side and houses an exhibit on the Illinois Black Panther Party. Out in November, Daring to Struggle, Daring to Win is sure to be an essential read for anyone interested in the City of Chicago’s political organizing past or future. Shiller spoke with the Weekly about the book.
Helen Shiller: [The book is] kind of a political memoir in the sense that it is stories. I do talk about my history so that there’s some understanding [of] where I’m coming from, and the focus is really Uptown and our citywide coalitions through the 70s, and then the development of the movement and what was going on in the city and the country leading up to Harold Washington’s election (in 1983), his first term, and then basically my time as alderman (1987-2011). I [ended the book] when I leave the City Council. And it’s clearly my slice, from the perspective of the things I was involved in as part of initially coming to Chicago to become part of the Intercommunal Survival Committee, which was basically a cadre of white people working under the direction of the Black Panther Party to organize white people to join the Black-led struggle for justice and liberation.
So, by the end of the 70s, we had organized the Heart of Uptown Block Club Coalition and Heart of Uptown Coalition. And through all of that we had developed a series of coalition partners throughout the city, where we were jointly engaged in multiple issues. That [organizing] really started with opposition to the Chicago 21 Plan, or Chicago’s master plan at the time, because all of us were involved in working our different communities, and what we had in common was multiple things that were going on. And what I realized when I got to the end of the book, is that there really were consistent [issues] throughout [different neighborhoods]. Issues that related to healthcare, housing, police misconduct, and education.
[Some] of our most important partners, Rudy Lozano, Art Vasquez, and Chuy Garcia, who were all very involved in a group called CASA (Center for Autonomous Social Action), organizing in Pilsen and in Little Village. [They were] coming out of a very strong perspective and leading principle really about organizing the undocumented [people] in the world, [emphasizing the role the] undocumented really had in building our city as well as the country. So that had an impact, I think, on the whole coalition as well. Although it’s referenced in the book, it’s not as much of a strain all the way through, because in Uptown the issue was really, while Uptown had people from all over the world, and more and more people coming in, we did do [immigration work] whenever we had a chance. And when there was a big amnesty program that came from the federal government (in 1986), we did a bunch of workshops and organizing around that to help a lot of people put in their applications successfully. But for the most part, there were multiple groups in Uptown that represented people from where they came.
So there were mutual aid associations for the Vietnamese and Cambodians and multiple African groups from Nigeria or from Ethiopia. There were people from all over the world that were living in Uptown, and [these groups] were doing their own things, which we interacted with, but they weren’t necessarily the stories that I focused on [in the book]. Because everyone had the same issues, which was, especially in Uptown, where everyone had come [from somewhere else], whether it was from inside the city, inside the country, or from outside the country. The majority of people living in Uptown in the 70s [were] people that have been transplanted from somewhere else, pretty much displaced for either economic, political, or other reasons—and in some cases racially motivated reasons—and had ended up in Uptown. And really when we started talking about urban removal and displacement, people said, “we’ve gone through all this, we want to take a stand”. And so there was very strong [community] support for many of those activities, but they were really based on guiding principles or strategies from our work with the Black Panther Party—of which “survival pending revolution” was a very key aspect.
And so, all of our activities on a daily basis, as well as political education, really included multiple survival programs that were not only modeled after those of the Black Panther Party, but in every case really came out of the needs that were expressed in our conversations with people. [And] we ended up having [those conversations] because we went door to door every day, with both Black Panther papers, but also with other publications that we printed ourselves. So starting in 1975, we had Keep Strong Magazine and then, in the 80s, it was All Chicago City News, which were publications that came out of Uptown. We published in order to be able to get information out to people, but we also created the entity so that we could then provide printing and access to printing less expensively across the board to people engaged in movement activities.
Weekly: That’s really interesting. I feel like there’s a lot of different threads we could go to that connect to today, and because the main things you said: education, police misconduct, housing, and healthcare, I think those are still the same, like, the same communities still lack, or are affected by all of those issues.
I’m not going to go through all the threads. What I’m going to tell you is this: the reason I wrote the book is because I was frustrated, to say the least, by the politics in our country and our city, and lack of a real cohesive perspective on multiple things. In some measure, [it is] just the inability, it seemed, for there to be a united front that would really address the inherent racism that was—that is—embedded in our political reality and the way in which we react to it. It seemed like anyone concerned with social justice was not just the underdog, but somehow we weren’t getting where we needed to get to.
And I don’t pretend to have that many answers. What I do have is a perspective on what it takes to be able to really challenge, to speak to power and to challenge it in a way that affects change and has a material impact. For me it’s about a material impact, but how do you get there? And everyone has different roles, so I really wanted to at least tell a bunch of stories that reflected on my experience doing those things to whatever end. If that’s helpful to anyone, then I hope that it’s helpful. If it’s not, then it’s just a story and maybe someone will enjoy it or not.
I did realize when I got to the end of the book that I had really focused on the four things I mentioned earlier, which was: education, health, housing, and police misconduct, and not necessarily in that order. And for every one of those, it’s common for people to look back and say, well, not much has changed; the more things change, the more they remain the same. And I understand that perspective, but all of these things are prolonged struggles [and] that it’s in the context of the rules and laws of our own country, but also of the world, because we exist in the world and we’re impacted by that. And, I mean, things are changing constantly. So the real issue is, [how] do we organize in a manner [that affects change]? How do we live in a manner [that affects change]? How do we define things in a manner that allows us to be able to be part of making a more just society, as opposed to the reactionary elements that are represented over and over again by fear and fear mongering and hate and bullying and all of that stuff.
What do we do to be able to [make a more just society]? And how do we create unity? Because people understand how to have unity at different points and what that means and how to hear what other people are saying and understand the connection between our struggles and all of that. So, I don’t know. Maybe this is truly just my slice of my experience in a very collective process that I was engaged in with many people in many forms over many years. And that’s really what the book is, and so [I’m] hopeful that’s helpful. It was great for me to write it. I learned a lot, and I’m hopeful that it is beneficial.
…You asked me in your email [about] the [book’s] title. So what I wanted to tell you, Fred Hampton said, “[If you] dare to struggle, [you] dare to win. If you [dare not] struggle, [then damn it], you don’t deserve to win.” That was his actual quote, and I take that as kind of a cautionary demand if you will. So, yeah, that’s absolutely true, the real issue now, sometimes we talk about courage and often in the context of bullying people, you know, people sort of distort what that means. I think for me, the most important thing is that you’re willing to take action. We don’t always know what is going to be the result of what we do. We may not know that for twenty years. The best we can do is analyze the situation with the facts that are known to us, collect as many as possible, try and be as objective as possible based on the reality of people’s lives. And then to come to a conclusion about what to do next. But if you don’t dare to do it, then you won’t go anywhere. You’ll never do anything and you’ll never have an impact.
So for me, that’s about daring to struggle in order to dare to win. And it’s not about winning one thing, it’s about moving forward in this very long protracted struggle, it is a way to move forward, to have both in the immediate sense, with the notion of survival pending revolution, an immediate sense to have a material impact, a positive material impact on people’s lives. But in the long-term sense, being able to move towards creating a consciousness, as well as more and more avenues opening up for people to take action. So that’s the title. It’s an action title as opposed to a sort of a demand, I guess, or cautionary demand.
The other thing I think is really important is that we talk a lot about power, but we rarely define it, and in my life experience the one definition of power that I found really helpful because it’s instructional, it’s informative, is actually a definition that I get from Huey Newton, which is: “Power is the ability to define phenomena, and make it act in a desired manner.”
So in any given situation, you can apply that and you can apply it honestly, if you’re objective about where you really want to go and on what really exists. And if you’re not, and if you fool yourself and you listen to people who are just making up stuff and not really based on actual fact, you’re probably not going to really realize what you’re after. But if you, in any given situation, you’re able to really define the situation you’re in and look at it objectively, you can redefine it in a manner. And [you] may be limited [in] what you can do. It’s not like you can change the world by thinking of that in one minute or in one day. But it allows you to be able to figure out a path to be able to proceed on. Yeah, so there’s a lot in the book.
There’s a history of the creation of the police union, the police contract and union, which I think is really important, referring to today, you know, why are we often stuck [in “police reform”] and stuff. So there’s a lot of history I ended up with, that had to do with interaction between the community and the police. There’s obviously a lot about housing, but not everything that I was involved in over time.
But the core, and I say this in the introduction, it’s kind of a bookend. The book, in some measures at least, the Uptown and City story is bookended between a lawsuit we filed in the mid 70s and a lawsuit that was filed against me in the mid 2000s. We filed the [1970s] lawsuit that argued that the City was engaged with a private developer in destroying an integrated community. Then we brought HUD into it as well. In the bookend, the mid 2000s version, [the lawsuit] against me, [was alleging that] I was engaged in a conspiracy with a private developer and therefore the City was engaged in a conspiracy to basically create or maintain an integrated community. And while they denied it, they pretty much described what a NIMBY response would be [today], and that’s what theirs was. So we have this bookend [lawsuit] on either end, everything in between speaks to it—but I couldn’t speak to it without talking about all these other factors that affect someone’s ability to have a stable environment, either in their home, let alone their community. That’s kind of the story.
Helen Shiller, Daring to Struggle, Daring to Win. $24.95 (paperback). Haymarket Books, 2022. 500 pages.
Bobby Vanecko is a contributor to the Weekly. He last interviewed Ceno for the Weekly.