Ellen Hao

Jeanette Taylor first began thinking about a run for alderman after a September 2017 event with the Obama Foundation. Taylor, a local activist with the coalition calling for the Obama Foundation to accept a Community Benefits Agreement for its Presidential Center, asked the first question of Obama himself. (It came as a surprise: she didn’t know he’d be showing up to talk to the audience by video call.) The former president’s response to her request for a CBA was disappointing. If the center announced they might sign one, he said, “next thing I know I’ve got twenty organizations that are coming out of the woodwork.” “He got a lot of nerve saying that,” Taylor told Politico last year.

It was after that event, Taylor says, that neighbors came up to her and told her she should take a shot at an aldermanic seat. She got in, and has since accumulated a string of endorsements from progressive organizations and unions, including the CTU, the People’s Lobby, and United Working Families, as well as traditional labor groups like the Chicago Federation of Labor and Teamsters Local 700. Taylor herself has grassroots credentials; she’s worked at the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and participated in the 2015 Dyett hunger strike. In this interview, she talks about her background in community organizing, her governing style, and how she would approach key ward issues like preserving affordable housing and working with the University of Chicago.

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What are the most important issues in the 20th Ward?

It depends on which part of the ward you’re talking about. Definitely in Woodlawn, we all know the [Obama] Presidential Center is coming, and so there’s concern across the board from homeowners and renters about being displaced. So definitely advocating and organizing for a Community Benefits Agreement ordinance, because we all know that the [Obama] Foundation has said that it won’t sign an agreement. Washington Park has some of those concerns, too, because it’s just a neighborhood away. [Take] a 55 bus, it’s fifteen minutes to the center. In Englewood, it’s around gentrification. [Residents] feel like the Whole Foods and the Starbucks that’s come, it’s not for them, and they see a lot of their neighbors moving out because they can’t afford it. In New City, economic development is definitely a concern. All across the board altogether, safety is one of the biggest concerns. My conversations with a lot of neighbors when I’m doorknocking is that when jobs go up, violence goes down. Then, actually making a living wage. I’m a community organizer by heart, and so I’m also organizing at the door. If I can connect them with a community organization, somebody who gives jobs, where a food pantry is, after school programs—just directing them to the right place.

Tell us about your background and education.

I’m a product of Chicago Public Schools. I did go to Dawson Tech because I was a fifteen-year-old mother; by the time I was nineteen, I had three kids. I worked for Ventures—it closed. I worked for Kmart—that location closed. It’s kind of how I got pushed into doing some real organizing at my school. I had been on the Local School Council since I was nineteen at Mollison Elementary in Bronzeville, and so I organized on my own little island because they’ve tried to close Mollison a couple of times.

Do you think that historically the 20th Ward aldermen have neglected certain parts of the ward?

Oh, most definitely. Washington Park, Back of the Yards, New City, and Englewood have all definitely [been neglected]. And I hear that on the doors all the time, so I’m doing my due diligence to build those relationships. This is also a thing of trust. A lot of them have said they voted for the last three alderman, and we all know that the last three have been indicted. And so it’s building trust and letting them know that my background is community organizing. What I say is, this job is nothing but community organizing with some money. I’m supposed to organize around what the community wants to see, not what Jeanette wants to see.

I want to have task forces that hold me accountable. I’ll have [meetings with constituents] in their parts of the ward. When you think about it, how can you advocate for people that you don’t get to talk to and they don’t get to see? I talk about how I want a trailer home, and people laugh, [but it’s] so that I’m able to go to those parts of wards and stay for two to three weeks so they can come on, talk to me, and they can meet with me.

What specific policies would you propose to deal with affordable housing in Woodlawn?

The CBA ordinance [says] thirty percent of all new housing built be set aside as affordable. But also making sure that housing is spread across the city. Conversations that you have with homeowners [say] we have too much, but now we don’t have enough housing period, when we got somebody staying right here on the Midway who’s lived there for the last three years, somebody who lives on 71st and Cottage Grove under the viaduct. That’s a problem. In one of the richest cities in the country, we should not have homelessness.

If we’re able to give the Foundation that space for ninety-nine years for ten dollars you mean to tell me we can’t do a property tax freeze for people who live in the community and pay their taxes and want to stay in Woodlawn? We already know that anytime investment happens in the Black and brown communities, the first set of folks to go are low income and working families, and seniors whose incomes don’t change.

How do you feel about the developments at the corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove?

I think the the people who organize at [Preservation Of Affordable Housing, a nonprofit developer] are smart, they got them to do a hundred percent replacement. Think about it, they’re the only housing development that have gotten a hundred percent replacement and they have access to those jobs that’ll come into the Jewel-Osco, which some of those jobs are union jobs. We need to replicate [that] in some ways—though not all of the things that are going on with POAH I agree with. I go to the tenants association and I hear some of the complaints with the building, so I wish they were just more on it than they are, because I’ve been going to the meetings since June and I hear some of the same complaints. The security doesn’t come after a certain time. The off-sites don’t feel like they are part of the big buildings. They want to feel like they are part of POAH and the people who’ve have organized there. But that is something we could look at.

How would you approach your relationship with the University of Chicago?

They gotta come to the table and have conversations with the people who live around what they want to build, period, and the community will decide.

When it comes to the people who work at the university who live around here, are they long-term stakeholders, or did they just move here ‘cause they started working at the University of Chicago? I would just want to see the numbers, period.

How do you think Willie Cochran handled the Norfolk Southern railway expansion in Englewood? What would you do as alderman?

They need to be fired on their day off. They wouldn’t get no permitting and zoning, period. If you moved those folks, did you make sure they had a new home? What did the community get out of it? We lost more space. People who had lived in that community for years. There used to be a bar on that corner called Mary’s. I worked there, and so I knew a lot of those people in the community. And it was a quiet fight. I feel bad cause I’m fighting these other fights and I didn’t know—they kept it quiet. They need to be fired on their day off for that.

And from this point on, we gotta be able to let the people in the community decide what happens. They got to have some say-so, they got to be at the table or we can forget it. I said this back in 2013: if you ain’t making $150,000, you’re not going to be able to stay in Chicago. And I don’t know about any of y’all, but I’m a half a paycheck away from moving. I can’t afford it. I can’t. And Chicago’s gotten rich off the backs of low-income and working families. Where are the most speed cameras? Where’s the most ticketing going? It happens in other places, but the majority of it is in Black and brown communities.

Do you think the CBA ordinance is viable as written? It’s being supported by a lot of mainstream candidates, like Toni Preckwinkle.

I can’t tell you what I want to say about that….You can call yourself progressive and you can say you support stuff, but not when your history shows what you think and who you are. How progressive were you when you were clearing out wards that were full of Black people, [or] when you were okay with supporting closing of fifty schools?

Do you like any of the mayoral candidates?

I’ll take a piece of all of them.

Which piece of all of them?

I can tell you who I’m not voting for: Vallas. I would never vote for McCarthy. I would never vote for Gery Chico. I would never vote for Lori Lightfoot. I would never vote for Willie Wilson. I would never vote for Toni Preckwinkle. I would never vote for Dorothy Brown.

In terms of listening to the community, do you think there’s a candidate who does that well?

I think Amara [Enyia] has done that well. I think we got movement candidates and machine. I would go with the movement candidates and not the machine—it’s proven what it’s done.

The next 20th Ward aldermanic candidate forum, hosted by Southside Together Organizing for Power, will be at Harris Park, 6200 S. Drexel Ave., on Thursday, January 17, from 5pm–7:30pm. bit.ly/20WardForum

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Christian Belanger is a senior editor at the Weekly. He last wrote about the response of Chicago’s police and prison abolitionists to the Jason Van Dyke conviction.

Aaron Gettinger is a staff writer at the Hyde Park Herald

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  1. You say Mayor Lightfoot is not what you thought she was, exactly who or what did you think she was? She has a job to do and people like you do your best to make it hard for her because you think she’s supposed to do things like you want her to? Or did you think just because she’s black she has to kiss a$$ of the black people, Ms.Taylor Mayor Lightfoot is a mayor for All the people. If it was me that tone you use, I wouldn’t want hear nothing you to say who do you think you are? YOUR MOUTH!!! will be a problem for you, and who care’s what you think about her? You’re nobody.

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