Lizzie Smith

The 3rd Ward—where Alexandria Willis hopes to be the next alderman—stretches from Washington Park, Fuller Park, and a small corner of Englewood through Bronzeville to the South Loop. Willis grew up in Chicago and moved to the 3rd Ward four years ago, to a spot in Bronzeville not too far from where her father grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes. A policy analyst with a background in public health, nursing, and advocating for nursing home safety, Willis has been excited to contribute to the community’s momentum as a resident and through work like serving on the board of nonprofit developer The Renaissance Collaborative and helping with the Englewood Quality of Life Plan.

Willis’s campaign office sits at the historic intersection of 47th and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, once home to the storied Regal Theater, and now the site of the cultural center named for Chicago’s most transformative politician: Harold Washington. It would be a true shake-up if Willis, a first-time candidate, ousted incumbent Pat Dowell; Dowell has held the seat for twelve years, and brings a lot more cash, as well as endorsements from a number of big unions, to the race. But Dowell has been in the middle of a couple contentious issues lately, namely the proposal to close National Teachers Academy (which Dowell was a key supporter of, and which Willis opposes), and Willis’s detailed platform has drawn attention—including the endorsement of local celebrity, sociology professor, writer, and former Weekly contributor Eve Ewing.

The Weekly sat down with Willis to discuss her perspective on topics like development, accountability, and violence prevention. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Tell me about your journey from being excited to be a resident of this area to wanting to run for alderman.

I joined a block club before I signed my papers for the condo association—I said, if I’m gonna live here, I’m gonna be involved. I’m a little bit closer to 51st, so I took an interest there, and I got involved with an organization called Urban Juncture. I tried reaching out to the incumbent a few times and didn’t get the best response, as far as what’s the plan for the area, and how can we get involved? Nothing. She couldn’t direct me anywhere, and she wasn’t willing to organize and move any initiatives forward. I thought I would be supporting someone else this election season. No one else was stepping up.

In August, when we had those sixty shootings and ten deaths, the Black Caucus’s response, my incumbent’s response, was just lackluster. They were saying oh, maybe housing, maybe workforce development, maybe this maybe that. If you’ve been in the office for twelve years, to not even have a wish list of what you’d like to see done? This was your opportunity to say, “Listen, if you gave me $100,000 to invest in this workforce development group we have over here, we can get twenty guys off the street. Or if you gave me a million dollars to finish this housing project that this group has wanted for the last ten years, we can house this many more people…” I just didn’t want that to happen again.

What do you see the role of a Chicago alderman as right now? How would you explain it to someone who doesn’t follow local politics closely? And what would you like it to be?

You’re the first line of defense for residents. You help assist to provide the constituents’ services, such as trash pickup and maintenance issues for the ward. You also legislate and budget—part of ordinances oftentimes has to do with how money is being spent and collected. And then investigation. That’s probably the most important one, because when you find there’s something wrong, your job is to investigate why and then how to fix it. I think that’s where [current aldermen] end up dropping the ball a lot. You’re sitting in the committees, you’re getting all the notes firsthand, why aren’t you putting one and two together?

For the aldermen that we need, you’re gonna have to be far more proactive. You’re going to have to be a planner—specifically for this community, we need a development plan. And I’m not an urban planner by trade, but we should be utilizing [nearby] universities and experts to create a plan… and then shop it back to City Hall.

You were talking about the need for a development plan, and at the candidate forum at Second Presbyterian Church on January 29, there were a lot of questions from the audience about development, affordable housing, gentrification, and displacement. Could you say more about what your approach to those issues would be?

Again, I definitely want to use experts to help us plan out density. We have thousands of vacant lots; we still have the majority of the State Street Corridor that’s vacant right now. So we have a great opportunity right now to design a community that is inclusive. We need to be planning for everybody’s socioeconomic status—have a percentage of units that are for low-income, a percentage for middle, for upper middle.

When the 3rd Ward acquired the South Loop, development was happening there, so we just kind of absorbed them and lived off that momentum in the South Loop but did not bring any of that further south. People definitely feel neglected on this side of the ward. And how can you not, when you look over the horizon past 22nd Street and you see huge towers, you see stores, you see entertainment, and then you come home and it’s like, “Why can’t we have these things, too?” And there’s no good answer for it, other than “It’s a low-income area, it’s a Black area, it’s hard to attract investors here.” I think you have to be proactive.

People are afraid of [development] because sometimes with that comes gentrification. But that’s why if you have a fierce advocate as your alderman, you’re saying “Hey, you’re gonna do on-site affordable housing, period. There’s no paying into a fund—you’re gonna do it on-site or you’re not gonna do it here. We’ll find someone who will.”

What would you like to do as alderman to connect with your community and get people to participate?

Outreach, outreach, outreach. Social media is great, but a lot of our residents are older or maybe not on social media anymore, so you know what it’s gonna take? Door to door. And it’s like, “Damn, the alderman knocked on my door?” Yes, and invited you to whatever.

One of my biggest frustrations as a working citizen is that things happen during the day that I can’t attend, or I have to take off work to make my presence known. So I would like for things to be streaming, for you to be able to comment as it’s going on, and there’d be a repository of that information, and those questions can be addressed at a later date. I want to have all the questions visible and available, because typically you’re not the only one that has that same question. And it can just be there in an organized, clean, and transparent way.

What do you think is needed for an alderman to be accountable, and what will you do if you become alderman to be accountable to your ward?

Transparency! Transparency and having a plan and a goal that we come up with together. Creat[ing] a plan for the community, that’s one thing you can hold me accountable to… and from there you’ll have your checkpoints, and you can keep tracking these things. [And I want to have] my online database, my repository of meetings, making sure that we’re streaming things, making sure the questions are visible.

I want people to be able to say, “Alexandria, she does what she says she’s gonna do, and if she hasn’t done it, you can see why.” I think a lot of the times, our alderman are afraid to be held accountable. “If I don’t tell them nothing, they can’t say I didn’t do it.” I want the complete opposite. “Okay, I didn’t do that, can you help me?” [laughs] That’s what I said at the forum; I can’t do it all by myself. And if you’re thinking that you can, if you’re an alderman who thinks you can do it all by yourself, you are deluding yourself.

You mentioned participatory budgeting at the forum as one of the ways you want to bring people in. Can you tell me about why that’s part of your platform?

Participatory budgeting goes along with transparency. These aldermen get $1.3 million or so every year, and it’s so funny, because the incumbents like to put, “$10 million towards infrastructure improvements!” Yeah, that’s not really an accomplishment, because you’re supposed to do that. People hear that, but you don’t know where did it go to. Especially if you live on a block where streets still flood, or your sidewalk is still cracked, or your lights are always going out, you have a hard time believing these infrastructure things are happening. So by having participatory budgeting, you have a say in your project.

It’s going to be so exciting, because you’re going to see people coming in like, “I got 500 people to say that we need trash cans on this block.” “Well, I have 250 who say we need dog parks!” Then once people see that they are being heard, that’s going to encourage more participation.

What are some of the other priorities you’ll have, or issues that voters in the ward have brought to you, that you want to focus on?

Activities for our youth. Violence is a big problem. The first murder of the year happened two blocks from my house. And we have to start talking about the trauma that the community experiences when something like that happens.

We need space for these young men to be, right? We have this inter-communal beef where if I’m on 63rd, I don’t want to go to 51st, or if I’m on 51st, I can’t go to 47th Street, but the park is on 49th or something. They’re being underutilized because people can’t cross these lines that they’ve drawn for themselves. So we definitely need to first have a really good understanding of what are the fractions in the community and how to address them. In public health, we have the community health model where you teach community members how to be health educators. I think we need a community peace model where we teach community members how to be peace advocates, and you know who the people are who are engaged in these activities, and you can talk with them, and you can direct them to the appropriate resources.

We’re going to have to have a very intensive and very purposeful plan to address violence, and it’s not just to add more police. Police lock people up. We need restorative justice [and jobs]. We have plenty of workforce… We need adult learning programs. And we need to bring them back into the fold of the community.

When we talk about workforce development and creating jobs, they usually create unskilled labor jobs. No, we need pipelining. That should be written into the ordinances: You’re going to get subsidies and tax benefits from us; you need a pipeline program so that a percentage of however many men you had in that first project are now moving through leadership opportunities in your next project. I just see so much potential in these young men and women.

I am not supportive of the police academy. I think if you were to invest $95 million in community, you would not need more police… Why are we adding new police and not new social workers? Because that’s what we really need. Why aren’t we adding new mental health professionals?

Now that the plan to close NTA and turn it into a high school has been stopped by an injunction, what’s your vision for making sure that every student in the ward has access to quality education?

Closing NTA was an absolutely terrible plan. Across the city of Chicago, Black males, Black youth in general, are not doing well in public school. So how could you ever create a plan that would take away one school that is majority minority that is doing excellent? That is a slap in the face to all of those teachers, parents, and students.

As far as making sure that every student in the Third Ward attends an excellent school, we have Phillips Academy that sits directly in the middle the ward, and then Dunbar which is technically in the Fourth Ward. And they’re rated 2. We need to get them up to 1+. Based on the boundaries of Phillips right now, it should be the most diverse school in the city of Chicago. It goes from like 6[7th] Street to Wacker [laughs]. But we need to heavily invest in Phillips, we need to ask parents what types of programs they want to see there, bring those programs there, make them get up to 1+. And same for Dunbar.

If once Phillips and Dunbar are moving towards this excellent status, parents still want a school that’s closer, we need to be working with the 4th and 25th Ward aldermen to find a location for that school within that region.

Is there anything that you think is important for people to know about you and your campaign that we haven’t talked about?

Let me address one thing: The incumbent in her Tribune survey states that my voter registration has flipped-flopped several times, that I haven’t been attending community meetings, which is absolutely inaccurate. I’ve voted in every election since I’ve become a property owner back in 2014. I voted in ’08 for Obama, my first time voting, and ’12, so, to spread these lies about me, in print, is insulting, because she could actually look at her own records and see I attend meetings—if they were digitized, which they’re not [laughs].

I would like people know that I am capable. I have a Master’s in Public Health Policy and Administration. I’ve worked through bureaucratic systems before, I’ve had success with policy analysis and advocacy.

I think it’s important for people to know that I can win and I need them. It’s a new day in Chicago. If we learned anything from the midterms, it’s that if when people show up and vote their interest, we can create change. Do you want to live in a city that is known for corruption? Do you want to live in a city that doesn’t fund schools properly? Do you want to live in a city that is not gonna take care of the lead in your water? And if your answer is no, then you need not vote for your incumbent, because that’s what they’ve been doing this entire time. It’s kind of simple as that.

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Olivia Stovicek is a senior editor at the Weekly. She last wrote for the Weekly’s 2018 Holiday Gift Guide.

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