Berto Aguayo, a twenty-four-year-old organizer from Back of the Yards, was the first of four challengers to 15th Ward Alderman Raymond Lopez to announce their candidacy, and is by far the youngest. All four candidates work in anti-violence—the group includes a CPD crime prevention specialist, a minister, and a violence interrupter—but Aguayo may have come to his profession the most directly. He is a former gang member who, after becoming involved with the Mikva Challenge youth civic engagement program, went on to graduate from Dominican University, intern for U.S. Senator Dick Durbin and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, co-found the Resurrection Project’s #IncreaseThePeace initiative, and serve as a national leadership trainer with the Obama Foundation.
In a phone interview, he said that his decision to run for alderman was personal; as the child of a single parent who lost friends at a young age, attended overcrowded CPS schools, joined a gang, and came out of it a success story, he has a perspective not available to other candidates. But he was also motivated by Lopez’s divisiveness in a ward that includes Back of the Yards, Brighton Park, and Englewood. For example, after a fatal alleged gang shooting in 2017, Lopez made a statement that he was thankful “no innocent lives were lost.” To that, Aguayo said, “I could have been one of those not innocent lives lost.” This interview excerpt has been edited for clarity.
Has it been difficult running as one of the youngest people campaigning in the city?
I think we’ve had a lot of community support, more community support than any other campaign, especially given the community organizing work that I was already doing. Although I was a fresh face to politics, I am a well known face, right. I often run into moms who have met me at a peace march or you know, when I’m knocking on doors they say, “Oh, you’re that guy who Facebook Live’d and defended families from ICE and deportation a year ago.” I think the average voter wants someone who they’ve seen, who they know, that didn’t pop out of nowhere to run for office, but have seen them continuously working in the neighborhood.
The 15th Ward is one of the most gerrymandered in the city, containing parts of four different communities. How would you approach this issue as alderman?
I approach everything that we do in the campaign through a participatory lens. As a community organizer, I have experienced bringing people together and coming up with collective solutions to address a collective problem. I’m the only candidate in the race that has committed to cutting my own salary in order to have young people create a Youth Advisory Council where young people can advise me on things like redistricting and things that they face every day. I am a proponent of participatory budgeting, and in this same way of redistricting, I want to be able to make sure that our first month in office, we have a meeting where we talk about what the community sees [as] our redistricting goals. Talking to community members, I already know that one of the big goals that we want to have is for the Back of the Yards community to be mostly under one ward, and to be unified. Currently there’s about five alderman where Back of the Yards gets cut in and out. [There are similar situations] in West Englewood and Gage Park as well.
A book by a University of Chicago sociologist published in 2016 found that ward gerrymandering in Little Village contributes to violence in parts of the neighborhood.
It’s actually interesting that you mentioned that book, because if I’m not mistaken, the author of that book was Robert Vargas, right? So actually Robert Vargas consistently volunteers on our campaign. So you know while we’re canvassing, he’s seeing on the ground what redistricting looks like and the effects of it. As we’re canvassing, we’re having these kind of conversations about what would it look like to have a truly equitable map in this part of the city of Chicago. Ultimately, it’s bringing in people like Robert Vargas, people who are experts on the issue, but bringing in the real experts as well, which are community members—residents of West Englewood, residents of Back of the Yards, residents of Brighton Park—to see how we can address the issue together and really lay out the priorities for the next four years and for 2020 on how we want to be redistricted.
Every previous time when things like this have happened in this part of Chicago, the community has had no input whatsoever. The community has not had a voice in how they are redistricted. [The process is] usually driven by money, special interest groups, and political bosses that do not live in the 15th Ward. And that’s why I pride myself in not counting on any of those endorsements. Because ultimately, endorsements from political bosses or special interest groups are favors waiting to be cashed in. An endorsement from political bosses or people that do not live in the 15th ward to candidates that they want to use as puppets to drive their own agenda ultimately does not help our community. If I want to be held accountable to anyone, it’s going to be to the people of the 15th Ward. And I’m not running to win a seat, but I’m running to change a community, and in order to do that, the only promises that I am willing to keep are to the people of the 15th Ward.
All of the challengers to Alderman Lopez work in anti-violence in some regard. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s telling of the main issue in the neighborhood, which is the issue of youth violence. We are a community where safety is a main concern, especially among young people fifteen to twenty-four, and there’s no other candidate in this race who has more experience than I do dealing with that population, dealing with that problem. Ultimately, we see the issue of violence as a symptom of the root causes that exist in our neighborhood, and those root causes for us are very simple; when you have a lack of opportunity, when you have generational disinvestment in our community, violence is a symptom.
What the incumbent doesn’t understand is that the community violence that we’re seeing is a result of those root causes. I think ultimately, he has a very short-sighted view of how we deal with the violence, and rather than be proactive and attack the root causes of the issue, he’s usually reactive to the problem. You know, he’s responding to a shooting and saying, “No innocent lives were lost.” I honestly think that a real strong stance against the violence that we’re witnessing is not one that’s reactive, but one that’s proactive and addresses the root causes of the cycle of community violence that happens through the result of a lack of opportunities, the lack of safe spaces.
Do you support the campaign to lift the ban on rent control?
I support it. And both because of my work in the community, but also as a resident—you know, my aunt lives right next door to me in the house where I basically grew up. Somebody bought that house a couple years back, they remodeled it, and then they basically raised the rent on my aunt $300 in the span of one year. When I decided to run, it was actually around November or October when I posted about it, I was in the middle of campaign season. I’m parking, and then I see my aunt putting out her stuff in a truck. When I asked her what had happened and where she was going, she said she was moving out because she couldn’t afford to live there anymore, because her landlord had raised the rent $300 in the last year.
As I’m knocking on doors, that is an issue that I am continuously seeing. In Latino communities, rents are going up, and people are being displaced. And then African-American communities, West Englewood residents feel like they’re also being displaced. So when it comes to the issue of housing, I think that we have to apply a multi-level strategy. We have to ensure that we have rent control so that landlords do not raise the rate of rent like they did to my aunt. But we also need to create opportunities for renters to become homeowners. One of our proposals is to expand programs like the Micro Market Recovery Program and bring it to neighborhoods like Back of the Yards and West Englewood so that residents who are eligible to buy a home can buy a home and receive a $15,000 grant to buy a home in the community where they live.
In the 25th Ward race, Hilario Dominguez is getting a lot of criticism for his work with The Resurrection Project. I know you talk a lot about your work with its #IncreaseThePeace initiative, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about the validity of any of the criticism of TRP that it works to drive gentrification.
I’m very proud of the fact that we co founded the #IncreaseThePeace initiative that addressed the biggest issue in the neighborhood, which was the issue of community violence. Growing up, especially when I came back from college, we don’t all have the luxury of choosing where we work. What I wanted to do was something positive, something that addressed the issue of community violence through engaging young people, and that is exactly what we did.
I don’t agree with everything that they do around housing, but they allowed me to do the violence prevention prevention work that I did. As it related to the housing work, they had to hire a housing organizer because I wasn’t willing to do any of that housing work that they wanted to do, because my focus was really violence prevention and the issue of how do we allow our young people to have opportunities? How do we allow our young people to be leaders of peace and peace efforts in the ward?
There have been some anonymous Facebook pages that have cropped up that are playing up your past involvement with gangs.
A couple of campaigns have attacked us directly and indirectly. I think the competition is scared because we do with $1 what they have to do with $5. We have the biggest number of volunteers in the 15th Ward. I collected the most amount of signatures as a candidate myself by collecting seventy percent of the signatures that we turned in. Our social media reach, especially among a ward that’s so young, is astronomical compared to the other campaigns. I think the fact that we’ve been able to do this with one-tenth of the budget has them resorting to tactics like those, and I think it’s part of a pattern that we see in the 15th Ward of corrupt tactics. Smear campaigns were one of them. Yesterday, I posted about how a ward superintendent on city time, in a city vehicle, was removing our yard signs, two hours after they were put up, when that very ward superintendent is a known local campaign volunteer. He left Lopez’s signs up for months, while ours were removed two hours after they saw them. And I think it’s a reaction to the threat that we are and to the fact that we have gotten by far, and I unapologetically can say it, the most community support of any campaign.
Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
The 15th Ward has experienced a lot of pain and has experienced a lot of division over the last four years. And I think right now, in the 15th Ward, more than anything, we need someone that is able to bring people together to collectively heal and address the problems that we have in the next four years. Given my community organizing experience and the work that I’ve been able to do already, I think I’m the most equipped, I think our campaign is the most equipped to bring people together to find collective solutions to the problems that we face. In the 21st Century an alderman’s role is much more that of an organizer than anything. How do you bring people together to make tough choices, address and create innovative solutions to the issues that we face every day, from how we get more garbage cans replaced to how we ensure that our young people are not dying on our streets?
Sam Stecklow is a managing editor of the Weekly and a journalist with the Invisible Institute.