In less than a week, members of the Chicago City Council must approve a new ward map that will have a profound influence on Chicago residents and the communities in which we live, and the way public investments and policy decisions are made for the next decade. How the map is derived is as important as the end result.
This once-a-decade remap is a big deal for Chicago’s future. Yet with the Dec. 1 deadline looming, the public has yet to see a final map from the Council.
Under the current map, many Chicago communities, including Englewood, Logan Square, Austin and Brighton Park, are sliced up among multiple wards. It is difficult to protect and promote a community’s interests when power is diffuse and no single elected official can be held to account. The South and West sides have long been subject to this sort of gerrymandering, which has made it more difficult for underserved communities to obtain the investments and opportunities other communities have come to expect.
As an organization focused on promoting racial and ethnic wealth equity across Chicago, community empowerment is one of the core principles of The Chicago Community Trust. That is why, along with other civic and philanthropic partners, we have supported an effort led by Change Illinois to create an independent process of ward redistricting.
Preserving turf, at the expense of Chicagoans
Starting last June, Change Illinois created an open, transparent and resident-driven process to produce a new ward map for Chicago. More than 430 applicants from every Chicago community volunteered to participate. After 50 interviews, 13 diverse Chicagoans were selected to form the Chicago Redistricting Advisory Commission. They proceeded to hold a series of 41 public hearings, both virtual and hybrid, on evenings and weekends when working people and single parents were able to participate. Translation services were provided for residents who needed them. The guiding principle was to draw new ward boundaries that would reflect communities of interest as determined by the residents themselves. All of this public input was documented and is readily available online.
While no process will ever be perfect, this people-centered remap process contrasts with the official process we have seen thus far. Those in charge of the remap have held only a few public hearings with minimal notice and scheduled at times that made it difficult for everyday people to participate. With only days left before the deadline, they have not yet produced an actual map for public review or comment. This will undoubtedly fuel concern that the process is intended to preserve existing political turf rather than serving the best interests of Chicago’s people and communities.
Our interest is not in promoting any particular ward map for Chicago. Instead, we have prioritized a ward remap process that is transparent, is informed by the community and accurately represents the demographics of our city today.
Now, as the Dec. 1 remap deadline looms, we call on the members of City Council to avail themselves of the ideas and input already provided by thousands of everyday Chicagoans. With trust in government at a low not only here in Chicago but also across the nation, this is an opportunity to help repair that trust and serve as a model for others. In its work, the independent Chicago Advisory Redistricting Commission emphasized transparency, community voice, demographic trends and representation. The City Council should do likewise.
We do not have to repeat the closed-door process of the past. The people of Chicago have shown us a better way.
Helene D. Gayle is president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust.