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We need a City Council that reflects Chicago’s diversity

The census numbers should serve as a reminder of what should motivate us to keep pushing forward to have a local government that best represents its citizens.

2019 inauguration
Members of the Chicago City Council are sworn in during the city’s inauguration ceremony in May 2019, at Wintrust Arena.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The year 2019 brought a tide of change to the Chicago City Council when new faces asked for a seat at the table and voters made it happen.

The results were historic. It was a sign we were inching closer to having our elected officials look like the real Chicago we see when we go to our local corner store, walk the lakefront or take the L.

First, with Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first Black woman and openly gay mayor. And then with the highest number of Latino aldermen ever and the fewest white aldermen since the ward system was adopted in 1923.

Then came 2021 with a reminder of what should motivate us to keep pushing forward and have a local government that best reflects its citizens — the census numbers. Paramount data that will inform and influence how the city’s ward map will be redrawn.

“What it basically says is we have a city that’s a third Black, a third white, a third Latino and then 5 or 7% of the Asian community,” Sylvia Puente, president and CEO of the Latino Policy Forum, told the Sun-Times when she initially saw the data in August. “The challenge is that population numbers don’t always translate into equity in the distribution of resources, equity in our office holders, equity in a variety of different ways.”

Our municipal government should represent who and what Chicago is today — a minority-majority city. We cannot allow raw political self-interest in keeping a seat to obstruct with the high-minded goal of reflecting the city with who represents us. Maps can’t be drawn just to protect incumbents.

Chicago is now 31.4% white, 29.9% Latino, 28.7% Black and 6.9% Asian. In the City Council, Latinos hold 12 seats, while white and Black aldermen each hold 19 seats.

Latino and Asians are the ethnic groups that saw the most growth in population throughout the city in the past decade. There are now more than 819,000 Latinos in Chicago, compared with the 778,000 who lived here in 2010. The number of Asian residents in the city also increased from about 144,000 in 2010 to more than 189,000 in 2020, a growth of more than 45,000.

There is currently no Asian representation in the City Council. No one who is more likely to accurately represent, advocate and understand their growing community’s needs.

In 2019, community activists and then-political newcomers Andre Vasquez (40th) and Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) unseated two white incumbent aldermen, bringing the Latino representation in the Council up to 24%.

Trailing behind their population growth, members of the Chicago City Council’s Latino caucus have been more poised to ask questions such as “How are Latinos benefiting from this initiative?” And, when it comes to specific city contracts, “What’s the number for Hispanic firms on this?”

It’s a given that every group will want their voice to be heard. It’s a guarantee that, when voting on proposed budgets or ordinances, everyone wants answers to how a vote may hurt or benefit the people they represent. The questions the Latino aldermen have been asking are ones that can lead to equity, and the closest we can get to fairness in negotiations.

Your representative doesn’t have to look like you in order for them to protect and serve what matters most to your community or ward. But when it comes time for a tough decision, it is more likely for a Black person to understand challenges Black people face, and for an Asian person to advocate for the needs in the Asian community.

Breaking a diversity record from 1923 should be applauded. Briefly. It should also make us think about how long it took us to get here, and how much faster it could have been accomplished if the City Council transformed along with our diversifying city.

The consolidated primary election will take place on Feb. 28, 2023, followed by the general election on April 4. Those dates will get here before you know it, and new faces in Chicago politics will start to pop up.

For those who are interested in change and have an idea of how they want their local government to look in 2023, the time to act is now.

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