Chicago organizer, storyteller remembered as a builder of community
Community organizers mourning the death of storyteller and activist Malik Alim, 28, who died in a boating accident.
For Malik Alim, it seemed possible to change the world.
He was optimistic but in a practical way, searching for a social solution through policy changes, said Kevin Cao, who took a class about the intersection of policy and activism led by Alim at the Roosevelt Institute years ago.
“He was able to see a path forward,” Cao said. “He never gave up. He always stayed optimistic in an environment that really did not want him to be.”
Activists in Chicago have mourned the death of Alim, 28, since he was pulled from Mineola Bay along Fox Lake on Aug. 22. He was last seen struggling in Fox Lake after a tube he was on flipped over. It appeared that he died in an accidental drowning, said Jennifer Banek, the Lake County coroner.
This week, a resolution mourning Alim was adopted by the Illinois Senate. He was lauded as a community organizer and storyteller who “cultivated and nurtured community where he went; he encouraged people to envision a better world and to unite together to make it possible.”
Alim worked as a campaign coordinator for the Chicago Community Bond Fund, organizing more than two dozen events leading to the passage of legislation that will end the cash bail system by 2023. Gov. J.B. Pritzker described the bill as a step toward “dismantling the systemic racism that plagues our communities.”
Keisa Reynolds, the transitional executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, said Alim was a thinker who was also a welcoming person and valued a sense of community, Reynolds said.
Alim was pivotal in creating the #BreathingRoom Space that is housed in the Back of the Yards neighborhood as part of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, said Damon Williams, a co-director of the collective.
Alim helped rehab the space — at one point living in the building — while also shaping it into a hub for organizing and cultural events, Williams said. Alim coined the term “well pro,” meaning wellness and protection as an alternative to policing, Williams said. The collective aims to create a world without prisons and police, according to its website.
“Many of us came together in resistance to the oppressive violence of policing, and we came together with the belief that we have to create a new world and a new way of being,” Williams said. “And a new way of taking care of each other, and a new way of actually protecting ourselves from harm and from violence, transforming our behavior toward more healthy relationships.”
Alim also worked at the University of Illinois at Chicago, helping reimagine the space at the Chicago Justice Gallery as its gallery manager and event planner, said Barbara Ransby, the director of the university’s Social Justice Initiative. Alim was keen on visuals and what would be compelling to young people who came in, Ransby said.
He organized a concert with Taína Asili, a New-York based Puerto Rican singer and activist whose music touches on liberation, Ransby said.
“I think the spoken word was very important to him and making words and ideas accessible through art and through sound production,” Ransby said.
About a month ago, Chakena Perry felt like she left Chicago Votes Action Fund in good hands when Alim succeeded her as president of the group’s board of directors.
Perry, who worked at Chicago Votes from 2013 to 2021, described Alim as an amazing storyteller. Alim opposed disenfranchisement at the ballot box.
“He tried to incorporate all the voices that we’re attempting to influence,” Perry said. “We work with incarcerated individuals, previously incarcerated folks, and the artist community. He was big on equity.”
They met in 2014 at a Black Youth Project 100 meeting, and their paths crossed again at Chicago Votes’ DemocracyCorps Fellowship. The group teaches young people about grassroots basic of democracy while trying to develop the next generation of leaders, according to its website.
“The students that we were working with in the classroom, we were teaching them stuff about the legislative process,” Perry said. “That’s one of my favorite memories of Malik because he has a really cool way of we can be serious about things, but we also have a sense of humor.”
Alim had two children, one of which was with his life partner, Kristiana Rae Colón.
For Cao, 23, the class with Alim has stayed with him, in particular his message of finding a calling. Cao is attending medical school and wants to work on aging equity issues.
“There was a lesson he taught us: You have to envision a better world in order to achieve it,” Cao said. “That just stays with me. He knew that you could always make a better world.”
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.