Q&A: Grassroots Collaborative’s Amisha Patel has her eyes on taking back Chicago

Amisha Patel (left), executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, kicked-off Take Back Chicago with moderators Jairo Nunez and Rosemary Vega at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Tuesday evening. Photo by Michelle Kanaar

Amisha Patel (left), executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, kicked-off Take Back Chicago with moderators Jairo Nunez and Rosemary Vega at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Tuesday evening. Photo by Michelle Kanaar

As the executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, Amisha Patel has her hands full. The Grassroots Collaborative is at the forefront of Take Back Chicago, a coalition of unions and community groups pushing for progressive policies at the state and local level. Patel’s been all over the news recently discussing the group’s new report on economic inequity in black and Latino communities, and building the Take Back Chicago rally, which brought more than 1,000 people to the University of Illinois Forum earlier this week.

Patel, who is of Indian descent, grew up in Elk Grove Village. She says she internalized a lot of the racism she encountered in the suburb, but it wasn’t until she went to Stanford University that she began organizing to fight injustices she saw around her.

The Chicago Reporter talked to Patel about creating political moments, racial and economic justice and her progressive policy wish list.

The Grassroots Collaborative recently released a report on how most downtown jobs are going to suburbanites – even though Chicagoans have footed the bill for downtown job development through taxes.  Why did you choose this focus?

We had this idea last year. It was coming off the constant press releases and press conferences from the mayor’s office about all the jobs that he was responsible for bringing into the city. Meanwhile, there are cuts to schools and the city budget; black and Latino workers were losing their jobs. What we wanted to do was dig deeper into this and see if the facts aligned with our anecdotal experience. And they really did.

Some of the criticism of the report has focused on its recommendation for a tax on suburban commuters. Why focus on them, rather than big businesses, especially as poverty grows in the suburbs?

Most of our recommendations were targeted towards business, and were about reducing their corporate handouts. It’s not OK for very profitable wealthy corporations to be asking for millions of dollars in subsidies. But that is not a recommendation that was focused on by most. The commuter tax was one idea, but most of what we talked about was that corporations were not paying enough.

The Take Back Chicago rally brought out more than 1,000 people from all over the city. What’s the short-term goal for the movement?
Right now, we are just at the beginning of Chicago budget season, so the short-term goal is to have folks who, unfortunately, are not in the room together often enough trying to reach as many voters and constituents as possible to have them directly connect with their legislators around [several] issues. We have one unified budget ask.

And what’s the big budget ask?

It’s around the TIF [Tax Increment Financing] surplus ordinance. (The ordinance would use surplus money from TIF districts to offset Chicago Public Schools budget cuts.)  There are so many times community organizations put together really great policy, get it introduced into [city] council, and it just sits in the rules committee, where it just dies. Everyone knows that if the mayor doesn’t want it to go, it’s not even going to be heard. Now we want to force the TIF surplus out of committee.

How about the long game for Take Back Chicago?
We’re trying to create a political moment versus jumping in on one that already exists. [Tuesday night] was really talking about issues and the policy agenda we want to see move forward. Our sense is that there is a lot of discontent in the city around how the city is moving, and a desire to have real political leadership. Let’s start organizing 15 months before the next mayoral election, not three months, and get folks revved up in a sustained way.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s voter registration drive – and the possibility of a union-backed independent mayoral candidate giving Rahm Emanuel a run for his money – has created a lot of buzz. Where does the Grassroots Collaborative stand in that game?
The Grassroots Collaborative is a C3 (a non-profit that cannot engage in political campaigns), but we also established a C4 called Grassroots Illinois Action. When folks are ready to and want to act politically, we will be ready to do so through GIA. The question is how do we get more progressive, independent leadership on to City Council.

Is there a historical period or movement that offers a blueprint for the work you are doing now?
A lot of what we are trying to do hasn’t been done before. The last push folks talk about in Chicago is the election of Mayor [Harold] Washington. I wasn’t politically active then–I was 8–but it’s certainly an inspiration for us. But we are not just trying to recreate that moment, because we can’t. There is this new crop of younger leaders and organizers with really great and dynamic ideas, and we want to capture that energy for a multiracial, multi-issue movement.

When you discuss city ordinances and policies you talk about class and racial justice, terms associated with social justice movements, but rarely heard at City Hall. Why?
I think that we are becoming less and less afraid to talk about things like race and class. We have recognized that whatever media decide to do with how we talk about it, we can’t let it dictate how we talk about it. If we don’t ask these questions about race and class, we won’t actually get equitable solutions. For the Big Box Living Wage Ordinance [of 2006], we didn’t lead with race at that fight, and it left the door open for Mayor Daley to act like he was the bringer of good jobs to the black community. We have to stop being afraid to name it.

If you could have a wish list for the future of a progressive Chicago, what would be on it?
I think it’s about building relationships and infrastructure on the ground for the long haul. We were very deliberate about calling this Take Back Chicago. Now it’s about what does that look like?… What we want to see come out of this fight is for grassroots leaders and residents across the city to be really clear in the power that they have to make change.

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