Jeanette Taylor thinks her experience as a community organizer is important to her campaign for alderman of the 20th Ward.
Three of the last four aldermen of the 20th Ward, including incumbent Willie Cochran, have been indicted on criminal charges. Taylor hopes that her reputation for community involvement will help rebuild the trust of 20th Ward voters in their alderman.
“People will not be able to say that they did not have a candidate who was already working, who was already fighting, and who will continue to fight,” she said.
Taylor has a long history of activism and community involvement in the South Side. In 2015, she led a 34-day hunger strike to reopen Dyett High School, which is several blocks north of campus, after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced it would close the high school due to declining enrollment and academic performance.
“I saw what type of beast Chicago is,” she said. “Politicians and churches, people we had known for years, turned their backs on us, and so I didn’t want to organize anymore because I thought I couldn’t win.”
Taylor has also served on the Local School Council (LSC) of Mollison Elementary in Bronzeville, where she lived for 21 years before moving to Woodlawn. She led three separate efforts to keep the school open. CPS eventually merged Mollison with the nearby Overton Elementary.
Taylor’s past activism also includes her membership with Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO). As a member, she helped campaign for UChicago Medicine to establish a Level I adult trauma center in the South Side, which they did last May. Taylor was also a whistleblower for an Illinois State Board of Education probe into Chicago schools’ policies towards students with disabilities that reportedly delayed services for students.
Taylor said that her past experiences with community organizing are similar to the responsibilities of an alderman.
“This job is nothing but a community organizer with some money,” she said. “You are supposed to organize around what the community wants and in Black and Brown communities that does not happen.”
Taylor said that neighborhoods in the 20th Ward each face their own specific set of problems. In Washington Park and Woodlawn, she added, the incoming Obama Presidential Center (OPC) poses the biggest threat.
She supports a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that ensures people from the community are hired by the OPC and benefit from its presence. Taylor has been vocal about a CBA since forums in fall of last year.
“I’ve been at the forefront of this fight since [the OPC] was announced and we started to see rents go up and property taxes change,” she said.
Taylor also said that she will make seats on the school board for CPS elected positions, as opposed to the current system of mayoral appointment. She says the current board “has worked for the rich and the mayor” but not for low-income and minority communities. She expresses similar grievances about other City institutions, like the Chicago Housing Authority, at which her opponent Maya Hodari is a director of development.
Taylor’s other ideas for improving CPS include establishing more sustainable community schools in the ward, which partner with community organizations to give students access to certain programs. Taylor’s former organization, KOCO, is currently partnered with Drake Elementary and Dyett High School. She intends to have conversations with community members about these projects to receive input about specific needs and goals for local schools.
“We’ve trusted all these institutions and people to do right by us, and they haven’t,” she said. "I will probably spend the first year trying to build those relationships [with community members] by calling folks to make [City Council] decisions. So when I vote in City Council, it’s because this is what my constituents said.”
Taylor said she will not participate in the “classic machine politics” of Chicago and accused her opponent Kevin Bailey of participating in it.
“He’s knocked plenty of people,” she said. “Classic machine.”
She referred to how Bailey has challenged the signatures collected by every other candidate except for Andre Smith. Each candidate needs 473 unique signatures from 20th Ward residents to secure a spot on the ballot. Many candidates have accused Bailey of filing objections for the purpose of objecting rather than for pointing out actual faulty signatures. Even if candidates do have enough valid signatures, they still need to spend several days and potentially up to thousands of dollars to address objections.
Taylor emphasized that “whoever [wins], we’ve got to be at their office on a consistent basis holding them accountable or you’re going to look up and this will be another gentrified community, and we will be a memory of the past.”
"At the end of the day, Chicago can no longer continue to be a city built on getting rich off working families, and that’s what they’ve classically done," she said. "There is a new day in Chicago politics."