- Interview by
- Brynn Schaal
Chicago’s city council has more socialists on it than any other in America. The city’s Socialist Caucus features five members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Angela Clay wants to join them. Clay is a community organizer running to replace three-term incumbent James Cappleman on Chicago’s city council. The 46th ward is on the city’s North Side and includes portions of Uptown, Buena Park, and Lakeview.
Brynn Schaal spoke with Clay about her campaign and her vision for her neighborhood and city. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This is your second time running to become alderwoman of Chicago’s 46th ward. Why are you running again?
My daughter is my underlying motivation right now, especially since I became a mom during a global pandemic. It changed everything about me in a great way, but it also made me more concerned about the future and legacy I was leaving for my baby. I believe all of our children are special. I would hate for children not to have the same opportunities and resources and communities that I had the pleasure of growing up in. I want to grow a family in this ward and continue to lay down roots. My family has been here for five generations. I want to make sure that I am actually putting people in a position of power and I’m not just complaining.
What is your experience in community organizing?
I come from an organizing background, and I’ve been organizing for as long as I can remember. My grandmother was a force — she was on the frontlines of anything and everything in the 46th ward, and she was instrumental in Voice of the People, which is a not-for-profit that provides and protects affordable housing in Uptown.
Currently, I’m a housing organizer. I became the youngest president of Voice of the People when I was twenty-two. Housing has just always been at the forefront of my mission. I grew up in affordable housing and it saved my life.
While in high school, I learned the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) dropout rate was around 50 percent. That struck a lot of my peers, because we knew the consequences of not having a high school education. For three years, we did participatory action research, where we went all across the country and studied classrooms, teaching styles, pedagogy, the “vibe” of the classroom, social-emotional skills, and relationship building. We researched and put together a questionnaire, and we talked to everybody in the classrooms and who came in contact with the students — the lunch ladies, the security guards, and janitors — and asked them for their honest opinions.
We put all of that data together and we gave recommendations to CPS. Some of those recommendations, such as Freshman Connection — where freshmen go to school before the start of the school year and get to know their teachers and the building — were implemented by CPS.
During the last municipal elections in Chicago, DSA established a beachhead on the city council. What do you think of what they’ve been able to accomplish so far, and how would you want to add to that?
Chicago DSA is definitely building a momentum behind progressive alders, and I think people are looking at such alders in a new light given that they are building capacity to push the city toward progressive views. I think alders like Jeanette Taylor in the 20th ward coming out strongly against some of the mayor’s disregard for black and brown people has been a really huge success for socialist alders.
I’m most excited to add to the people of color who are coming out of the socialist movement. I feel like as a young person of color, we just aren’t exposed to socialism under the banner of socialism. We are already taking care of our communities on our own when the city and the state do not come in to offer any help. And I want to be that bridge between young people of color and explicitly teaching them, you are already doing the work of socialism. It’s not something that is outside of your everyday life of taking care of the people most impacted by this heavy work.
I think to be a true socialist alder, you have to be on the frontlines of these fights. We have to see you. I roll with people who have been on the frontlines of making things happen and getting things done in this city and around this country. One of my longtime mentors, Jitu Brown, is actually one of the first people who told me about my power when I was fourteen. I had just got back from a conference in Washington, DC. Brown is the national director of Journey for Justice, and he put together a “quality of life” festival where black and brown organizations from all across the country put together a list of demands for the federal government on how we want to be taken care of, protected, and served.
I do mutual aid on a weekly basis with Northside Action for Justice. This isn’t something someone had to come tell us to do — we saw a problem, we organized, and we sought out a solution for ourselves.
The current alderman of the 46th ward, James Cappleman, has been quite hostile to lower-income and working-class residents, despite his being a social worker. How do you plan to counteract Cappleman’s policies, which have promoted gentrification and increased homelessness in Uptown?
My approach is very simple. This is my community, and my neighbors are looking for someone who they can trust. That is going to require some community healing circles, because people not only don’t trust the political atmosphere — they’re unwilling to give their power and vote to folks. They feel like things are just going to happen regardless. It is going to take building that community and trust, whether that’s through community workshops, walks in the park, or doing a community dinner. I want to establish trust with my neighbors so they understand I am their resource; I’m not someone just trying to impose my vision for the ward. It is really our communal vision I want to work on and bring to city council.
Everywhere you look, new development is going on. New housing development is needed all across the city, especially during a pandemic. But the size of the housing is not sustainable for our communities, such as studios and one bedrooms — especially for a family. Nobody is raising a family in a two-bedroom. Families need space. Right now, to rent a studio in our community is at a minimum $1,500 a month, and many of these studios were once single-room occupancies or buildings for low-income families and laborers.
The 46th ward is at a tipping point. We used to have the most diversified housing stock that you could find in the city — from single-room occupancies to Section 8 housing to co-ops. Now all of those resources have been snatched and flipped. For instance, the Stewart School Lofts used to be an elementary school for black and brown students in this community, many of whom were low-income. It was closed during the Rahm Emanuel administration, sold to a private developer, and then turned into lofts — with the chalkboards still on the walls. We’ve had many of our single-room occupancies completely gutted and flipped.
We also have been at the forefront of a campaign to stop a luxury development at Weiss Memorial Hospital parking lot. Cappleman, the current alderman, went around getting this development pushed through very undemocratically.
The 46th ward borders on Lake Michigan and features some desirable real estate. What is your plan for ensuring continued affordable housing in the ward?
No matter your background or economic makeup, people want to live in safe, clean, resourced communities. When we’re talking about prime real estate, we need to understand that it does not necessarily equate to you having the biggest savings or checking account — it equates to making sure that our neighborhood schools benefit from these buildings along the lakefront as well. It’s key to get voters to understand that everything in our ward revolves around housing and its affordability.
My big ideas are to partner with developers who actually want to build affordability on site, no matter if it’s along the lakefront or other parts of the ward. We are missing the key component: families need affordability in order for them to send their children to our neighborhood schools. Our neighborhood schools are declining in attendance because of the lack of affordability. If we are proponents of great public schools and safe, equitable childhoods, we need to be investing in the housing stock that our children are living in.
Also, our elderly folks need access to affordable housing because they are on a fixed income. We need to be thinking about the longevity of our community. Are we building a community that is prioritizing our young and elderly first? Because if we are not building affordable housing, that means that our neighborhood schools are going to continuously decline in enrollment, and that is going to have a trickle-down effect on our neighborhood schools. Soon enough, we’ll have private developers coming in and looking to turn the schools into lofts.
I definitely want to make sure that we are following the new Affordable Requirements Ordinance, because I feel like a lot of our developers have been able to get away with either not building the bare minimum units or buying into this low-income housing trust fund [one of the options the ordinance affords Chicago developers]. I want to use some of that low-income housing trust fund to house our houseless neighbors in this community. I don’t think they should be in horrible living conditions. I believe that we have space on the lakefront to house our neediest neighbors. I believe we have space all across this community for our neighbors to grow and for our families to grow.
My approach is simple: making sure that everybody understands that housing is the root cause of success or failure of our communities. It’s also going to be the deciding factor of the longevity of our neighborhood schools. Also prioritizing our elders and our neighbors who make the lowest of the lowest of incomes. They too need to make sure they’re remaining in this community — no matter if it’s prime real estate or not.
Other than housing, what do you believe are pressing issues for the 46th ward?
I’m proud to be a product of our schools. I went to Brenneman Elementary School and graduated from Uplift Community High School. We have the ability to have an ecosystem here from pre-K to postsecondary education because we have Truman Community College right in the middle of our ward. I’m focused on building a sustainable community school ecosystem where students are able to go to these great pre-K institutions, into elementary school, and into Uplift and then graduate from high school with an associate’s degree from Truman. Right now, that is not happening. It goes back to housing. 75 percent of our students at Brenneman are low-income, but no affordable housing is being built. Where are our students going to go and where are they coming from?
I think people also need to come together and talk about safety. What makes a safe community? And this is with and without the police. How do we get to know our neighbors, how are we engaging with each other, and how do we build trust? How are we protecting this safe space that we have? Not everything requires a police presence. And because we are a community that has a mental health facility and other facilities people may not be familiar with, we need to understand that these people are our neighbors as well and not a threat.
The 46th ward includes portions of Northalsted (formerly Boystown), Chicago’s historic gay village. What policies would you like to implement to support LGBTQ+ folks?
First and foremost, we need housing. Our LGBTQ+ community is at the bottom of the totem pole for affordable housing. Giving [LGBTQ+ folks] access to adequate health care is huge, including mental health care.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has transformed Chicago politics over the last decade. A former teacher, CTU staffer, and current Cook County Board member, Brandon Johnson, is running for mayor, and the union has endorsed him. What are your thoughts on Johnson and his campaign?
Johnson is going to run a good campaign. I think he gives a lot of promise and hope to a lot of organizations who have been on the frontlines fighting for black and brown people throughout the city. He really seems to know that there is a tale of two cities in Chicago. The first solution is acknowledging that there is a difference in quality of care and quality of life depending on where you grow up in this city. I think that he definitely is going to have some good support and groundwork by real organizers and people who have a lot to lose if we continuously elect a mayor who doesn’t understand that we are one of the most segregated cities in the world. I think he’s going to get some really good support. I’m also waiting to see the lineup of what the potential candidates look like so that we can see what the mayoral candidates have to offer the city as a whole.
But the CTU and the organizations that roll with them are very much boots-on-the ground organizers. These organizations want a mayor that reflects that same upbringing. They want a mayor who’s versed in organizing and in struggle, how to get things done, and how to work with all of the united fronts in this city.