What Are Chicago Leaders Facing?

By April 27, 2020Field News

Organizer Monica Cosby taking part in a Solidarity Caravan Tuesday, April 7, 2020, advocating for #MassReleaseNow of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail, as well as state and federal facilities. // Photo by Sarah-Ji.


As the Leadership Investment Program Officer at the Field Foundation, I am dedicated to working with Chicago’s aspiring and recognized leaders and their organizations, with one of my main roles managing the Leaders for a New Chicago Award. This unique award, created and presented in deep partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, seeks to build a more inclusive Chicago by tapping into power inside of communities with a no-strings-attached $50,000 award ($25,000 for the individual and, if eligible, $25,000 for their affiliated not-for-profit corporation). It is an honor to award and work in partnership with incredible leaders from art, justice, and media and storytelling areas across the city of Chicago.

In 2019, we were extremely proud to announce 14 Leaders as our inaugural awardees. Collectively these 14 individuals represent Chicago, from every corner of the city, many South and West Side communities, and each of the Foundation’s four program areas. You can read more about them here.

This starts as an award but quickly becomes a community. After the money arrives, the power of the cohort materializes organically. The awardees determine what is needed and we as a foundation work to make it happen. They lead, they design, we try to keep up. The main metric of success of this program is asking the question “Have we as a foundation built trust?”  Trust to be told the truth of how they spent the no-strings-attached award. They do not at all have to let us know, but if we do our job right, they will. Have we built trust to know what they are seeing, learning, struggling with daily? If we do our job right, they will know we are here not to evaluate but to listen and learn, grieve, and celebrate alongside them.

In this moment of a global pandemic, Chicagoans are being deeply affected and often experiencing complete erasures of income and resources, especially in communities of color. The deep fissures caused by systemic racism are becoming wider.

One of the 2019 Leaders for a New Chicago awardees, Heather Miller, executive director of American Indian Center, reached out to me with the following note:

There’s so much hysteria and chaos going on that people are making snap decisions without quality information and rational thought or conversation. I am sure that I am not the only leader dealing with community responses to all this chaos. Would/could we do an update or response to the current crisis as an update on where the leaders are now? Especially as we think about this next round of leaders? I’m so tired of the chaos and trying to manage through all of it but also thinking of the positive outcomes of everything.

We at Field decided to dedicate this newsletter to the Leaders and turn the mic over to them. Here some of the most visionary leaders in our city have stepped up to share where they are at and what’s happening in their communities and organizations, to name fears and uncertainties, and to share dreams of how we might and should be mobilized to come out of this in a radically different and let us hope…better place.

This isn’t watered down. They responded with stories of frustration, anger, disbelief, and stories of mobilization, organizing, and creating joy in the face of uncertainty. Sarah Ross in her work with Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project described the devastating effects of COVID-19 in prison, “Hell is the only word I can think of,” and we see Monica Cosby from Westside Justice Center in the photo above participating in an action to bring light to this crisis. In the Media & Storytelling program area, Aymar Jean Christian of OTV shared their movement to “bring people joy, entertainment, and useful information” to the Chicago community. City Bureau’s Darryl Holliday talks about the Chicago COVID Resource Finder, a data bank of over 1,300 neighborhood, city, county, and state resources that can be filtered so people can easily find what they need. Imelda Salazar of Southwest Organizing Project and Analía Rodríguez of Latino Union shared moments of hope and inspiration amidst their grassroots justice-based organizing work. From Imelda, “Flowers are blooming but I see our leaders blooming in their leadership like taking on leading sessions, leading trainings. I’m proud of the families that we work with and proud of the team.” And I leave you with this vision of surviving from Analía, “This community needs so much from us, and it’s also strong, and inspiring, and will survive this and much more because this community has survived many other battles. We are strong because we have each other and as long as we have each other we will get through this.”

Here are some of the 2019 Leaders for a New Chicago.

In their own words.

In this moment.



Co-director of Art and Exhibitions,
Prison + Neighborhoods Arts Project

It’s been said again and again that this crisis is exposing the inequities we see across the United States. What is on my mind daily is what is happening in U.S. prisons, specifically Stateville where I teach. The stories from people incarcerated there, relayed from their friends and family, are horrific. We are hearing that there is not enough soap, people only get single squirts of hand sanitizer, and that more and more people—both incarcerated people and staff—are getting sick. Some men have said they are stuck in a cell with another sick person, others say that they constantly hear people yelling for medics. When the second person died two weeks ago, men were yelling from their cells to come and remove the deceased person but that it took more than 30 minutes to do so. Hell is the only word that I can think of.

The conditions of healthcare in jails, prisons and detention centers across the country are already abhorrent, with the spread of COVID-19, these places are not Petri dishes, as [Cook County Board President] Toni Preckwinkle mentioned, they are death traps.

I’ve been working with the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison who was able to contract with a distillery to make hand sanitizer to send to all 25 adult state prisons. We spent some 47K acquiring the sanitizer (the first shipment went to IDOC’s distribution center this week and we hope the sanitizer will get out to incarcerated people in prisons very soon. Credit for the heavy lifting on this effort goes to the Education Justice Project). Why are we, a grassroots group of educators, able to raise money, coordinate with local distributors, and more when jails, prisons, and detention centers have paid workers and budgets? I feel so enraged at this moment and also afraid that the students I left in March will not be there when I return. For quite some time, national and state think tanks, have modeled out what it would take to dramatically reduce the prison population overnight. This can be done, it must be done. We need to release elderly people, people who are over 50 years old, and people who have served a significant time of their sentence. People with previous health conditions need to be released. We can do this and be safe. As a caring society we have to demand that the governor releases people, and now.


Co-founder, OTV | Open Television

The OTV team has pulled together in this time of crisis to deliver information and entertainment to our community. We’re supporting and caring for each other (remotely) and everyone’s doing their best work.

We are planning to move the first half of our season online/live-streaming and are excited about the possibility of creating content for social media that brings people joy, entertainment, & useful information—not just the bad/triggering news that’s flooding our feeds. We’ve done live online information sessions about emergency resources, exercise classes, and meditation/ritual practice sessions weekly on Instagram (all paid opportunities to local artists!), with plans to interview artists and community leaders/activists before premiering new series through Facebook and Vimeo in May. Some of the shows have had to cancel production but many shows have already shot so we’ll definitely be able to premiere new works. People have been great and we are always welcoming more support.

We’re excited that in a time of social distancing being a small-scale online TV platform is exactly the kind of work that can maintain local/global community bonds through art & entertainment.


Co-founder and News Lab Director, City Bureau

Our first priority during the coronavirus was the safety and well-being of our staff. In the first weeks of the pandemic, we transitioned all of our work online, including all of our regular community events. After taking many deep breaths, we began reaching out to our direct-service partners for some deep listening around local information needs. Based on what we heard, we launched two new projects.

This week, City Bureau introduced the Chicago COVID Resource Finder, a data bank of over 1,300 neighborhood, city, county, and state resources that can be filtered so people can easily find what they need. Resources can be sorted by who is eligible (immigrants, families, business owners), what is offered (food, money, legal help), languages spoken, and location. You can access it via SMS and by the end of the week, the Resource Finder will be translated into 10 languages. In conjunction with the COVID Resource Finder, we’re also introducing our Information Aid Network, a phone tree for information access that will continue beyond the pandemic. Starting this week, City Bureau’s Documenters community will make calls to people with limited digital access in partnership with local organizations and Free Press’ News Voices to fact-check rumors, answer questions and connect people with local journalists. If you represent a direct-service organization in or near Chicago, we want to work with you to meet your community’s information needs—fill out this form to start the conversation.


Executive Director, Latino Union

Day laborers and household workers are low wage workers, mostly immigrants who cannot benefit from many of the resources out there due to immigration status and not having one regular employer. Latino Union is supporting these workers with resources and also by continuing to build community amongst our members in these unprecedented times. We had a membership call with 40+ members participating. We heard hard stories on how folks are struggling financially, the effects on them and their families, and one member dealing with her son who has been infected by COVID-19. We heard all this and we also heard members coming together saying: “I will cook a meal for you” “We are here for you” “I have some water, diapers, I can give to someone in need” “I don’t have much, but what I can spare I can offer to others.” These are inspiring words! These are just some things that the day laborer and household worker community at Latino Union are offering to each other. This community needs so much from us, and it’s also strong, and inspiring, and will survive this and much more because this community has survived many other battles. We are strong because we have each other and as long as we have each other we will get through this.


Organizer, Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP)

The first week that the shelter in place started, the week of the 15th, we had canvassing scheduled for the census. People were calling me and asking, “So what are we going to do? How are we doing this?” and then I said we can switch it to phone calls instead of knocking on doors so it’s comfortable and safe. Everybody—colleagues, staff, leaders, other people that were not even working on census before this—said, “Yes let’s do it!” I created an Excel sheet for the call information. We asked each person to call 10 people in their networks and provided names and phone numbers per institution they belong (school, church, etc). From March 16th through March 30th, we did 3,200 calls. I was really encouraging them to ask people how they are doing with the current virus, what’s important to them right now and then from those calls, we created networks of support for seniors and we identified who wanted to help to get the medicine or groceries and then we identified that first week, March 16th to the 23rd, who needed groceries and stuff. We talked to churches, I talked to some therapists that I trust in the neighborhood, and there is a social worker that used to work for us and I asked if he was willing to lead a listening session with people. He was so successful because people wanted to talk and he really had good conversations. We had ten of those in groups averaging 16 people, in both English and in Spanish.

People are losing their jobs, they don’t know their future because there is no testing, so we have all that going on but I think the organizing around the census helped. People just want to vent and when they do that they discover new ways of doing things. I’m really proud of everybody, moms are becoming teachers now and learning how to use their technology and it’s been really energizing for me as a leader. Flowers are blooming but I see our leaders blooming in their leadership like taking on leading sessions, leading trainings. I’m proud of the families that we work with and proud of the team. SWOP organizers and staff are supporting the community in so many ways.


Executive Director, American Indian Center

First off, we are feeling unseen. The Indian community was on everyone’s radar before in regard to funding and land acknowledgments but now we are feeling unseen. We have been fighting erasure for so long and then it feels like we’ve been erased again.

Second, I laid off all my staff. It’s been two weeks. I think we’re going on week number three. And I knew that it was going to be a really hard decision, but I knew this had to be and was my decision. We don’t know when any grants are going to come because everything pretty much got delayed and pushed back and we don’t know what youth programming is going to look like for the summer since the community can’t come into the office and we can’t bring people together. We don’t have a reserve or rainy-day funds, so you know as soon as something bad happens we don’t really have any way to react to it. I wanted to make sure they were eligible for unemployment right away. Of course, they’re pretty much coming to the Center every day while keeping their distance of course. That’s who they are. I told them and they know this is not permanent. We continue to need support for the work American Indian Center, CAIIC, and other native organizations are doing.

I was able to bring the staff back this week. We put in for the payroll protection program. I need them. We need them. I tell the staff that they make me essential. And they have enjoyed reminding me of that one time that I fired them. So yeah, our Indian humor hasn’t died.


With humor and grace and struggle and love, these leaders have given us a window into how Chicago’s communities and organizations are responding and re-envisioning in the wake of this global pandemic. We are lucky to support and work alongside such fierce people and we find inspiration in each one of their stories. We hope you do too.

Hilesh Patel 
Program Officer,
Leadership Investment
Field Foundation

Author Field Foundation

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