2021 LEADERS FOR A NEW CHICAGO

These are the 2021 Leaders for a New Chicago.

Some are organizers, artists, producers, activists and some are part of collective or shared leadership models. Some are executive directors, some are co-founders.

Like our 2019 and 2020 cohorts, these 10 individuals include a diversity of age and expertise, ethnicity, gender identity, different geographies and income levels.  ALL of them are redefining leadership in Chicago. As we think about dialogues around relief, recovery and reimagining in the city, leadership is an essential element.

This award recognizes past accomplishments in the fields of Justice, Art, or Media & Storytelling and promotes and advances a range of leaders whose influence will inform decision making across the city of Chicago. Each leader will receive a $25,000 cash award in recognition of past accomplishments, and their affiliated non-profit organizations will each receive an additional $25,000 general operating grant.

This program is unique because leaders select leaders. In the face of everything going on, a group of them found time to select the 2021 cohort of leaders. For this year’s selection committee, we again invited last year’s awardees to lead the process and the committee was composed of five of the Leaders from the 2020 cohort. They navigated the process of identifying the 2021 awardees and also voiced and grappled with a multiplicity of questions, narrowing down the volume of nominations to these 10 awardees.

Please learn more about each of them below.

LaSaia Wade

Founder and executive director - Brave Space Alliance

Dorothy LaSaia Wade is the founder and executive director of Brave Space Alliance (BSA), Chicago’s first and only Black-led, transgender-staffed LGBTQ center serving the South and West Sides. Brave Space Alliance is a self-described “for us, by us” organization, founded in part to address the lack of representation of trans people of color in institutions that make decisions affecting their lives, while leveraging community assets that exist in BIPOC LGBTQ+ communities such as strong community ties, informal mutual aid networks, creative thinking and strategizing, and collective analysis of intersecting oppressions. LaSaia has guaranteed that transgender people of color are represented in key decision-making positions at all levels of the organization, from volunteer membership to staff to the board of directors. In Chicago, transgender people of color experience systemic racism, anti-transgender sentiment, and discrimination in education, employment and housing and a 2018 needs assessment conducted by the organization revealed that one in five members of the community live on less than $10,000 a year. During the pandemic, she led the organization to launch a rapid-response food pantry and grocery delivery service for South Side households experiencing food insecurity, so they had access to groceries, fresh produce, and other essential items during the shelter-in-place order. They originally planned to resource 100 households but ended up serving over 80,000 unduplicated people. Today, the food pantry is a permanent installation with three locations across the South and West Sides. It is also the only independent LGBTQIA-run food pantry in the Midwest.

LaSaia is not only amplifying the voices of transgender people of color in Chicago, but she is also building their capacity and decision making at individual, community and city-wide policy levels. She has established Brave Space Alliance as a dedicated space accountable to the community, from sourcing programming ideas to food access to representation. Her voice is crucial to the community and the next generation of transgender leaders and she has created a unique space in Chicago that reimagines how organizations can support and grow the communities they serve.

Aislinn Pulley

Co-executive director, Chicago Torture Justice Center

As co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center (CTJC), Aislinn Pulley works toward healing for survivors and communities impacted by police violence in a practice that is survivor-led and built on shared power. Hired on as director of programs in 2018, she was asked to step into the position of co-executive director at the organization in January 2019. The Chicago Torture Justice Center seeks to address the traumas of police violence and institutionalized racism through access to healing and wellness services, trauma-informed resources, and community connection. Aislinn has an unwavering commitment to this work and a belief in building shared leadership models as a necessary component of collective healing and transformative justice. A founding member of Black Lives Matter’s local Chicago chapter, Aislinn helped to bring the nationwide impact of racial justice work home to Chicago in response to the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police in Missouri. She was also a part of We Charge Genocide, an intergenerational Chicago-based collective that exposed the racial disparities in violence committed by Chicago police and, in 2014, sent a delegation of youth leaders to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva, Switzerland. Aislinn and her collaborators with We Charge Genocide pushed an intergenerational, international dialogue around the human rights violations and violent oppression people of color experienced at the hands of police in Chicago.

Aislinn’s relationships and collaborations with movement leaders around the country continues to connect Chicago Torture Justice Center’s work to broader dialogues around reparations and transformative justice. She approaches mental health support that is connected to political organizing for systemic change, free and broadly accessible, and affirming. She holds criticisms of Chicago in constant tension with a deep love for this city, and a clear commitment to her communities.

Monica Lynne Haslip

Founder and executive director - Little Black Pearl

Monica Lynne Haslip is the founder and executive director of Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center and Academy. Little Black Pearl is an innovative arts and culture institution designed to create positive vehicles for children and families to thrive. Her philosophy and art practice are anchored in racial equity and the intersection of art, education and community development. For the first decade, Little Black Pearl operated out of Monica’s home (2000 sq. ft.), utilizing the basement and first floor as art production, exhibition and administrative space. Its founding mission was to teach the profitable connection between art, education and business, while introducing youth to the creative industries as a viable career option. 26 years later, it is now a Chicago public school that eliminates all classroom to prison style practices (metal detectors, expulsions, student arrest, etc.) and focuses on demonstrating the power that care, love and respect can have on the educational experience of a child. Monica has worked to address issues of hunger, social justice, education, re-entry, economic development and cultural exchange through the organization, using art as the vehicle to address many significant challenges in the community (i.e. incarceration re-entry, increased drop-out rates, etc.). In the fall of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the school implemented the Carver 47 Food and Wellness Market (C47) that focuses on “narrative change” while providing safe and healthy food options for the community.

Monica encourages engagement in discovery and innovation as key elements of education. She has created a space in Bronzeville that functions outside the traditional school model, encouraging art-centric curriculum. She has utilized the Little Black Pearl platform to demonstrate the power of art as a social justice tool privileging observation, imagination and the critical role the courage to transform plays in meeting the needs of the community.

Grace Pai

Director of organizing - Asian Americans Advancing Justice/Chicago

Currently director of organizing at Asian Americans Advancing Justice/Chicago, Grace Pai has spent the last seven years organizing in Chicago toward racial, economic, and immigrant justice and has trained hundreds of organizers and community leaders across the country. She joined Advancing Justice/Chicago in April 2018 as the senior community organizer, Midwest Region, and transitioned into her new role in November 2019. Grace has been training Asian American organizations and their staffs on power-building frameworks, civic engagement, and issue-based advocacy. To proactively prepare for the possible increase of hate incidents, Grace is guiding Advancing Justice/Chicago to partner with New York-based nonprofit Hollaback! and Advancing Justice/DC to quickly plan and implement an aggressive scaling up of locally-led bystander hate incident intervention trainings for community members. It will adopt a train-the-trainer approach, starting with a core group of staff, leaders, and volunteers from existing partnerships and coalitions. As the field director for Asian American Advocacy Fund PAC, she built and managed a canvass program that knocked on the doors of more than 100,000 AAPI voters in the Atlanta metro area.

As an experienced community organizer with a demonstrated history of working to advance racial, economic, social, and environmental justice, Grace has built strong relationships with local institutions and elected officials to build coalitions and pass legislation and trained numerous leaders across the city and state. Grace’s commitment to community in Chicago combines legislative advocacy, coalition building, grassroots organizing, issue-based campaigns, and organizational management.

Brandon “Chief Manny” Calhoun

Co-founder - the Era Footwork Crew

Brandon “Chief Manny” Calhoun is a footwork dancer, filmmaker, illustrator, teaching artist and community organizer from the South Side of Chicago who co-founded the Era Footwork Crew in 2014. Footwork refers to a style of music and battle dance that's been gathering pace in Chicago since the late 90s. Pioneers of Chicago footwork since 2014, the Era Footwork Crew has expanded upon what it means to be a dance crew, addressing inequality and racism through their lyrics and panel discussions and supporting women and girls in the history of footwork through collaboration and documentation. Brandon is leading a collective effort from within the community to engage other organizations in ensuring there is on demand culturally competent care available to those in need. He is relationship building with community health organizations to bring healing modalities for trauma and PTSD to the South Side. Chicago footwork culture is trying to create the conditions for individual and collective transformation. As a filmmaker, Brandon has helped to tell the story of Chicago footwork across the city, including in his latest co-directorial documentary entitled Body of the City. His hand-drawn animations of footwork dancing were featured in a VICE documentary. In 2018, he co-created a "footwork curriculum" as part of Open the Circle's footwork summer camp for youth on the South Side of Chicago.

Brandon is recognized as one of the strongest voices in Chicago for dance and is committed to using footwork as a connector and teaching tool to bring communities across the city together while simultaneously bringing attention to the South and West Sides of Chicago. His ability to be in relationship with others as a teacher and a student at the same time is a distinctive part of why he is considered a leader. Brandon is trying to connect footwork to the larger arts ecosystem in Chicago and to organizing efforts within South Side communities around justice-related issues.

Maira Khwaja

Director of public strategy at Invisible Institute

As director of public strategy at Invisible Institute, Maira Khwaja builds a more robust, informed constituency in Chicago. The Invisible Institute is an independent journalism production nonprofit on the South Side of Chicago that works to enhance the capacity of citizens to address human rights and redress violations of constitutional rights. In this work, Maira supports efforts to interrogate the Chicago Police Department through documentation, disclosure, transparency, and investigative reporting. Since joining the organization in 2016, she has built an entire area of the organization around civic education and sustained listening and has facilitated citywide public dialogues to better understand and change police misconduct. As managing editor of the recently released Chicago Police Torture Archive, Maira played a central role in shepherding a four-year project to document torture experienced by over 100 Black people and make their stories and legal papers accessible to students, families, organizers, researchers, and attorneys. In addition to her work at Invisible Institute, Maira is the founder and co-organizer of Market Box, coordinating the distribution of 8,000 fresh grocery deliveries to Black and low-income residents of the South Side, and the founder of South Side Weekly Radio, a podcast platform which has served as a training ground for aspiring multimedia journalists.

Maira works at the center of an intricate constellation of relationships, facilitating conversations between investigative journalists, organizers, civil rights attorneys, philanthropy, data scientists and researchers, and those most affected by state-sanctioned violence. Performing this role with a combination of rigor and grace, she makes an invaluable ongoing contribution to the work of police abolition. She is centering the voices of those affected by police violence, police torture while enhancing the capacity of citizens to hold public institutions accountable.

Damon A. Williams

Co-director - #LetUsBreathe Collective

Damon A. Williams is a movement builder, organizer, hip-hop performing artist, educator and media maker from the South Side of Chicago, co-director of the #LetUsBreathe Collective and cohost of AirGo radio. Damon has led direct action and program development that started with the mobilizing of resources to support the Ferguson uprising following the murder of Michael Brown Jr. in 2014. AirGo is a weekly podcast and cultural media hub in Chicago, showcasing the artists, rappers, poets, musicians, organizers, and changemakers. The #LetUsBreathe Collective is an alliance of artists and activists organizing through a creative lens to imagine a world without prisons and police. With #LetUsBreathe, Damon produces cultural events and direct actions that disrupt oppressive systems, amplify marginalized voices, and serve people and communities most directly harmed by mass incarceration, police violence, and systemic injustice. As the Movement 4 Black Lives emerged, #LetUsBreathe became the primary bridge between Ferguson and Chicago. Alongside other Chicago Black activists, Damon stepped into a leadership position by organizing a mass effort to redistribute police funding toward health facing services in the city. The campaign engaged thousands of people through direct action, mutual aid and political education.

The life changing experience of Ferguson transformed Damon into an organizer, pushing him to lead and participate in dozens of direct actions in response to anti-Black violence. In the subsequent years, he has taken on greater responsibility, established himself as a leader who shapes the messaging for movement and cultural events and as a force in coalition work. Yet his work building coalitions aims to decenter the notion of “leader” as a construct, in the name of collective power and personal autonomy.

Malik Gillani

Co-executive artistic director - Silk Road Rising

In his role as co-executive artistic director of Silk Road Rising, Malik Gillani counters negative images and stereotypes of Middle Eastern and Muslim peoples with representation grounded in authentic, multi-faceted, human experiences. Founded in 2002 along with his husband and work partner Jamil Khoury, Silk Road Rising is a community-centered theater, artmaking and arts service organization rooted in Asian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim experiences that began as an intentional and creative response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Malik has worked tirelessly to build an inclusive arts ecology in Chicago, providing theater artists and professionals from Silk Road backgrounds with opportunities for career growth. Every year, hundreds of Chicago actors, directors, designers, and other theater professionals work with Silk Road Rising and 70 percent are from ALAANA communities. Prior to the pandemic, he conceived of and developed Silk Road Rising’s model for creating online video plays which are now being accessed across the globe. These video plays now form a foundation of Silk Road Rising’s media projects, and the experience with developing video plays was instrumental in easing the transition to virtual programming during the pandemic. In September of 2019, Malik suffered a severe heart attack and stroke that initially left him unable to use the right side of his body or to speak. As an artist and arts leader living with stroke-induced aphasia and apraxia of speech, he continues to use the arts as a means for sparking conversations through the power of storytelling.

Malik is uniquely positioned as a Muslim, Queer, Person of Color, and as an immigrant in a position of leadership. His presence in the performing arts sector is vital to a field that struggles to decenter whiteness within storytelling and performance. Through Silk Road Rising, Malik has long challenged the misperceptions and inequities reinforced in traditional theater practices and institutional theater models. He weaves management, negotiating, fundraising, community organizing, and alliance-building into keeping the organization a stable and growing entity.

Tony Alvarado-Rivera

Executive director - Chicago Freedom School

As executive director of Chicago Freedom School, Tony Alvarado-Rivera creates a unique and radical educational space in Chicago dedicated to youth activism, leadership, and movement building. Inspired by the Mississippi Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Era, Chicago Freedom School nurtures leadership among young people, ages 14-21, across Chicago while simultaneously building the capacity of adult allies to understand and support youth-led social change. They have served the organization for nine years, originally hired as the youth programs coordinator in 2012 and most recently served as the director of youth programs, beginning in 2016 before transitioning into their new role in June 2020. Last summer, on the evening of the George Floyd protests in the Chicago Loop, Chicago Freedom School opened the doors of its office at State and Polk to young protestors so they could shelter and were subsequently cited by officers from the Chicago Police Department and investigators from the Department of Business and Consumer Protection (BACP) as illegally preparing and serving food without a retail food establishment license. During their transition to executive director, Tony led a 10-count lawsuit against the city citing the victims’ constitutional rights to free speech and freedom from “unreasonable illegal search” were violated. The City of Chicago agreed to settle the lawsuit a week later.

Tony is a multi-issue community organizer who prioritizes anti-oppression and harm reduction frameworks in their personal and professional life. In the nine years they have been with the Chicago Freedom School, they have been recognized as a critical voice in Chicago, bringing a deep political analysis and organizing framework to issues that affected youth. While shepherding an organization dedicated to youth capacity building, they prioritize intergenerational collaboration and teach a diverse group of activists and community members to utilize their unique experiences to engage city-wide infrastructure. They lead collectively, bringing youth into decision making and using every opportunity to build the capacity of those around them and have a commitment to racial justice and restorative practice.

Meida Teresa McNeal

Artistic and managing director - Honey Pot Performance

Over the past decade, Meida Teresa McNeal has been artistic and managing director of Honey Pot Performance, a Black feminist performance collective turned nonprofit, while also advocating for more equitable cultural resources and brokered cultural partnerships for Chicago’s parks as arts and culture manager with the Chicago Park District. Honey Pot Performance, a women-focused collaborative, has created work and told stories about their communities and lives. With Honey Pot Performance, she has cultivated an approach to performance integrating movement, theater, and first-voice to examine the nuanced ways people negotiate identity, belonging, and difference in their lives and cultural memberships. She creates multiform theater projects, participatory public humanities programming; and Honey Pot acts as an incubator for the development of new works by artists of color aligned with its commitment to performance, storytelling, and the Black experience. Under her stewardship, Honey Pot Performance grew its budget from $50,000 to over $200,000 allowing it to grow its operational staffing structure with folks stepping into new administrative roles. Meida drove and helped launch the Chicago Black Social Culture Map, documenting Black social life through live programs, a digital map, and archiving events. A multi-organizational collaboration, Chicago Black Social Culture Map researched Chicago’s Black social culture across the 20th century from the First Great Migration through the birth of House music. Since then, through open sessions, targeted interviews, and multi-faceted research, data has been compiled on over 350 venues in the Chicagoland area.

As an artist, educator, researcher, administrator, collaborator, producer, and facilitator, Meida actively convenes artists and communities as potential change agents and as strategic solution makers to urgent social issues through the field of cultural production. Her practice of leadership is rooted in listening, guiding, and facilitating as she helps surface and documents historical narratives. At the backbone of her work are core values of imagination, self-actualization, consensus-building, and collective action.