A Chicago socialist against the machine

February 12, 2019

Rossana Rodriguez is an educator and activist campaigning for a seat on the Chicago City Council from the 33rd Ward, a largely working-class immigrant neighborhood under threat from real estate developers. She is running on a social justice platform, including fully funded public schools, rent control, making Chicago a real sanctuary city and abolishing the police gang database. She spoke with Quinn Mulroy about why she’s running — and why she links her campaign to organizing well beyond the election in late February.

WHAT INSPIRED you to run to represent Chicago’s 33rd Ward?

I come from a very organized community in Puerto Rico, a neighborhood called Mariana in Humacao. My father was a community organizer there. I grew up seeing my father organize our neighbors and the people in the community to get resources.

When I was growing up, we lost access to our water because the Navy base in a nearby town was able to get access to the water that came from the river that served us. So that was my first protest. I was 6 years old.

We came together, protested, did community meetings, and eventually some people in the neighborhood figured out that there was a valve that was directing the water to the Navy base — so they closed it down, and the water came back our way.

Supporters of Rossana Rodriguez outside her campaign office
Supporters of Rossana Rodriguez outside her campaign office (Rossana for 33rd Ward Alderman | Facebook)

That was very enlightening because it showed that when we came together and tried to solve our own problems, we were able to find solutions. The main problem was lack of access to resources that belong to us.

After that, I continued to organize within my community and in college. I was part of protesting the privatization of the phone company, and I was part of many strikes and protests to prevent tuition hikes at the University of Puerto Rico. I was part of the struggle to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques and the struggle to prevent mining in the mountains. I was part of the struggle to prevent charters from taking over public schools in Puerto Rico.

It seemed like there was always something to fight and something to get organized for, and it was always about resources that should belong to us: our natural resources, our education, our public services.

I moved to Chicago, started working for the Albany Park Theater Project and became a mentor, director and songwriter, but also an ethnographer. I would go into the community with teams of young actors from the community and gather stories.

One of the main organizations driving the struggle for young undocumented people was the Immigrant Youth Justice League, so I got involved with them, and we interviewed many young undocumented youth.

The young undocumented people I was mentoring in the company became involved in that struggle and created a play about it. We supported the struggle against an immigrant detention center in Crete, Illinois. We did a play about foreclosures and evictions and displacements in Chicago, and we interviewed a lot of people who are fighting banks to stay in their homes.

Every time that I would interview people about this, we would talk to people who were fighting. So I started getting involved with so many different groups in Chicago that were fighting for resources that should be readily available.

Housing should be a human right. You shouldn’t have to be fighting a bank after you have paid and worked all your life in order to stay in your home. You shouldn’t have to be fighting to stay in the only country that you know as your home. You shouldn’t be scared of being separated from your family. That’s not right, and it’s not fair.

During all that, I became involved with the campaign for Tim Meegan, who was a teacher running for alderman of the 33rd Ward. We didn’t really know much about how to organize an electoral campaign. We were all activists, and we had all organized, but not in the electoral arena. It wasn’t a space we felt compelled to be in, or were invited to be in.

We didn’t win, but we got close, and we decided to start 33rd Ward Working Families. It became a community organization that was going to help people fight for the things that belong to them — preventing displacement, working with immigrant individuals and families who were under threat of being deported, protecting our public schools.

I was already immersed in a lot of networks because I have been working in this community for a very long time, and I was asked to run by some of the people from 33rd Working Families. I said no, I didn’t really think that that was a space for me.

I’ve had a very complicated relationship with elections because I’m from Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. colony, so it doesn’t matter who is elected into power in Puerto Rico. Whoever gets into power administers a colony.

We have always gone from the Popular Democratic Party, which is the equivalent of the Democratic Party in Puerto Rico, to the New Progressive Party, which supports statehood and is more like the Republicans. We have an Independence Party, but it always gets a very marginal number of votes.

So I was asked to run, and I said no. I thought it was a scary thing to do, because electoral politics sometimes becomes this cult of personality, and a lot of a lot of pressure is put on just one individual for achieving many things. I come from community struggles. I come from a collective struggle.

Then I started talking to different people, and I started realizing that it’s important to claim some of those places of power, and open those spaces so that we can decide collectively. It’s important to bring democracy into those spaces. It’s important to start doing community-driven processes. It’s important to start thinking about mutual aid. I think there’s a lot that we can do if we have access to those resources.

One of the main things that I started thinking about was the fact that we either had to go into somebody’s living room or the church that a pastor opened to us. There was a lot of demand for the space at the church, and we were able to do an incredible job of organizing from that church and from a lot of our living rooms.

But what does that tell us about where we’re at with our ability to bring democracy into our communities when we don’t even have space where we can organize ourselves? I think back about my community in Puerto Rico, where one of our first fights was to get a community center because we didn’t have spaces where people could come together.

To me, it’s really important to be able to develop dedicated spaces for organizing where people can come together and have access to the resources that they need in order to do that kind of organizing. If we have access to something like an aldermanic office, we could definitely be putting those resources to use for the community.

Then I started imagining what was possible if we actually got access to those spaces. That’s what made me really excited about running — that we could have an aldermanic office for the people, available for the organizations that are working so hard in the community. That’s what the main purpose of the office should be, besides pushing legislation that is actually going to improve our lives.

Then I realized that there are so many movements beyond our community that are pushing for legislation like police accountability or rent control or expanding mental health care and reopening the mental health clinics.

I realized that it’s essential that people like us — activists, organizers and people who have roots in this struggle and in the communities — occupy those spaces. And that’s a collective effort. Something that I’m really grateful for, and one of the reasons why I’m running, is that I know there’s a movement behind me. I wouldn’t do it otherwise.

I’m not politically connected to anybody. I don’t have money to put in my own campaign. It’s an effort of the many and for the many. Running for office in this context is something that’s going to be collectively beneficial and that’s going to be able to give us more power that we desperately need.

WHAT ARE the most important issues facing your ward and the city of Chicago as a whole that you want to address with your campaign?

I think one of the main issues that we’re facing is the crisis of housing affordability. People are having to leave their communities because gentrification is becoming a real hazard to working families, immigrant families and the working poor.

We know that there are several ways to address that. Rent control is something that has become very popular — the idea that we can actually stop big developers who are coming and taking over so many buildings in our communities and evicting hundreds of families. When people can’t afford market price in our communities, then you’re taking children away from their schools.

That means that school enrollment goes down, and when school enrollment goes down, schools lose money. Then you have layoffs and you have school closings. So keeping people in our communities is fundamental. We’re thinking about different ways to approach that, and rent control is one of them.

We need to stop converting multifamily units into single-family homes. That’s something that is becoming very common. We need to be able to accommodate more families. We need public housing.

We’re working people. A lot of people work full time. A lot of people have more than one job, and they can’t even afford to live in their own communities. We’re able to give tax breaks to rich corporations, but we can’t afford to make sure that the people who are working so hard for those companies are able to stay in their communities.

I think that the Chicago Housing Authority has a responsibility to contribute to stopping the gentrification of our neighborhoods by providing affordable housing for the people. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the idea of land trusts.

We keep seeing that under neoliberalism, profits drive everything. Human life doesn’t matter. We could start proposing models where you can say that housing is actually a human right. This is something that I would really like to explore and see how we can actually accomplish that.

I know that it’s possible because it’s being done in other places. I went to communities in Mexico that were developed by a group that occupies lots of land and forces the government to give them housing credits. They’ve developed several communities where people live, and they rule those places.

They’re in charge of everything. They have their own security, the police aren’t allowed in these spaces. They maintain the place, and they make all the decisions as to how these communities function. I think that’s a beautiful way to live your life.

The other day, I was talking to this man who was displaced from Albany Park. He’s a construction worker, and I was thinking: “This guy builds homes for other people. He builds buildings, but he doesn’t have the stability of his own home.”

That’s the story of so many people, so affordable housing is definitely at the top of the list because it has so many effects on the rest of society.

I really like to talk about safety, because I think that every four years, politicians equate safety with police, and I’m making it a point to move away from that rhetoric because safety to me has nothing to do with police.

I’m a woman of color living in this city, and I’ve been the teacher and mentor of countless youth and families of color, and I don’t think that any of us feel safe around the police. To me, safety has more to do with having the resources and communities that we need.

For example, the fact that I can knock on my neighbor’s door makes me feel safe, and I know my neighbor because I organize with my neighbor. I feel safe when I know that the undocumented children who go to school with my are going to be safe, and so are their families.

I feel safe when I know that the people around me aren’t going to be evicted. Because nobody who is homeless or housing insecure is safe.

I feel safe when I know that the young people in my community go to a school that’s fully funded, where there are social workers who can help them through any situation that they’re dealing with in life — that there are nurses that are going to be able to keep them healthy.

Money that could be spent building the safety nets to keep people safe are being thrown at police, regardless of police brutality — like $95 million for a new cop academy in Chicago. Creating job programs, free college, increasing the minimum wage — these are things that are essential for us to be able to build a society that’s worth living for.

I LIKE the way you flip the script on all the political slogans about “safety.”

In my community in Puerto Rico, after Hurricane María, mutual aid center were built, with a community kitchen and all these resources. They have no police, but they have access to basic resources that they created themselves, and they’re safe.

You probably remember that Trump and the U.S. government were responsible for the deaths of over 3,000 people by not having a plan in place and not knowing how to manage the emergency. The same goes for the local government.

So my community decided to do a community-based emergency management plan. They got together and brought people in who knew how to do this — urban planners, first responders. They got together and went street by street, and they had meetings with everybody in the community.

And now, my community has an emergency management plan. They feel safe. They created that safety for themselves. And I think that’s what we’re capable of when we come together and have the spaces and resources to organize.

Again, the resources belong to us. They’re available. We need to organize ourselves so that we can take them back and use them.

SPEAKING OF the idea that resources belong to the people who create them, you identify as a socialist and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. How did you become a socialist?

I don’t remember the first time that I called myself a socialist, but I think that I always implied that I was a socialist because many of the people who organized in my community identified as socialist.

I grew up around people who talked about socialism all the time, and to me, they were the people who were organizing to get the resources that we needed. As I continued to grow and organize as a student, every time that there was a struggle, the leaders of the movements called themselves socialists.

So it’s never been a foreign word to me. I feel like this is an organic and instinctive way of seeing organization — the idea that we should all have access to resources because we create them, the idea that workers run the world.

We collectively create all of the wealth, but there are only a few people who benefit from that wealth, and the rest of us get paid a very tiny fraction of what we actually create. We’re forced to live in poverty and to compete for resources that are available in abundance to the people we work for.

I think that the idea of socialism is pretty simple — that we put the resources in our hands and do it in a democratic way. I think that it’s really morally wrong for somebody to profit off the time and the energy of other human beings.

We get the bare minimum that we need in order to reproduce our labor, over and over again. I go home, and I have so much work to do in order to be able to come to work tomorrow. So that doesn’t leave any time for us to be able to have leisure, to be creative, to have any of the things that make us feel safe and make us feel human. It’s a very dehumanizing process.

So I think that’s what socialism is to me: How do we organize ourselves in order to gain access to the wealth that we create?

I think that looks different depending on the historical moment you’re living in. Right now, I think that being a socialist means organizing at a community level, organizing in our workplaces, organizing wherever we are so that we can gain access to the best resources available — gain access to better wages and better benefits, and create the mutual aid centers that we need.

It also means occupying whatever spaces we need to in order to push for bold demands. The fact that there were political candidates who won on “Medicare for All” platforms right now means that a majority of the people in the U.S. agree we should have Medicare for All.

I think that’s part of our job right now as socialists — to keep pushing for bold proposals and make them mainstream, so people realize that these belong to them.

I think that we’ve been taught that we have to suffer so that we can get a tiny bit of resources. We need to fight that narrative. We know that there’s plenty. We just need to share it. We just need to distribute it evenly.

IN TERMS of making those views mainstream, you’re running as an independent socialist unaffiliated with the Democratic Party in a one-party Democratic city. Why do you think it’s important that we build independent campaigns.

I think it’s essential. I think we’ve seen over and over again how every time there’s an attempt to move left inside of the Democratic Party, we get slapped in the face.

I think that there’s been some progress made with people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. I think it was amazing that Sanders was able to run, call himself a democratic socialist and popularize many ideas that we as socialists have been dreaming about for so long — and then, all of a sudden, you have people saying, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.”

But it doesn’t seem like it ever goes far enough. As long as the Democratic Party is run by corporate Democrats who are more interested in profits and not actually fighting the horrible things coming from the other side, I just don’t see a way out. I think that we need a working people’s party.

I’m really hoping that at some point, that break will happen, because the Democratic Party has demonstrated that it’s a lot more similar to the Republicans than it likes to admit.

I think that there are people inside of the Democratic Party who are trying to change that, but they’re still a minority. They’re still sabotaged, and they’re still scolded, and they’re still pushed to get in line many times. So they start with their radical politics, and then at some point, they’re told, “You need to get in line.”

I believe that we need to start laying the foundation to get our own party. I think that United Working Families is doing a really good job in laying a foundation for that. I’m very proud to be endorsed by United Working Families. There are organizations like Reclaim Chicago that are doing similar work.

I think that this is a great moment for socialist ideas, and there are a lot of people who want to call themselves progressives and are down with a lot of socialist ideas as well. I think this is a great time to all connect together — progressive with socialist, and try to actually get ourselves the lives that we deserve.

Elizabeth Schulte contributed to this article.

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