In the lead up to Chicago’s 2023 elections, Rampant is running interviews with left-wing aldermanic challengers in order to provide a platform for important discussions on the left. The statements in this interview do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Rampant editorial collective.
brian bean: How did you get involved in politics? I am especially interested to hear about your trajectory as someone coming from organizing in campus politics, union organizing, mutual aid, and social movement organizing. How did that bring you to running for alderperson for the 15th Ward?
Vicko Alvarez: It was just honestly running into great people at the right time. I fell into government work because I was involved in a group called Chicago Boricua Resistance that Rossana [Rodriguez-Sanchez] was also involved in before she became an alderwoman, and had been longtime friends with Carlos Rosa. But this was also before I ever thought about touching electoral politics and it wasn’t something that was calling my attention. Eventually from afar I did see Rossana win her seat, and I saw the work that went into it.
I was really excited about her race, having known her as very principled and unwavering in her political beliefs. And to then be working as an alderperson within our city council, it wasn’t something that I thought went hand in hand with that. Especially as a Latina woman.
And when she won I was blown away. It made it more real that maybe I could do the same. Because at the end of the day, for us, it’s never been about taking that seat for the sake of power, for the sake of having a title. We want to make sure to open up city hall to the community. That’s all the work that I know how to do is bust down doors for workers to be able to know how to organize their union, to bust down doors for young people to be able to understand how to use art for social and emotional therapeutic learning.
And now I want to do the same thing for the 15th Ward. Bust down that aldermanic door so that everybody has equitable access and we can fight for so much that we’ve lost here on the Southwest Side.
You mentioned that working with Rossana and being on her team was something that was inspiring and made you see things differently. Was there a specific thing that you worked on with Rossana that was most formative or that you are most proud of?
The way we took the day-to-day tasks of an aldermanic office and turned it into an organizing opportunity. Chicago aldermanic offices are known for favoritism, it’s an open secret. Aldermen “take care” of the people that vote for them and everybody else can wait. This serves to further disenfranchise our poorest neighbors who need the most assistance from their local government offices. They don’t go to an office for help with something as simple as turning on a street light or something more serious like finding stable housing. So as ward staffers we went out and did outreach to those neighbors directly, which were largely the immigrant neighborhoods on the North Side. We met them where they were at, let them know that we are here to help. The clearest example of this was when a fire displaced over a dozen neighbors living in a Section 8 eligible building. We took the initiative of pressing the landlord to connect us with the tenants so we could offer resources from city agencies to help them get rehoused. Neighbors had scattered to Red Cross shelters, with family members on the other side of town, and at least one we found out had been hospitalized. We went to work collecting donations from the community, calling nearby building owners with vacancies, and helping to recover lost legal documents. Our public call for donations even led to a sibling contacting our office to locate their brother who they had been searching for for days after the fire. For too long the function of a ward office has remained stagnant—neighborhood services, that’s it. This is the floor. The bare minimum. Our local ward offices must be seen as a social service for all our neighbors but it’s up to an alderperson and their staff to truly make it function as a public good.
That’s a good segue to my next question. I think that you and I probably agree that the role of running an election for socialists isn’t the final end-all for winning a better Chicago and a better world. You alluded to busting down the door for the people of the 15th Ward and that winning the election was not just taking a seat for power, but for the community. What do you think is the role of elected officials in larger movement-building efforts? Specifically, how is your being elected alderperson going to help build our movements?
I think a big part of the unofficial role that we can play is to expose the power imbalance in these government structures. Both between, for example, city council members and the executive, the mayor’s seat, and also between city council and its citizens, the residents. Government has a structure such that it retains its power and not necessarily one that opens it up to community.
I think that when people like me, or other progressives and socialists get into these spaces, it’s not about us seeing ourselves as the stewards and the saviors of the people, or that our main goal is that we’re gonna make the right policy decisions. While of course we have to fight for good, community-minded policy, I think that more importantly, we have to tease apart structures of government so that it becomes more transparent and more community-driven at every level possible.
We, of course, have aldermanic powers that are inclusive of more democratic processes like community-driven zoning and participatory budgeting. Awesome. We made it that far. What else can we do to make government more community driven and transparent?
In city council committees, for example, committee chairs are all appointed by the mayor. And that power imbalance leads to corruption. It leads to good policy being stalled if the mayor isn’t happy with it, or if it doesn’t convenience them and their interests.
If we get into these elected positions, we need to not only push community-driven policy, but also pull back the curtain on how that policy is created for everybody to see.
One of the political issues that has been much talked about this election cycle is the issue of crime. Polls reflect it is the number one or number two concern of Chicagoans and it has figured prominently in the mayoral discussion. At the same time, the largest police budget Chicago has ever seen has done next to nothing to relieve so-called “crime.” Can you talk about what you think we need to do to provide a holistic approach to this social problem that can create safe communities beyond policing?
I think on the Southwest Side, even neighbors who ask for more police also know that we need more social programs and safety nets to prevent crime in the first place. When you take away options for people, be they adults or young people, you leave them with the worst options imaginable for making a living, for just surviving. So even the people who request more patrols in their area will also have a conversation about how there aren’t enough afterschool programs, or how the parks aren’t welcoming because the equipment is so old or they have no field houses.
They absolutely understand those types of things as something that deters and prevents crime. It’s something so simple but that’s what distinguishes me from my opponent [Raymond Lopez, the current 15th Ward alderperson] because he never talks about crime prevention. He only ever talks about responding and reacting by making his own residents disappear into the carceral system.
We can’t talk about crime without also talking about our successes for when we have prevented it. In election seasons, the mainstream pushes panic about crime. When we panic, we freeze and lose sight of the decades worth of work communities have put in to prevent crime and keep their blocks safe.
We have community members that are removing barriers for employment for people with a record that keeps them from re-offending. We have people that are doing gang intervention in the community, directly giving people other options, putting them through therapeutic sessions, peer-to-peer mentoring, and it’s successful at breaking cycles of violence on an individual level. All of these community members, however, are working with tight budgets and can’t service nearly all the people who need it.
That being said, I don’t think the onus needs to entirely be on an individual, and this is another conversation that we need to have when we talk about crime. Violence is perpetrated when you displace entire neighborhoods to create highways. Violence is created when Norfolk Southern Rail displaced 400 Englewood families and forced them to scatter and find other housing. The city disconnected them from their community and made their lives unstable. Violence was created when Chicago shut down public schools and forced young students to cross invisible gang lines. We need to talk about not just the individual as it relates to crime, but the structures, the decisions that people in power at a city level made that resulted in more crime at a wider level, especially on the South and Southwest sides.
If we don’t address that, then we’re not addressing the full picture.
On that topic, it’s interesting that the current alderperson Raymond Lopez—who I think is a Democratic Party committeeman—has really set out to distinguish himself as the right-wing opposition to Lightfoot with crime being his main angle, beating the drum for more police, more funding, for having the city subsidize private security cameras and all sorts of stuff. So I’m curious, what’s your campaign like on the ground running against someone who is so diametrically opposite of your position to dealing with this issue?
I might sound a little repetitive, but there are many of our neighbors who understand that there is not just a one-track solution to crime, and yet Lopez always says there is one solution: policing.
Even neighbors who advocate for policing aren’t going to advocate for that alone. They are also advocating for better schools. They’re also advocating for people leaving jail to have a second chance at employment. I really have not run into many people who think that the only solution is policing.
They also know that we are some of the most policed neighborhoods in the entire city of Chicago to begin with. They have seen their own incidents where there is a patrol present and incidents still happen, often with no follow-up investigation. Despite all the crime dramas that have unfortunately informed our idea of police work, it has always been very difficult to catch perpetrators and solve crimes and neighbors know that resolution hardly ever happens. So it’s not hard to open up the conversation where we look beyond responding and reacting and open up a wider topic of providing more and better funded public resources to prevent crime in the first place.
The last thing I would say on this is that the older generation remembers when there were more resources in the area. They remember when there were youth recreation centers and they know that it was white flight that caused a lot of these resources to vanish. They know that the city decided to disinvest in them once their neighborhoods became more Black. Our memory is still there of what we used to have, and we know that it’s possible to get it all back but it’s gonna be a fight.
Why is it important that you identify yourself as a socialist as you fight to bust down the door for the 15th Ward and for a city that fully funds services, education, and all the things that serve people as opposed to the business interests that are ensconced in city hall?
As an everyday Southwest Side resident I think it’s important to call myself a socialist because I think it’s important for everybody to hold a political compass that guides them through their actions when they hold power–it shows that we have a vision for the future that goes beyond our term. It’s very easy under capitalism to just focus on meeting our day-to-day material needs via our individual actions or the policy decisions we make for those of us in power. But if we don’t have a politic to critique how we make those decisions or the repercussions of those decisions, we lose sight of the need to restructure the systems that disenfranchised us in the first place. Ultimately, that’s what we have to do. We have to address the systems. While sometimes it seems hard to meet the immediate material needs and address the systems, we gotta do both. We gotta chew gum and walk at the same time.
So this has me thinking about the relationship between short-term wins and long-term struggle. With how politics are dominated by the interests of the wealthy, and the predominance of the pro-police interest, with constant cuts that have been going on for years to social services, it is often the case that tough decisions arise about these small wins attached to major concessions. How do you think about accountability and building community power sustainably?
I think more than anything we have to be incredibly transparent and communicative about why those concessions were made. Sometimes there’s a shame that comes with having made any type of concession and we don’t wanna talk about what was happening behind closed doors that led it to happen, or we don’t want to feel like we’ve let our community down and we push something as a victory.
But, you know, community is smart. They know when something’s a win, when something’s a loss or when something is in between. What they don’t always know is, how did we end up in this in between. And I think we have to be honest about how we ended up there because it, again, helps make systems of decision making more transparent to the public.
It is very hard for everyday residents to see the decision-making processes, and I think it’s absolutely our responsibility to pull back the curtains and make sure that they see it all. It’s part of democratizing the space. It is a type of political education necessary to democratize government as a whole.
To actually democratize the stale corridors of city government sounds like a pretty major subversion of how city hall is structured, especially if we want to change the system of mayoral control and make it something where people actually have a more democratic say in city issues. What do you think it is going to take to win these kinds of changes?
For now, I guess if we’re just being very realistic, it’s having more and more principled people run for elected leadership positions. Not just principled though but individuals who are willing to pull back that curtain and be as honest as possible. Throughout history, when the people get access to information, you never know what they’re going to do with it. And they should act on it as they see fit. But we can’t predict what will happen once we really allow that information to flow to the public.
We also need as much genuine coalition-building as we can possibly forge. While the mainstream pushes a narrative of destruction, the BLM protests of 2020 was a point of mass unity over a single issue and I think that we are going to have to constantly organize in preparation for the next burst of united activist energy. We truly did come together across race, class, and other identities to say enough is enough, a more humane world is possible. Today in 2023, that movement is leaving its mark on our election cycle and voters want to know where you stand on the topic of policing. This is major. We never really know when or where or what’s going to happen, or what’s going to trigger our next mass moment of unity. But we have to keep mobilizing so that we’re ready to absorb all the new individuals into our respective movements that come in at that moment and use it to get closer to our goal of a more democratic city, state, and country. It’s not enough for the seasoned organizers to organize alone.
How can people support your campaign?
Donate, like, yesterday. Definitely donations. We have a very lean operation financially, but a lot of great volunteers and that’s what’s keeping us going. Also, anybody and everybody is welcome to show up for phonebanking and canvassing, whether you’re bilingual or not. White, Black, Latino—because our ward is actually getting more diverse because of redistricting.It is majority Hispanic and we do have a lot of Spanish speakers. But we also have African American neighbors across West Englewood, Chicago Lawn, Gage Park. And we’re about to get a pretty big Irish population with the inclusion of Canaryville which is exciting. So white comrades are more than welcome.
The 15th Ward has an opportunity to turn a very gerrymandered ward, one created to divide us, into an example of the best parts of multicultural Chicago on the Southwest Side. I want the 15th Ward to show the city that even our poorest neighbors are fighting for a voice in municipal politics. I want the city to know that our low voter turnout isn’t a lack of will to engage in the democratic process, but a consequence of being shut out from the process by the current alderman and committeeman. I want my Southwest Side neighbors to know that the hood has always deserved the world. And while the ballot box won’t save us, we have to play our part in shaping that world we deserve by casting our vote on February 28th.