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.
Rachel Cohen: Do you want to start by talking a little bit about how you got involved with politics in the first place?
Mueze Bawany: Yeah, absolutely. I always had a liking for politics, mainly because it was one of the few subject areas in schools that I was good at, talking about civics, talking about history, anything of that nature.
I think the real flip to politics not just at a national level but at a local level, was when I joined the Chicago Teachers Union. When I became a CTU delegate in my first year, we used to get a lot of asks, like, “Hey, can you help out with these folks, can you help out with this campaign? Can you help out in this part of the neighborhood?”
And then that would naturally draw you to understanding the story of a neighborhood, understanding what people are running for, understanding how their relationship plays with education.
I’m in my 6th year of teaching. Before that I went to Northeastern, and I had incredible teachers at NEIU who really made me understand people like Karen Lewis, people like CORE, people embroiled in trying to fight for schools, like the hunger strike in Little Village, the hunger strike in Kenwood, the hunger strikes that have happened variously throughout the history of our city for education and public goods.
So you know, all this stuff started making me make these connections: the politics of our local neighborhood networks and the politics of the bigger issues in Chicago, like education, gun violence, young people, elders, housing, everything.
How do you feel your experiences both in the classroom and in organizing factor into how you think about being an alderperson and what that role means?
I think the heartbeat of every neighborhood is the public schools. And it’s given me kind of a measured understanding, too, especially looking at schools from the standpoint of one of the last neighborhood institutions.
Whether they acknowledge it or not, people have this realization that’s always been present, right? That we keep losing safety nets, that we keep losing support for public institutions, whether it’s libraries, parks, or schools.
And schools have also in many ways become childcare spaces for folks, right? At a basic level, it’s a space that allows parents to go to work, especially working-class parents. So, having this background, understanding school closures, understanding communities, and understanding schools you realize this is where everybody can come together because of the diversity celebrated in public schools.
They could be access points to health care, could be access points to housing, access points for wellness of people, both parents and children. And it could be access points of just community and community discourse, right? Like how many meetings happen when school ends, where we talk about violence or we talk about organizing or where we just talk about concerns that come up. It’s a hub for everything.
So, in being embedded in this stuff, I’ve realized the role of schools. Connecting that to the aldermanic race, being a teacher, being a steward, being someone who cares about young people and their families and being able to really listen to what’s being said and what’s not being said—being able to look at scores, assignments, behavior in the classroom—you really start understanding the symptoms of a neighborhood and really start understanding what young people are going through, whether they tell you directly or indirectly, and what their parents are going through, whether directly or indirectly.
The hope is that when you look at schools and you create schools for the compassionate spaces they can be, and we fully fund them, we’ll see society in general take an upturn. I genuinely believe that, and I mean that from violence intervention to special education teachers, to bilingual education teachers, to keeping schools open for young people later in the nights, up to having vaccination clinics, preventative health care, everything. I think if a school operates as a community care space, that an entire neighborhood, an entire city, can turn around.
Yeah, absolutely. Tell me a little bit more about our neighborhood. You grew up in the 50th Ward. What are your favorite things about the neighborhood, and what are you looking forward to about being a part of it at this level?
It’s the people. This place means a lot to me.
When 9/11 happened, we were in the suburbs for a bit. My father had kind of just decided we gotta move out there because we’ll never really own a home in Chicago. It’s too expensive. And there was also the idea that some parts of suburbs were easier for us to just live and breathe in. And we wanted to live together as an extended family too.
Life has been very turbulent for me. We’ve been evicted here multiple times in this neighborhood. My dad and my mother have gone through a lot of stress in this neighborhood. But for me, as I’ve been navigating life post-high-school through my twenties, I always noticed when I came back here that I felt at ease.
No one understands you like the auntie on Devon Street who’s going through her own struggles. You can just see it on each other’s faces, you know? And even though we’re from Pakistan, which is somehow still a nation, despite the turbulence, we are a stateless people, right? If you put me back in Pakistan right now, I’d be struggling fitting in. Because even the language is hard, and I don’t know what I would do for work or these things. And I live in this country where sometimes I’m really reminded that I don’t belong, you know? Belonging is a very powerful sentiment for someone like me and what I’ve come through.
So, what this neighborhood has given me is just this chorus of communities and people who’ve all come here for refuge, and every single person here has these intimate desires for themselves and their young people and their families, which you just can’t help but feel like you need to work toward accomplishing for them in this neighborhood.
You know, the people here, we’ve got a beautiful park that’s no longer in the 50th, but it’s still our park in Warren Park. We’ve got Clinton Elementary School, where the teachers over there gave me the gift of literacy and ushered a young person like me through some very turbulent times.
And there’s everything about this place where you can step from block to block and there’s different communities. And each has a different definition of what the American experience is, but in each capacity, it’s precious, whether it’s the orthodox community here or the Rohingya community, the Syrian community, the Assyrian community.
I hear you being really proud and inspired by the diversity of this area and this neighborhood. How do you see your organizing, your campaign, and your potential administration contributing to strengthening some of the relationships and solidarity among our communities?
The first step is always going to be keeping the office and dialogue open. The second step is really meeting people where they’re at and asking what does this community mean to you? How has it helped you? How has it harmed you? What are some things we can do? And we’ve done that work really, in organizing before and during this campaign.
There’s a lot of pain around language accessibility, a lot of pain. There’s been a lack of outreach and resources—and also just of people caring.
So when I think about an administration, I think about one that’s populated with people all over the community. There’s only a finite amount of spaces that we can offer as part of the staff. But I think it becomes important for us to start reaching out to every single person and reaching out to community navigators, like, “Hey, the office is for you at this time, whenever you need Mueze,” or “Hey, we’re gonna have a continuous meeting, you know, every Wednesday from 6 to 8:00 pm with y’all. I’ll be at your cultural center or space wherever you need.” And then branching that out into co-governance and saying, “How can these different communities work together?” When it comes to things like interfaith all the way to, community safety, all the way to schools and curriculums, all the way to thinking about food insecurity, how we take care of our elders.
And I do believe in having community groups and having this consistent amount of conversation and then just being there for people. I think that will grow into a level of solidarity that the city of Chicago probably will have never seen beforehand. Just think about the nature of being in this neighborhood: people might be isolated, but they kind of see it, you know? You can’t avoid noticing the orthodox corridors, the Devon corridor, where our assyrian community is, you cannot miss the presence of the Rohingya community.
And the reality is people don’t want to avoid that. This neighborhood could be so much more than it is right now. I don’t understand why anybody would want it to be what it is at this moment versus what it can be.
This campaign is comprised of Jewish neighbors from West Ridge, Pakistanis, Indian, Arab neighbors in our community. You have a presence of Latina neighbors in our community. There are volunteers here from the Rohingya Cultural Center, the Indo-American Center, Centro Romero. These groups have a place here whenever they want.
We also have a youth council, so we have young people who are involved in their schools here.
Do you envision that community-level organizing that’s also so much a part of your background continuing to be a part of what shapes your administration should you be elected? How do you see the role of an alderperson connected to those larger community struggles and ongoing organizing?
At the minimum you always can have solidarity, right? But I think as an alderperson, there are things that are not in our purview. But there are things we can absolutely do.
You know, like how can I continue to build affordable housing here to meet the neighbors who don’t have housing? How can we use community-based zoning so we continue to keep this neighborhood as authentic as it is and to make our streets safer?
To answer the needs of parents who are saying, you know, “We have a two-way street, but we have a density of young people growing in this neighborhood more and more. People are just speeding through,” right?
I think for me, solidarity will always be there. I will be frontline and do anything it takes to make sure CPS never cuts a dollar from the budgets in these schools. I won’t allow the education committee in City Hall to just sit and not have meetings, like it has in the past. We need to be involved. This aldermanic office will support the elected, representative school board.
And then you think about policy positions that we can continue to take and how we vote on the city’s budget. So I’ll use every single tool I can to make sure that community input is always there and being centered in this process, asking, “Who’s being harmed? How does this implicate people who are living here? How does this harm people who’ve been in West Ridge forever? Or how does it hurt people who are trying to make a living here or trying to breathe here.” There are many tools, from participatory budgeting to community-based zoning.
But at the minimum, I think every single street in this neighborhood will find their alderman listening, caring, and whenever there is a chance for solidarity, offering solidarity. There will be people I’ll listen to that I don’t think I’ll be on the same page with, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be listened to and really feel heard.
At a really deep level, a lot of this stuff reminds me of what Toni Morrison said: It’s not what you do, it’s not what you say, it’s how you make people feel. Even the folks who’ve been in opposition to who I am as a person, they just appreciate that I’ll listen. That I won’t run from them. And my positions might be different, but they feel they’ll get an alderman who will always be present.
What you’re saying rings true in terms of how the city budget overall impacts neighborhoods. I saw a commercial for Chuy Garcia the other day, talking about community violence and, of course, front-loading that he supports more cops and more resources for police.
And we already have a city budget that is overwhelmingly going to policing, that siphons money off for the corporate elite and the wealthy. So how do you think you would work with community and stay in touch and accountable as you weigh what the next budgets look like? Because Chuy Garcia will now even echo the line that we need investment in underinvested communities as part of a response to violence. But I’m sure that that’ll be the first promise that gets quietly dropped, whoever occupies the mayor’s office. So how do you assess a city budget and whether movements have won enough of what they need, within the context of a budget that tends to be stacked in the wrong directions?
What always makes me think is how hard we have to struggle at a community level. I think about the fight. People like Myron Glassman and Jesse Kaufman in this neighborhood and the entire High Ridge YMCA coalition that has put up a real fight. And folks who are sitting in the mayoral position or the president of the United States can, you know, thinking of the Trump era, just do so much damage in the blink of an eye. Meanwhile we are fighting month-long, year-long, generational fights for the dignity of people.
It is hard sometimes for me to know the fight will always continue. I dream of a world where we don’t ever lose anybody in the way we’ve tragically been losing people and have always lost people. And I don’t feel afraid or naive to want to believe in those things. You know, people deserve love and compassion.
But I also know I live in a city where corporate interests rule, and with the idea of seeing people as nails while walking around as a hammer.
For example, you know, we are gonna probably look at more and more budgets that are gonna ask for an increase in policing. And we have 40 percent of our budget going to them, like 40 cents on a dollar. And what has that yielded? In many ways for the conditions of young people or stopping the exodus of Black people from our communities, or the slowdown of Latine folks in our community, it doesn’t really show itself in the community.
The way the city has talked about budgets, everybody nationally has created the specter like if you don’t continue to hand out corporate welfare, they’re all gonna leave. And then very callously using the example of Detroit, which in itself is a tragedy.
I feel a lot of hope about things because I think about Alderwoman Rodriguez Sanchez and the treatment not trauma ordinance, which I think will be incredible.
We have to really look into history, right? Like the history of this country was that we didn’t have an EMT program. It came really overnight. If you were hurt, you had to lay down and hope someone saw you and maybe they had some transportation or maybe a hospital was nearby or somebody in your community had some understanding of wound treatment or immediate first aid. And then people realized, Hey, we need a response in the EMT program.
And I believe the ordinance talks about 200 people within CDPH making up an unarmed response unit that responds to the 38 percent of calls that the Chicago dashboard says require non-armed response. Mental health breakdowns police are not trained for; domestic violence the police are not trained for; overdosing police are not trained for; community-based arguments the police are not trained for. Bothering young people in the parks, which nobody should do, the police definitely should not.
I think when people see that program succeed, like we saw the EMT program, it becomes a part of our fabric, and we have to keep doing that. We have to work harder to show people that this can work. We have to work harder to show people that corporate welfare is not something we should excuse or the fact that these folks have record profits, but they’ve continued to lay off people or continued to union bust.
I think we’re on the right track, too, because look at how many [alder]people have deserted City Hall now ‘cause people know, right? But that doesn’t mean you’re not gonna have Michael Sacks and these folks put up a fight. But I think every day we just have to keep moving. I have hope in young people and the organizing they’re doing.
And my job as alderman, around the clock will be continuing to build awareness in the neighborhood. Look at our numbers: there were 121 stops on young people in this precinct, and nothing came out of this, right? Stops were just stops. Or push people to really think about whether it’s acceptable for a one-bedroom to go for $1,600 while the vast majority are making minimum wage. That’ll be a fight. But as communities learn and they grow and they work together, they’re always down for the fight.
I know that you have heard from a lot of people in the neighborhood that public safety is a major concern. And as you’ve said, so many people equate public safety only with police. Would you talk a little bit about how you are responding to that urgency of public safety and how you think of it? What else could be considered public safety?
The reality is for many people, their lexicon, when they hear safety, they hear police. People are like, we want a camera everywhere. And I push back and I often say that I think you want policing to an extent that is preventative, but policing will always be responsive.
You cannot put a cop on every single corner. And as I have told neighbors, “Do you want somebody standing there waiting to see that, okay, you’re two minutes over your parking limit, here’s a ticket”? Do you want someone over your shoulder when you’re at work and you decide to browse the internet for a second? And they often laugh at that, but I also tell them, you know, truthfully, that we’ve seen in the world that the best way to reduce crime is by reducing poverty.
We cannot continue to go along and believe that we’re gonna make people comply, beat people into complying with the poverty or injustice or heartache. You really have to have long conversations and dive into the ethos of who people are and talk to them about young people. Talk to them about schools, talk to them about classrooms. Imagine being a kid who doesn’t speak English and you have to sit in a class where everything is in English. What do you feel your potential could be? What do you feel your future could be?
And then when we get into the discussions about the non-armed response, when we get into the discussions around investing in violence intervention through DFSS or we get into the idea of just community response together, or we get into the idea of tackling food and rent stability, reopening the mental health clinics, people realize that, you know, these aren’t pie-in-the-sky, these are the right things to.
The difficult point, what we’re negotiating right now, is the immediacy of safety. West Ridge has been really seeing a growth in crime. Days ago we had about five carjackings.
Also the way it’s been used is very visceral too. And I know what comes from the visceralness of this language. But thinking about someone who sent me an email where they were deeply shook, and mentioned their wife hasn’t left the house.
How do we have grief response teams? How do we talk to folks? How do we get someone here? Because you need someone to talk to, right? How do we grieve as a community? What would it look like if an alderman grieved with a family? And we all took time to think about what we’ve lost? But the immediacy is something that’s in my head because for so many people, the only response people want is like, “I do want somebody on my street at 4:45 in the morning when my wife is starting her car.”
Maybe we need to turn the lights on in the neighborhoods earlier. Maybe we need to talk to neighbors and talk as a community and say—because you know what happens with friends who’ve gone through domestic violence where they ask you to walk them to the train—maybe have people present from the community who can say, “I’m gonna be out here at four in the morning and I’ll be here with you.” But with the five incidents that happened, and I told this neighbor this, I can’t help but think about the fact that it was two seventeen-year-olds. And think about how their life will forever change. And I think that resonates with people, but it is still something that we’re negotiating.
I do feel, as progressive as we are when it comes to communities and loving communities, we’re always going to be faced with the fact that people on the opposite side will say, “Well, if he’s not getting cops into your area, he doesn’t care about you.”
And we also have the reality that we do have a massive police force and we do have to work with them. I mean specifically work with them because they take so much of our budget and they are embedded in communities and they are also what we know in society as safety.
It’s a very interesting navigating point because every officer that I’ve run into in this neighborhood, more often than not, they’ve been very straightforward about what’s going on and their needs. And when you get to speak to a few candidly, like two that I had a chance to talk to, they’re also not opposed to the fact that we’re fighting for mental health clinics. So even that’s intriguing.
And I say this thinking how does the entirety of my world revolve when I have to work intimately in all of these spaces, right? Folks who want community care, folks who’ve been directly harmed, the police, and then community resource groups that do so much of the work that they believe fundamentally, there has to be an alternate way to help people.
One last thing I was curious about is the YMCA that you mentioned in the neighborhood. I understand that it has been opened up to help support some of the migrants who have been sent to Chicago from the southern US border. Can you talk a little bit about the neighborhood’s ability to welcome those folks and also the news about the reopening of the YMCA and what that might mean for that work?
I’m thinking deeply about what’s happening in the 20th ward, where I think this was a nightmare scenario, and I felt the cruelty was the point: to pit a community that has been historically divested from against people who have been used as political football.
We’re in this position because we’ve always been espousing that we are a welcoming city, right? A sanctuary city. Yet there’s never been any investment towards that, whether that comes in affordable housing, fully funded schools with language support present, and the idea of a path, an accelerated pathway to citizenship, right?
Because no one takes this journey if the home that they once called home was safe. So we work closely with many of the newcomers. Some were put in the old library [on California] as well as in the closed-down YMCA. One of our organizers was walking by and saw the majority of the newcomers taking a smoke break, and she just started engaging them on what their needs were. And they were self-organized. They were just like, “You know, the climate. We just need winter stuff.” And we started organizing that.
We stayed in touch. We started making arepas together. I think if the city really cared about being a welcoming city and a sanctuary city, they would look at a neighborhood like West Ridge and fund it to be like that Ellis Island-type space that it’s always been.
I want to welcome everybody here. And I want to make sure every single person knows that West Ridge is really the embodiment of a welcoming, sanctuary neighborhood. I want to work with the city to make that a possibility as we continue to see, potentially, the right wing getting more and more egregious in how they handle newcomers and folks looking for asylum.
As for the High Ridge Y, that’s one of the blessings of having elders like Myron and Jesse in this community. Because Jan Schakowski has secured the [federal funding to reopen the YMCA], but we need to know timetables. We need to know what it’s going to be. We need to know how it’s going to get fixed. And we need full community control of a resource like this.
So that fight continues. We might have resources to reopen, but it was an absolute insult that the YMCA did this to the community. The loss of any spaces where people can come together and share and be together is a loss that we need to take extremely seriously.
I grew up going to that Y so I took it really personally too! How can people support your campaign?
We’re in the last weeks. Come canvas! Please do donate if you can. We’re gonna have an aggressive program to tackle early voting and election day. But most importantly, come on and canvas. Talk to your neighbors if you live in West Ridge.
Come out and come be with us. We’d love to have you phone bank with us, text bank with us. Because as this time gets more and more aggressive, as a candidate, community is the only thing getting me through right now, so I haven’t felt alone in a very isolating process. And that I haven’t felt at any given point not cared for. So even being in this community with us means a lot. At muezefor50.com we have a form on there. Please sign up, and if you want to chat, too, I can’t guarantee I’ll be immediately available, but I’ll do my best to talk.