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.
Nisha Atalie: How did you get involved in politics?
Oscar Sanchez: I’d say my lived experiences in general really pushed me to be active. Getting involved in volunteering was something I got from my parents. They were very involved in church and they always said you have to love your neighbor, you need to make sure you take care of others. So, we would always do different types of volunteering, and even my own circumstances—we were raised and lived in poverty—it costs to be poor.
Living in such straining circumstances makes you understand. If this is not just an outlier, if this is everybody going through this experience, you know what’s really happening here. I think being in an atmosphere where people love each other and want to uplift one another and (that church atmosphere) and then moving onto college where I was more politicized. In college, I was at a conference for Latin Americans, but they were saying, if you’re not supporting your Black and brown siblings, what are you doing here? Because, you know, there’s always this oppression to divide us. So, what are we doing actually? The attacks of poverty, the attacks of racism are intertwined. And if you’re not here supporting your siblings, you’re also part of the problem.
I had strong mentors that really kept pushing my philosophies, and what they say, which I think I’m going to start claiming, is that we’re in a war for love. What does it mean to love somebody? What does it mean to look for housing for somebody, to make sure they’re able to get the healthcare they need, to make sure that they’re able to have opportunities for economic relief? To make sure they’re safe from all the dangers of contaminants that are in the air? Our government has inadequately used funds against communities—has inadequately used Covid funds specifically. More than that, our government has inadequately represented us through gerrymandering here in the Southside of Chicago. They put profit over people, and we need to ensure that we put our health and the continuous support we need above everything else so we can have thriving communities in the Southside of Chicago.
You talked about this a bit, but what was it like growing up in the 10th Ward?
I think my life experiences and the way that I think about community can be summed up by a quote that my mother says: “we don’t have much, but at least we have one another.” And I’m going to be honest with you, I grew up in poverty. I grew up in poverty and that shaped my thinking around a lot of things—I was asking why, it was something I grew up wondering. I was always a person that asks questions. (If anything, I was known as that annoying kid who asked questions.) But anybody listening to this or reading this, keep asking questions.
My experience in the 10th Ward was one where I’d walk to school and would walk back, and it was okay for me to do that. But I also think about the times where I’d be playing basketball and I would just, you would just hear commentary saying you know, “why is he playing basketball?”
Or like, why is he . . . ? As I started getting older, those comments started disappearing as you started seeing less of an affluent community here, more of a diverse community here. I think this experience made me think about how we have ownership over places.
The community I grew up in was more of an affluent ownership versus a diverse ownership. For me, it’s about creating an equal opportunity for anybody in the 10th ward. Outside of a white community, there’s a Latin American community, specifically a Mexican community, and an African American community. We have a Puerto Rican community, a Dominican community. We have an Ethiopian and Haitian community, a Jamaican community. We have a Middle Eastern community. I just think that we have to really allow life to prevail. What does living look like from the point of view of individuals that don’t see themselves in these places?
There’s a difference between identity politics versus, you know, me existing in this area. And that’s one of my favorite Angela Davis quotes, where she says if I’m not part of the planning, where is my existence intended to be then? So, for me, growing up was being in areas where I was questioned why my presence was there.
And then finally at one point, I was like, this is my home. Because my parents would just move around. I grew up from 84th and Baltimore and South Chicago, an area that many people talk about as a very violent area, but it’s also one of the most deprived areas.
Everybody who lived in South Chicago ended up moving to the other areas in the 10th Ward for safety, but if we rewind the clock, South Chicago was the place to be. And I think about how we actually create that generational wealth. Once you remove an economic engine, what is the city doing to intentionally make sure those people are taken care of?
What do you think some of the biggest issues are in the ward right now?
I think we have to be honest about how the economic crisis has really affected us. It has affected all of us from the 2008 housing market crash to this pandemic. We have to be honest that everybody is facing concerns of violence or safety and also concerns of poverty.
Another big concern is a lack of generational wealth, which makes us susceptible to environmental burdens. And when we talk about environmental burdens, we are talking about health burdens. If we’re not able to have strong economic grounding, then we’re susceptible to any type of development because we are so in need of it. And that’s why you see we had a fight against General Iron. A metal-shedding company coming in from the North Side to the Southeast Side across from our only public high school. And that area was receiving 1.6 billion in subsidies and we were receiving another metal shredding company.
And I think that it is a crisis also that we had to go on a hunger strike. What lengths does the community need to go to in order to have input on things happening here? We are being taken advantage of by the city, which says, “if you don’t want this development, then you’ll have to wait until the next one.” And people are so in need.
On top of that, you see the lack of opportunity that increases the violence. When we talk about the lack of resources and opportunity here, we also have to talk about the need for accessibility and our lack of public transportation.
We also have to think about the 10th Ward as the largest geographical ward in the city of Chicago. We are also the only ward that borders another state, Indiana. We are one of the wards with the highest industrial operations. So, for those three reasons, we need a lot of financial support to be able to really compete with a different state that has lower taxes on food, on gasoline, the essentials.
That’s a picture of what the issues are, but we’re able to address them right now. We’re able to address safety by making sure we have violence interceptors. People are talking about a police shortage. Here in the fourth district, we can address that with violence interceptors. There are people who have been previously incarcerated or have been previously in gangs, looking to de-escalate these issues firsthand right there by patrolling the community. So you have that community policing coming from the community. Also, if there’s a nonviolent emergency, how can we bring social workers through Treatment Not Trauma to ensure that we are supporting individuals going through nonviolent emergencies and police officers can do the work we need ‘em to do, like solving cold cases. There’s funding from the Chicago Recovery Plan to the Climate Equity Jobs Act to transform our local economy, to support our entrepreneurs and small businesses, to create job training sites for needs to be filled here when it comes to removing lead pipes and making sure we can create a new generation of plumbers here.
Can you say a bit more about your plan for violence interrupters?
For me, what the model would look like is being able to have community members, with a spectrum of backgrounds and trained in de-escalation to build relationships. When someone from the community is asking you to fill out a Community Needs Assessment and understands the struggle there is, you build trust, and when your needs are met, you continue to work together, as a community. This has been proven to work in areas such as West Pullman and Roseland that conduct Community Outreach, Counseling and Workforce Development; anti-violence approaches.
The premise is community members would be trained to patrol around communities they already have relationships with or seek to build them and be able to de-escalate issues, specifically non-violent circumstances, before they escalate, as well as bringing in social workers. If we have a fifty police officer shortage in our community right now in the fourth district, we can offset it by advocating alongside the newly formed Police District Council or Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS), to be addressing the need for non-violent emergency responses and implementing holistic safety approaches.
If something happens, violence interceptors can be held accountable, as with police. There should be accountability not only for police but for every single city department.
City politics tends to be dominated by the interests of the wealthy.We have 40% of the city budget going to the police, and then we see social services getting cut. We see these massive developments, with TIF funding going to the rich, going to rich neighborhoods—going to the same neighborhoods. And then the counter to that is more police funding, right? So being on the city council, obviously that’s the waters one is swimming in. How do you think about dealing with these tough decisions (such as potential funding being paired with more police)? How do you think we can build that community power and accountability over time?
We are building a movement of active community members to have transparency of what’s happening. So, the outcome of this election will not only be a win for this campaign, but we’re also looking to establish people power by creating a base of individuals who are active and holding me accountable.
For me, accountability is also part of collaboration. Collaboration for me means very explicitly participatory community decision-making processes. Having community members be a part of participatory budgeting, participatory zoning, and really looking at having people involved.
A great example is redistricting. There was no commission to get community inputs nor have a community-decision making practice from the City Administration, however Change IL created an advocacy commission that sought to address this and propose a redistricting based on community input; I worked to gather as many voices as possible to our point of contact. We saw how people really were thinking about not the borders [of the Ward] and the population, but thinking about those as assets in our community and we have to be very honest about that.
As much as we don’t want borders to exist, it’s important for us to say that if a certain asset is under a different administration or different leadership, it’s going to be utilized in ways that are not for us. We have a lot of green spaces and we even have a lot of open land.
We have some of the greatest biodiversity in the nation. It’s always talked about the 10th Ward, specifically the marsh. So what happens when we have somebody else taking ownership of some of that land and they use it for industry? I’m not saying that industry is bad, but I am saying that we need somebody who is willing to have a process with their community members versus somebody who is a rubber stamp in the operation.
If I can say my community said yes to this, I’m okay. But there has to be a process, not only of them being a part of it, but after discussions and popular education, which I’ve done as a community planning manager for the Southeast Environmental Taskforce. There’s something called a post-industrial modernization initiative, which is basically talking about the rezoning of an area. And we’ve been training community members about zoning, landings, community decision-making, all popular discussion items, and letting folks know about what changes can be made. If we are able to have our community members on board, that makes all the difference. You can transform somebody’s life by saying, how do you envision this area? So, I think for a lot of the hard decisions, it’s going to be up to myself, but also up to my community and our advisory, such as our youth advisory and our senior advisory, alongside our participatory practices.
Thinking about being an alderman, you’ve also been very much on the other side as a hunger striker in the General Iron fight. I’m wondering how that experience of going on hunger strike shaped you as an organizer and what you’re taking from that experience into your campaign.
People are dying, people are suffering. And a lot of the deaths we face here in the 10th Ward could have been prevented. I think that’s the most important part to this role. People are going on a hunger strike to be heard. We should think about what it will take for us as a city council to ensure that people don’t have to go to these measures to be heard.
What processes are we uplifting? How are we supporting one another? There are examples from Maria Hadden to Carlos Rosa, let’s share how we’re doing these processes. Let’s uplift this type of work, otherwise people are going to continue suffering and people are going to continue not trusting the government. The solutions are in addressing the root causes such as poverty, such as racism. We’re just putting a band aid over them.
That’s my experience being on a hunger strike—saying that there are actions that we can take ourselves and we’re not waiting for somebody to save us.
That’s so important. And that kind of brings me to the question of what is the role of an elected official in relationship, not only to their constituents, but to movements?
I’ve been reflecting on this type of question because it’s two parts, right? One is, what is the work I need to do in my own community and one is what is the work I have to do at the city level? When I say people are suffering, people are not only suffering in the 10th Ward.
People are going through poverty or environmental issues in the 10th Ward—how are we bridging those conversations to other areas? For myself, I think it’s important to be grounded in my community voice to make sure that we’re always taking care of people’s needs at the constituent level. Like making sure that we replace the garbage bins, making sure we have conversations.
But also, I think a key and pivotal part with transparency is that collaboration, as I mentioned, you know, being able to sit down and actually explain some of these processes.
For me, anything is possible the more we get community members involved. So that’s my key part. I think the best word is not being a liaison, but being a facilitator. Being a facilitator for these conversations, bringing up other leaders to also saying, “Hey, do you want to be presenting on these issues at a monthly or weekly town hall to talk about safety, to talk about health,” and really reframing what an elected official does.
Because again, it has to be with conversation and relationship building and building that trust. A movement isn’t just today. A movement is [many] moments, right? It takes time. So it’s building across our needs and it’s always addressing the needs of the people.
How do you think about independent political organizations and organizing between campaigns? This gets to the question that you were just talking about, keeping people involved politically outside of election season. You mentioned some educational efforts and things like that, but could you speak more to that? Things that are happening or that you would like to see happen outside of election cycles to keep people involved?
I want to be honest: win or lose, we want to keep people active.
It’s about sharing our community’s testimonies and their experiences. Gun violence is unacceptable. Health burdens with respiratory issues and cancer rates are unacceptable. And it’s about making sure we amplify people to say, this is not right, and we’re deserving of infrastructures that keep us safe.
For myself, it’s all the work I’ve done before. For example, with the People’s Budget—last year we had youth being trained to build their own city budget. I’ve also done work, again as community planning manager, teaching not just people but organizations to talk to their bases about learning, community, decision-making, land use, and zoning.
I’m not here to present something, I’m here to have a dialogue. I’m here for us to exchange thoughts and actually build consciousness around what is affecting us. There’s a quote by James Baldwin: If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”
How can people support the campaign?
We need you. We need every single person as much as possible because we are the mission. We are driven to always meet the needs of the people and it’s going to be hard, but I’m here working as someone who has gone on a hunger strike. Someone who has done frontline work during this pandemic. We need people door knocking. If people are able to, donate, and please spread our message on social media. And my question for everybody is like, what is the future of the South Side or the Southeast Side going to be? I want you to be a part of it. This is a movement for you to ensure that at the end of the day we’re taking the steps needed for us to heal and for us to thrive. We can no longer just survive.