Desmon Yancy

Alderman-elect Desmon Yancy speaks at a 5th Ward runoff forum at the Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave., on Saturday, March 25, 2023.

Desmon Yancy, a South Shore labor and community organizer, will take over as 5th Ward alderman next month, joining 12 other first-time alders on City Council.

Yancy narrowly defeated Martina “Tina” Hone, a former chief engagement officer under Mayor Lightfoot, in the April 4 runoff election for 5th Ward alderman. Opting to wait for outstanding mail-in ballots to be counted, Hone officially conceded the race the following week, after it became apparent that she was not making up ground against Yancy as the remaining votes were tallied. The final results show Yancy received 6,184 votes to Hone’s 5,758, according to the Chicago Board of Elections.

Come May 15, Yancy will replace outgoing Ald. Leslie Hairston, who opted to retire from City Council after serving for more than two decades. The 5th Ward, which includes parts of Hyde Park, Woodlawn and South Shore, has long been a hotbed of political and economic activity. From the under-construction Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park and community organizing to prevent displacement in South Shore to the decades-long advocacy efforts that just won Chicago landmark status for Promontory Point, Yancy will take the reins of a ward in flux.

Last week, Yancy and the Herald sat down at the unionized Starbucks at 55th Street and Woodlawn Avenue to discuss the election results and his priorities for the 5th Ward. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

What are your priorities for the 5th Ward?

My priorities are passing a Treatment Not Trauma ordinance, a South Shore CBA (Community Benefits Agreement) ordinance and a Bring Chicago Home ordinance. I’ll work with the community and the administration to determine the order.

(Treatment Not Trauma is a campaign to reopen mental health clinics closed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and send mental health professionals in response to certain kinds of crisis calls. The South Shore CBA is a proposal to enact affordable housing protections and relief for condo and homeowners in South Shore. The Bring Chicago Home campaign seeks to use taxes on expensive real estate sales to finance services for Chicago’s unhoused population.)

Why, after some time, have organizers in Chicago sought the reins of political power instead of challenging city institutions from the outside?

Our goal was always to make sure that we had elected officials who would come from our communities, by working to build power in our communities, good name recognition and also shared values.

What happened a week ago was something that we couldn't have predicted. It's been the dream, but to have it realized so quickly with the number of organizers that’ve been elected, even going back to the 2015 and 2019 municipal elections, and then (2023), you’ve also got a mayor who’s been in these streets, who gets it.

It's proof positive that when you do the work and plant the seed and water it, (you get) the good that you want.

How has there been so much robust coordination between all these organizers doing different kinds of work around police accountability, around housing justice, around environmental justice?

A lot of the same organizers who are in leadership and organizations today started on the ground and have been working together for a while. In 2014 we did a voter registration drive where we registered 50,000 voters across the city with a coalition of groups. It was some of those same groups who are present today, like the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, the Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and Chicago Teachers Union.

There's a validity that comes with having done this work with people for a while that when these opportunities come up to support candidates that are ours, it's really a simple question of when the work is going to get done or not, your folks are already going to be bought into the process.

What does it mean to have so many organizers and so many people from these movements now in positions of power?

It allows us to take some big leaps forward around (improving) mental health resources, digging deeper into the search for a new police superintendent, which we are all going to be playing a key role in, seating the district councils and the permanent Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability and then this new mayoral administration.

We're setting ourselves up for a lot right now. When we think about things like Bring Chicago Home and the other ordinance to fight housing displacement, we haven't had to sit down and have conversations about how we get to those wins and how we pace ourselves, which is frankly important, because a lot of this stuff costs a lot of money.

Then on the other end is building public support. People need a better understanding of the work that we're trying to do because our margins of victory were so close. (Mayor-elect) Brandon Johnson and I talked Wednesday after the election, and we looked at his numbers and my numbers, and there’s a lot of parallels there.

It also gives us an opportunity to figure out how we can do things in the 5th Ward that we can scale up, particularly as we're bringing people along because we didn't win with a (clear) mandate.

What strategies did you learn as a community organizer at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) that you're going to bring to your work as an alderperson?

It's about saying to the community, in a real honest and transparent way, that we don't have all the answers. We've got a bunch of resources that we can bring to support where we need to go, but ultimately, it's the community that decides where we go.

At IMAN with the ballot initiative for the reopening of the Green Line at 63rd Street and Racine Avenue or even the grocery store before that or the health clinic that we have in Chicago Lawn, it's all based on what community need was. And that involved leveraging resources from the City of Chicago or the state of Illinois, and in some cases federal resources or even the larger Islamic community to lead with faith, to bring results that were honest and transparent and really brought value to the neighborhood.

What’s your favorite book about Chicago?

The autobiography of John H. Johnson (“Succeeding Against the Odds,” written about the pioneering Black founder and publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines), just to read a story of resilience. I worked at a video store at 55th Street and Cornell Drive in high school and college, and people like Lerone Bennett, Jr. (the executive editor of Ebony) were my customers. I’m just really fond of that time.

What's your favorite pizza spot?

Giordano’s, the Hyde Park location, actually, and that’s the nostalgia factor.

How long are you thinking you’ll stay in office?

I’m planning on staying in office as long as I can be effective.

(2) comments

HPdecades

The vote totals made it clear that the new alder isn't that popular in the Hyde Park portion of the ward. And it sounds as though his priority is for his base. We'll see how that works out.

"Desmon Yancy, a South Shore labor and community organizer"

I respond:

Sigh where have we heard those resume job descriptions before?

Is this guy like our current mayor elect also a CTU "Labor" (didn't do a lot of teaching labor in his life apparently just 2 years of classroom middle school teacher where he passed all his students regardless if they learned basic math and reading") or our most famous "Community organizer" turned US Senator and 2 time USA president who has now dined and dashed, left our Hyde Park South Side communities to hand out in Hawaii and at his $13 million country estate on Martha's Vineyard MA.

Oh, word is the Obamas and some of their top Obama Foundation will helicopter in to a helicopter landing pad on top of their 23 story OPC in what used to be Jackson Park!

How about "We the people" that still live, work and pay taxes here try to get this new 5th ward alderman to address basic neighborhood 5th ward issues, like picking up the garbage enforcing speed limits and reckless driving on Lake Shore Drive - right now LSD is getting to be something out of a Mad Max Movie!

JE

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