In the spring of 2011, Grassroots Collaborative members set up a folding table in front of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange headquarters. We laid out some delicious homemade goodies before unfurling a sign that read, “Bake Sale for Billionaires!” The world’s largest futures trading center had recently hit up the city for $15 million in public tax dollars originally set aside for low income communities. They must have hit some hard times, right? 

We followed this action with other creative protests that demonstrated the absurdity of billion dollar trading pits getting public subsidies. One week, we held class in front of CME since the funds for our schools had gone to the exchange instead. Youth leaders told stories of their communities’ needs while seated at school desks. Another week, we delivered a golden toilet to the Mayor, directly connecting the $15 million CME said it needed to rehab its bathrooms to the politicians who supported the deal. Ultimately, we succeeded in pressuring CME to return the  Tax Increment Financing (or TIF funds) to the city — setting off a chain of other wins. In the weeks to follow, CNA Group, Bank of America, and United Airlines all returned their corporate handouts, a combined $49 million in TIF funds returned to the City of Chicago. These wins were possible because our collective power analysis made clear that going after electeds alone was insufficient — we needed to target the corporate power behind the Mayor. 

At Grassroots Collaborative, community organizations and labor unions set the agenda together. Grassroots leaders and rank-and-file members engage in popular education to deepen analysis, build deep relationships, and strategize about what we want and how we can get it. Over my 15 years as executive director, I have seen us complicate our analysis, grow our strategies, and continue to make bold demands, all in service of building the power of Black, Latine, and working-class people in Illinois. As I prepare to step down from my role, I am sharing a few key lessons I’ve learned along the way.


Lesson 1: Ideology and Worldview Are Central 

What most sets Grassroots Collaborative apart from other permanent coalitions is our long-term investment in building shared political analysis. The glue that holds our member organizations together is an understanding of the ways that corporate power shapes local policy decisions — an analysis that dates back to our living wage campaign in the late 1990s. Our annual power mapping has helped us discern the alignment of capitalist and state power and set the foundation for effective campaigns. Over the years, our assessment of the power map in Chicago has shifted. Under Mayor Daley, old school machine politics ruled. The financial industry wielded influence under Mayor Emanuel while Mayor Lightfoot has expanded carceral power.

A shared political analysis has helped us to understand the intersectionality of our issues — both in terms of who is being hurt and in terms of who is profiting. This was key to bringing folks together across geographies and organizing models. After the CME campaign in 2011, we continued organizing against the use of TIFs in Chicago and Peoria. In Peoria, we won $300,000 back for Peoria Public Schools. In Chicago, our TIF work culminated in a 2019 fight against Lincoln Yards, a posh new development planned for one of the whitest, wealthiest communities in the state, to which the City of Chicago had committed over $2 billion in TIF funds. We successfully made the Lincoln Yards luxury development a marquee issue of the 2019 city election by spotlighting how the deal benefited white communities at the expense of Black and brown families. As part of the scheme to acquire land for the Lincoln Yards deal, the City relocated a polluting shredding facility to a working-class Latine community on the Southeast Side — further contributing to decades of environmental racism. They extracted additional funds to build a new police training center and shooting range in a predominantly Black neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago against the will of local residents. Though we were unable to stop the megadevelopment or the cop academy, Southeast Side residents have halted the shredding facility from opening, an enormous victory against tremendous odds.

Our fight started around the Lincoln Yards development, but we quickly saw the ways that multiple issues intersected and expanded our analysis and strategies accordingly.  This dirty development deal brought environmental, abolitionist, and education advocates into powerful joint action.  The campaign against it also clarified a new direction for our coalition: to wage campaigns to win a Green New Deal by taxing the rich and defunding the police. 


Lesson 2: Organizing Must Always Break Open Possibilities

After years of fighting corporate power, we are working to build a vision for what thriving communities can look like. Future thinking is incredibly hard in the face of escalating fascism and climate disaster, but it is also that much more necessary. We have to imagine the world we want, and we must inspire more and more people to believe that that world is possible. 

One of the most powerful ways that Grassroots Collaborative has learned to do this is through incorporating art in our campaigns.  Art is about unlocking what we can create, not just critiquing, managing, or reforming an unworkable system. We have brought on talented BIPOC community-based artists, launched an arts fellowship program that connected 12 artists with organizations to create narrative change, and created visuals that agitate, inspire, and engage. Through our social media channels, our visuals have reached tens of thousands of people , which—  in combination with community forums and direct actions —has helped to shift the perspectives of our base and expand  the horizon of what is possible.


Lesson 3: The Art of Staying Together Requires Intention and Care

Shared political ideology is necessary but insufficient. We must also put ongoing effort into addressing conflict and trauma so that we can build healthy and resilient people, organizations, and movements. The pandemic, climate chaos, and the rising threat of authoritarianism have put tremendous strain on our movements and hampered our ability to stay in collective trust and action. Conflict over organizing strategies, disagreements on demands, breakdowns in communication, and white supremacy culture have too often stalled our organizing.  

We need to find ways to address trauma and conflict while ensuring that the organizing continues. This is incredibly difficult, especially in organizations led by directly impacted people. At Grassroots Collaborative, we have found community mediators to be incredibly helpful in addressing interpersonal conflicts. When multiple rifts caused tensions between GC member groups in 2021, we engaged a skilled facilitator who created space for multiple stakeholders from each member organizations to be heard. The conversation resulted in clear next steps and allowed us to continue our work together.


Lesson 4: Sustainability for Ourselves Is Non-Negotiable

We need sustainable organizations to create long-term change. At Grassroots Collaborative, we shifted to a four-day workweek during the pandemic, and it has been a game changer in creating a more sustainable culture. There are still occasional long weeks, but our baseline is more human and restorative. Providing our team with time for rest has allowed them to come to the work as more whole, healthy people. And for our majority BIPOC staff, this shift has served as a critical intervention against white supremacy culture and racial capitalism. We haven’t lost any organizational power as a result of reducing hours. 

This change was personal for me. In 2017, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. In 2022, my cancer metastasized, and after six months of treatment, I’m currently in remission. In nearly 30 years of organizing, too often for 50 or 60 hours per week, I made many sacrifices — my health being at the top of that list. This was not sustainable for me and it is not sustainable for our movement as a whole. Organizers are parents, caregivers, community builders, and members of our own beloved movement community. Treating ourselves and each other with care is how we build the world we want and deserve. Figuring out how to do this while moving the work forward is not easy, but it is indeed possible.

Creating and sustaining multi-racial coalitions is incredibly difficult work, but it is also politically necessary. With intention and care, coalitions can become the vehicles that reflect the world we want to build – one that is powerful, vibrant, diverse, and aligned.


Amisha Patel has been executive director of Grassroots Collaborative for 15 years. Member groups include Action Now, AFSC, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Chicago Teachers Union, Jane Addams Senior Caucus, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, ONE Northside, SEIU Healthcare IL IN. Our Peoria People’s Project includes CHANGE Peoria, Peoria Federation of Teachers, and SEIU Healthcare.


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