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Black Bench Chicago is creating a talent pipeline of young Black leaders in public affairs. Meet the 1st cohort.
Wednesday, February 17, 2021 Chicago Tribune by Darcel Rockett
Millennials are a generation not satisfied with the status quo, and they are expressing that dissatisfaction with their influence in political, social and economic realms. They’re passionate about issues. As Oak Park resident Ariel Rainey, 33, attests.
The CEO and founder of Hustle Mommies, an online community dedicated to supporting and uplifting mothers in urban settings, is an Englewood native who wants to learn how to take the spirit and energy of those who were in North Lawndale fighting against redlining, and in Bronzeville creating Black business hubs, and fight current inequities.
At the helm of a community that seeks to uplift moms by helping with mental health, education, career training and entrepreneurship, Rainey wants to be invited to the table where decisions are made and to take the issues of the voiceless to elected officials while also taking the knowledge she learns back to her community of parents.
That’s why she’s excited to be a part of the first cohort of Black Bench Chicago, a new program whose purpose is to build leadership capacity for the long-term benefit of the community — a pipeline where Black leadership can be developed and knowledge and expertise can be passed from current Black leaders to the upcoming generation of community leaders who can deliver resources to Black Chicagoans.
“We needed this because in this day and age, the emotion and passion that the current generation has, we need the training of the older generation, to be able to say, ‘OK, we like your passion, but this is what you need to do with that passion.’” Rainey said. “You need to mix a little bit of tradition with the new way, so we can actually make the necessary changes.”
The brainchild of Alexandra Sims, president and founder of APS & Associates, community organizer Ronnie Mosley and Jonathan Swain, a Chicago Board of Elections commissioner and president of the mentorship nonprofit LINK Unlimited Scholars, Black Bench will educate more than two dozen Chicagoans over the course of six months on legislative processes, special interests, the history of Black organizing in Chicago, and campaigns and budgets, among other topics, Swain said. Experts will lead discussions over Zoom with participants in a collaborative format every Saturday beginning this month.
According to Swain, training like this for the Black community used to be done through politically affiliated organizations. Those organizations still exist, but not with the sole aim of creating Black leadership. The Black Bench is different in that it is nonpartisan and educational; the name is centered on the concept of building a team ready to step in the game.
“This is a nonprofit, not driven by any political agenda or political ambition or anything of that nature,” he said. “We want to focus on history. We want to focus on how budgets are structured and understanding how government works generally. We want to focus on the impact of special interests of all types on government, and then we’re going to talk about the basis of campaigns and what those look like — be it issue-based campaigns, or campaigns for office.”
It’s all an effort for cohort members to broaden their knowledge base, while also building relationships and a connection to the history of Black politics in Chicago. Sims said the Bench is about anyone who wants to get involved in the public affairs sector; and those who also might want to run for office, but it’s not purely a program for training people to run for office.
“We’re bringing people together across various perspectives around particular issues, but we’re really focusing more on the how and not the what. So that when it comes to understanding a budget, it’s not where people should put dollars; it’s here’s how dollars get allocated, here is how the process works, so you can understand it in depth,” Swain said.
Per Sims, the Black Bench is more about the importance of having more people of color at the table. Over 200 applications for 15 positions came in during a two-week application period, Sims said. The interest in the program was so great that the advisory board doubled the number of members in the first cohort to 30 — fellows range from local activists to radio personalities to law partners to labor organizers like Anthony Driver, who is excited to be in the first class of Black Bench.
“I have experienced the best the city has to offer and also the worst. I’ve experienced the gun violence; I’ve experienced growing up in an impoverished, under-resourced community. And I’ve also had an opportunity to work at some of the best institutions in the city and across the country,” Driver said. “And just seeing how wide of a gap that is, I’m excited to be a part of Black Bench Chicago because I would like to bridge that gap between those two worlds and ensure that other people who are coming behind me don’t have to go through the same experiences that I went through.”
As Service Employees International Union Healthcare’s political and legislative coordinator for the past two years and a former aldermanic candidate for the 20th Ward, Driver, 27, sees himself using the knowledge and connections he makes with Black Bench to help with his ongoing organizing work to ensure that South and West side communities get equity.
“I think I’m a pretty informed person, so I was definitely looking for something like this,” Driver said. “This is an organization that’s specifically focused on the Black community. The Black community has unique issues; we are a unique people who speak a unique language. I strongly believe that this is an opportunity for the needs of Black residents in the city of Chicago and surrounding suburbs to be met and to train up a new generation of leaders.”
The other members of the inaugural cohort were announced this week. They are:
Tamara Allen, co-founder and executive director, BE! @ Community Initiatives
Sean Anderson, communication adviser to Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch
Crystal Bland, U.S. Department of Urban Development, president AFGE 911
Consuela Hendricks, co-founder of People Matter
Steven Clark, general member, 8th Ward Young Democrats