How Chicago Mothers and Grandmothers Are Changing Politics Through Collective Action


Public policy-making can sometimes be an exercise in data-driven detachment and impartiality. For those on the fringes of public sector power in such cases, it seems that the rules, policies and programs created by others are designed to impact the inanimate and insensitive, not them. . It is this impersonal policy-making context that makes the work of our Chicago-based nonprofit, Community organization and family issues (COFI), significant.

COFI’s campaigns to center community, families, care and humanity at the heart of policy decisions are led by “COFI Parents”, primarily mothers and grandmothers of color from historically under-invested communities . In her researchsociologist Jennifer Cossyleon called COFI parents “ruling mothers” and noted how feminist scholars showed that “the work of mothers of color inside and outside the home is inseparable from family, parents, community and their lived experiences of intersecting oppressions”.

The COFI model is an important example of how low-income, working-class mothers and grandmothers of color make public policies rigid and public finance systems more responsive to their needs. COFI staff help these mothers and grandmothers, who started out as volunteers, recognize that the skills they learned as parents translate into leadership skills. After participating in trainings and team-building exercises with their peers, COFI parents lead collective action efforts to make policy changes that meet their daily family challenges and those of their communities.

By “the COFI method” framework, the COFI parents directed successful campaigns increase access to early learning programs for communities of color and replace “zero tolerance” school discipline policies with restorative justice practices. Their collaboration economic justice efforts also led to legislative victories that made public services more affordable, capped predatory interest rates from lenders in Illinois, and provided a guaranteed basic income for 5,000 families in Chicago.

Reform a system of fines and fees that harms vulnerable communities

COFI’s parent policy goals included reforming the city’s fines and fees system, and their efforts intensified in 2018 after a series of reports highlighted how Chicago was disproportionately selling tickets to predominantly black and Latino or Hispanic neighborhoods, with thousands of black motorists forced to file for bankruptcy due to a parking ticket debt.

COFI Parents with the City of Chicago Clerk during a listening session on fines and fees in South Chicago.
COFI Parents with the City of Chicago Clerk during a listening session on fines and fees in South Chicago.

At that time, COFI published a report highlighting the results of over 300 parent surveys and interviews on the impacts of debt, including parking ticket debt and other fines and fees. COFI parents were able to engage hard-to-reach populations who were often wary of government stakeholders. Attendees expressed feelings of being overwhelmed with ticket debt, sometimes choosing between paying rent and food or paying their parking tickets.

During their research, parents and COFI staff discovered that San Francisco Financial Justice Project The task force model has worked well in implementing the fines and fees reforms. After a series of meetings with Chicago officials, parents and COFI staff were able to convince them to launch a similar model. Along with Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia and others, COFI co-founded the Chicago Fines, Fees and Access Collaboration in December 2018 to assess and reform the city’s fines and fees policies. Members of the collaboration included elected officials, city departments, researchers from local universities, as well as local and national advocacy groups.

COFI parents providing bilingual interpretation during a community listening session on fines and fees
COFI parents providing bilingual interpretation during a community listening session on fines and fees

The Collaboration’s meetings and listening sessions asked elected officials and government staff from various departments to listen to the experiences of directly affected communities and consider them as partners in creating solutions. This involved lowering their defensive positions and challenging assumptions about who is an expert and what constitutes expertise in policy-making spaces.

COFI parents also urged that Chicagoans be included in the policy-making process, especially those in communities most affected by fines and fees. COFI provided bilingual interpreters and childcare were available at community listening sessions so that residents who were traditionally excluded from public meetings, such as working parents or immigrants, could participate.

There were certainly moments of tension during the collaborative meetings. But there were also moments of clarity. COFI parents and Chicago residents described how parking ticket debt led to license suspensions, which hampered their ability to get to work and keep their jobs (which they needed to pay off their debts ). They also shared that town hall staff at payment centers gave them the trick when making payments, demanding larger deposits than originally shown on a parking ticket or sending them to different offices or buildings when they had problems. concerns. COFI parents and Chicago residents said parking ticket instructions were written in lowercase and jargon, while parking signs, administrative documents and guidelines were not available in multiple languages. They described how predatory the whole system was — from the excessive tickets in their predominantly black, Latino, or Hispanic neighborhoods, to the doubling of fines, to the harassment they experienced from third-party debt collectors. More importantly, they made it clear how rarely these policies seem to be designed with their humanity in mind.

After months of work, the project resulted in a collectively developed set of policy recommendations for overhauling the city’s ticketing and debt collection system, some of which adopted mayor. These preliminary reforms included ending driver’s license suspensions for unpaid parking tickets and eliminating the doubling of the $200 fine for drivers who had not purchased a city vignette (a vehicle sticker showing payment of the city wheel tax and one of the biggest contributors to the debt). Other reforms have made payment plans more affordable and accessible, halted �library finesand ended the practice of shutting off the water due to unpaid bills.

As the fight to reform Chicago’s fines and fees keep on goingThis effort to move rigid public finance systems would not have been possible without the leadership, passion and collective action of COFI parents.

The value of making politics personal

By working together, members of the Collaboration have learned the value of listening, collaborating, and focusing on the “people” in policy development. Leaders should build this community engagement into policy making and not treat it as an afterthought. Keeping a finger on the pulse of communities requires regular dialogue. Most importantly, those on the margins of public sector power should be included in the brainstorming, research, development, implementation and evaluation of policies that affect them.

In addition, elected officials and other policy makers in leadership positions need to recognize that they too have agency. Many may see themselves as heirs to inequitable systems that have existed for generations, but few may believe that their current decisions create or exacerbate these inequalities and that they might, in fact, be responsible for injustices through their actions or inaction. These leaders must remember that they are accountable to the people they serve and that people should not have to move political mountains to be heard and appreciated.

Nevertheless, the COFI mothers and grandmothers show us that people on the margins of power can organise, lead and achieve impactful political change. COFI the trains other organizations and leaders across the country in the COFI Way, but we hope that one day COFI parents won’t have to constantly struggle, organize and fight. Our wish is that all systems, decision-makers and people celebrate their dignity, their capacity to act and their humanity.

Until then, the COFI model can help improve transparency and promote accountability in policy-making by allowing low-income and working-class people to engage as co-decision makers and oversee policies. COFI parents also show us the value of rejecting “detachment” and “detachment” from policy-making. Policies can be stronger and more responsive to the needs of marginalized communities when they are developed in collaboration, with care and the community.

Note: Tonantzin Carmona, Brookings Metro fellow and co-author of this article, is a COFI board member.


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