‘I was shocked’: $50,000 each goes to 10 Chicagoans who are making a difference in their communities

Shock, that’s how LaSaia Wade describes finding out about being awarded $50,000 for her leadership skills as founder and executive director of Brave Space Alliance, the Black-led, transgender-staffed LGBTQ center in Hyde Park.

“Someone of my stature, I’m still working, still building, still figuring out what leadership looks like for myself and for people that come up behind me. It’s an every-day growing experience, so I was shocked,” she said.

Wade is one of 10 recipients of the Field Foundation’s Leaders for a New Chicago award, announced Tuesday by the foundation, in partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The awards are part of Field’s ongoing investment in racial justice visionaries and organizations addressing systemic bias in Chicago’s marginalized communities. The MacArthur Foundation committed $2.1 million for the awards that recognize and support diverse leaders from communities affected by Chicago’s history of structural racism, discrimination and disinvestment.

The $50,000 award is divided in half — $25,000 for the recipient’s personal use and $25,000 for the affiliated organization’s general operations. Wade’s work through Brave Space Alliance, which provides community services such as a food crisis pantry, support groups, an LGBTQ and BIPOC-centered job board and HIV testing, aims to amplify the voices of transgender people of color in Chicago and to build their decision-making at micro and macro levels.

“I appreciate the award. It allows me to catch up on my bills and take my family out. But it also means I have to come back to work even harder,” Wade said. “The work isn’t done.”

And work is what so many community leaders have been doing since 2020. Given the stress the pandemic has put on already marginalized communities in the city, in addition to the racial reckoning following George Floyd’s death, leaders have been called on to do more for those in their communities.

Hilesh Patel, the Field Foundation Leadership Investment Program officer, said that’s why choosing this year’s cohort of leaders was especially hard.

“It was significantly harder this year because people saw leaders get pushed to the forefront with the pandemic and the uprising. ... Those two things pushed them further in ways that they didn’t expect, and then they responded with everything they needed to,” he said.

“Ten were chosen,” he said, “but it was a hard-fought battle to get to that point. At some point, one member of the selection committee said, ‘Instead of saying no, we need to say ‘not now.’”

Grace Pai, director of organizing at Asian Americans Advancing Justice/Chicago, is a part of 2021′s cohort. She was shocked, as well, to learn she was chosen. Pai’s community organizing work in advancing racial, economic, social and environmental justice led to her nomination. Pai helped get the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act (TEAACH) passed, which mandates that Asian American history be taught in all Illinois public schools.

The state law will go into effect in fall 2022, Pai said. The award money will be used for implementation — outreach to school districts, teacher training and engagement — to make sure that when Asian American history becomes required, teachers are prepared to teach it well.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in anti-Asian racism and sentiment over the last year, so we see this TEAACH campaign as one way of fighting for a long-term solution and not just responding to the violence after it’s happened,” Pai said. “I’m incredibly grateful that the foundations are investing in the cohort of leaders in this way.”

The other 2021 Leaders for a New Chicago cohort (whose work aligns with Field’s grant-making areas of justice, media and storytelling, and art) include:

  • Damon A. Williams, co-director of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, a movement builder, organizer, artist and educator who has organized a mass effort to redistribute police funding toward health-facing services in the city.
  • Tony Alvarado-Rivera, executive director of the Chicago Freedom School, an educational space in Chicago dedicated to youth activism, leadership and movement building. Last year, on the evening of May 30, during the George Floyd protests, Chicago Freedom School opened its doors in the South Loop to young protesters. Police entered the building and issued a cease-and-desist order threatening fines and arrests. The school has sued the city, saying constitutional rights to free speech and freedom from “unreasonable illegal search” were violated.
  • Aislinn Pulley, co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, whose mission is to help survivors of police violence heal. The practice is survivor-led and built on shared power. She’s also a founding member of Black Lives Matter’s Chicago chapter.
  • Brandon “Chief Manny” Calhoun, co-founder of the Era Footwork Crew, who uses dance and footwork to connect communities across the city, while simultaneously bringing attention to the South and West sides of Chicago. Chicago footwork is a style of music and battle dance that’s been in the city since the late 1990s.
  • Malik Gillani, co-executive artistic director of Silk Road Cultural Center, which challenges misperceptions and inequities in traditional theater practices by countering negative images and stereotypes of Middle Eastern and Muslim people with representations grounded in authentic, multifaceted human experiences.
  • Meida Teresa McNeal, artistic and managing director of Honey Pot Performance, which supports the development of new works by artists of color. McNeal helped launch the Chicago Black Social Culture Map that documents Black social life through live programs, a digital map and archival events.
  • Monica Lynne Haslip, founder and executive director of Little Black Pearl, an arts and culture institution designed to create positive vehicles for children and families to thrive. Her philosophy and art practice are anchored in racial equity and the intersection of art, education and community development.
  • Maira Khwaja, director of public strategy at the Invisible Institute. Since joining the organization in 2015, Khwaja has worked in the areas of civic education and sustained listening, and has facilitated citywide public dialogues to eradicate police misconduct.

Patel said the awards are a way for the Field Foundation to say to the chosen community leaders: “We see you.”

“We recognize the work that you’re doing, and this is a way to hopefully give you some breathing room,” he said. “And I think that’s what the $25,000 individual awards were designed to do.”

“Not only do we see you,” he said, “but if this is, in any way, an ability or a conduit for you to take care of yourselves and for you to rest and take a vacation, then that would be great.”

“I think a lot of community organizers’ work goes unrecognized,” Pai said. “It’s something that we do not do for the recognition, but because fighting for racial justice and racial equity is critically important work, it impacts all of us every day.”

“Especially this year,” she said, “in light of the violence that we’ve seen — both police violence and state violence in the Black community and this harassment and sometimes physical violence against the Asian American community — I think it’s made a lot of these issues hit really close to home for a lot of people. I’m just really appreciative for the recognition.”

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