Leaders for New Chicago gives $50K grants to 10 who help city areas impacted by structural racism

A 30-year-old dancer who co-founded the Era Footwork Crew, a group that uses “footworking,” a uniquely Chicago-style dance, to bring communities together.

The 40-year-old co-founder of Black Lives Matter’s Chicago chapter, now working with survivors of police brutality at the Chicago Torture Justice Center.

A 26-year-old organizer who shepherded a four-year project by the Invisible Institute to document the torture of more than 100 Black men, making their stories publicly accessible.

These are among the 10 winners of $50,000 each from “Leaders for a New Chicago,” an initiative of the Field Foundation and MacArthur Foundation to support individuals and organizations addressing systemic racism in underserved South and West Side communities.

Launched in 2019, the award — a no-strings-attached $25,000 grant for each winner, plus another $25,000 for their organizations — is a more accessible spin on MacArthur’s lauded “genius grants” awarded annually to nationally known figures boasting lofty achievements.

This third cohort being acknowledged and celebrated are folks diligently working in their individual trenches, some lesser known, others more familiar — including Generation X members and Millennials. All have been dedicated to uplifting hurting communities of color.

“The Leaders for a New Chicago Award continues to find where power lives inside our communities, and provides the support and funding these folks need to dream bigger so they can continue to create change,” said Field Foundation Leadership Investment Program Officer Hilesh Patel. 

“We continue to be inspired by these powerful visionaries,” Patel said.

Brandon “Chief Manny” Calhoun co-founded Era Footwork Crew in 2014, a dance company that now works with inner-city youth. He grew up on the East Side with seven siblings, raised by a single mother who struggled with a disability, so he identifies with those youth.

“I grew up very poor. I got into dance at an early age, from going to the Bud Billiken Parade and seeing the dancing, as well as both my sisters being part of dance groups,” he said.

“I was probably 15 when I discovered footworking, drawn to it because it was more expressive, heavily improvisational and had a competition aspect. Growing up in these areas, it kept us off the street and gave us a creative outlet, which we want for our youth.”

The awards, part of the Field Foundation’s racial justice investments mission, is supported by a $2.1 million MacArthur commitment.

“We are proud to play a part in elevating the voices of individuals who are leaders in their communities and professional fields and to provide them with unrestricted support to keep pursuing their goals and personal growth as they change the landscape of our city,” said MacArthur’s senior program officer for Chicago Commitment, Geoffrey Banks.

Winners include: LaSaia Wade, founder/executive director of Brave Space Alliance; Grace Pai, director of organizing for Asian Americans Advancing Justice/Chicago; Damon Williams, co-director of #LetUsBreathe Collective; Tony Alvarado-Rivera, executive director of Chicago Freedom School; and Aislinn Pulley, co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center.

Pulley has been engaged in racial justice work since high school, founding a nonprofit arts group while attending Lane Tech. 

From there, she moved on to “We Charge Genocide,” a group that testified before the United Nations Committee Against Torture, about use of torture at the Chicago Police Department. The group then successfully worked to pass Chicago’s landmark $5.5 million reparations ordinance to help survivors of that torture.

“I started here on the day after the trial started for Laquan McDonald’s killer, officer Jason Van Dyke,” said Pulley, who has been with the Chicago Torture Justice Center since 2018.

“Our work is centered on trying to free the remaining incarcerated survivors of convicted torturer Jon Burge, and officers who trained under him, while spearheading a new therapeutic clinical modality we call operating through a ‘politicized healing lens.’ ”

Other winners are Malik Gillani, co-executive artistic director of Silk Road Cultural Center; Meida Teresa McNeal, artistic and managing director for Honey Pot Performance; Monica Lynne Haslip, founder and executive director of Little Black Pearl; and Maira Khwaja, director of public strategy at Invisible Institute.

Khwaja came to Chicago for college, and fell in love with its passionate and dedicated community of social justice activists. She has worked at the institute for the past five years.

“I understand that the fight for freedom from police and state violence on the South Side of Chicago and the fight for freedom from military occupation in my homeland of Kashmir is the same struggle,” said Khwaja, managing editor of the recently released Chicago Police Torture Archive. 

“I feel that if you can understand Chicago, you can understand the entire country, because Chicago makes clear some of the worst state violence people in this country experience.”

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