Chicago could soon have its first majority Asian-American ward.
That’s the hope of many community leaders who want to see Chinatown and the surrounding area included in a single ward as part of the city council’s once-a-decade remap process.
“The fact that we don’t even have one Asian American city council member or a single Asian American ward, I think is something that needs to be remedied, (and) there’s a lot of momentum,” said Grace Pai, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “We don’t have anyone representing our community in these conversations that are happening about redistricting. Because current elected officials are the ones who get to make decisions about how the maps are drawn, we don’t have an advocate behind those closed doors.”
Advocates are also calling for Asian American communities in Albany Park, West Ridge, and Uptown to stay together in their respective wards to ensure their voices are heard. Pai says keeping communities whole isn’t just about who lives in what ward.
“It’s hard if you’re advocating for language access at your child’s school and two different aldermen cover that school’s boundary area. It has a real impact on people’s day-to-day lives,” she said.
Kathleen Yang-Clayton, UIC clinical associate professor and research associate with UIC's Great Cities Institute, says greater political representation is also important at a time when Asian Americans are facing a spike in racism and violence.
“Those of us who present as ‘Asian looking’ often are by default considered foreigners, no matter how many generations we’ve been here. … Visible representation is absolutely critical,” Pai said. “At the same time, I think what we as a community and belonging to the larger Chicago community or American democracy can potentially lead the way in is thinking about how our visible representation allows us to speak on issues that cross over all communities.”
And Yang-Clayton says beyond the redistricting process, there are other political reforms that can improve representation for all Chicagoans – things like ranked-choice voting and reducing the number of wards in the city.
“We should think more broadly (about) how everyone is impacted by the lack of transparency, the gaming of these ward boundaries. There are solutions that would benefit the Asian American community as well as other communities,” Yang-Clayton.
In the near term, Pai’s hopeful Asian American representation on the city council will ensure that communities and businesses hard hit by the pandemic will get much-needed support.
“There are a lot of opportunities for government to do better for our communities,” Pai said. “We hope that having an Asian American majority ward can help us make that case on a city-wide level.”