If you know Revolution Workshop, you know we’re not an organization that sits on the sidelines. When we see racist systems and policies oppressing our trainees, our graduates, and the communities we work alongside, we step up.
Our mission is clear—that we train people from our communities who need an opportunity to enter into the trades. But it’s our vision—to achieve social and economic equity for ALL—that drives the advocacy work our Executive Director, Manny Rodriguez, has been leading behind the scenes.
“We can’t truly achieve our vision of equity if we don’t take action.”
Getting the wins
Revolution’s foray into advocacy work all started with the need for our trainees and graduates to have a driver’s license. “It’s great to have a car in our sector, but at the bare minimum, you need a license. And that was the issue.” Most pre-apprenticeship construction programs require a license to even participate in their training. “We took a different view on this,” said Manny. “We felt that, as a pre-apprenticeship program, it was our responsibility to help trainees eliminate barriers like this.” To date, RW has helped 35% of trainees get or reinstate their driver’s license. “That tells you how big the need is in our community. It was very clear to us that there was just so much wrong with our existing policies and that this was just another system in which we were holding down people in poverty.” And so we stepped up to join the Chicago Jobs Council’s Transit Table Coalition--a group of social service providers, advocates, and other stakeholders working to eliminate transportation barriers that keep people out of work and in poverty.
The Coalition’s first major win was the License to Work Act in July of 2019, through which the state elected to stop suspending licenses due to unpaid parking tickets. “How is someone supposed to pay a ticket if the state takes away the very mechanism they need to get to work and make money? The money they need to pay that ticket?”
RW and the Transit Table team kept pushing, by sending letters to state leadership, picking up their phones, and drafting policy recommendations. And the wins kept coming. In January of this year, the Black Caucus of the Illinois State Legislature passed a sweeping omnibus bill that continued Illinois’ progressive path towards equity. Included was the capping of predatory lending at a rate of 36%, the ending of cash bond, and a critically important expansion of the License to Work Act—removing more fees from the list of reasons why someone might have their license suspended.
On July 1, more than 100,000 Illinoisans will be able to reinstate their driver’s license—a major milestone for working adults across the state.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery brought about another moment in RW’s advocacy efforts in 2020. “We were approached by our friends at the People’s Lobby about participating in the Budget for Black Lives,” noted Manny. Nearly 75% of RW’s trainees are Black individuals from Chicago’s west and south side, so RW joined the conversation. “We were seeing the Sheriff’s Department budget increase despite their jail population decreasing by 50%.” This didn’t sit well with the group. And through negotiations, with the support of city leaders like Commissioner Brandon Johnson, the county reallocated resources to provide more funding to efforts like the Justice Advisory Council, mental health services, community health, and violence prevention. “We need more of these services to help turn our neighborhoods around,” said Manny.
Barriers in our Black and Brown Communities
Earlier this year, members of the Transit Table—including Manny—were invited to sit on a fines, fees, and access collaborative, which is a joint community, city, county, and state working group focused on the excessive fees that make up 10% of Chicago’s budget. “The budget in our city is heavily reliant on fines and fees, which disproportionately affect our Black and Brown communities—communities that are living at or below the poverty line.”
The group set to work pushing the city to view these fees as a deterrent versus yet another revenue stream. Startling facts began to arise as they dug into the data. “Cops issue tickets in Chicago, and our Black and Brown communities are heavily policed. So we were finding that the top 10 zip codes where license suspensions were happening were all communities of color—nine Black and one Latinx.” It was clear to the group that the city was making up budget shortfalls on the backs of it’s citizens of color. “It's our responsibility to convey the very real human elements of this problem to our colleagues in city government, because what they’re doing is just not fair. It’s not helpful. And it’s hurting thousands and thousands of people by pushing them further into debt.”
Diversifying the sector
RW’s next field of play is Chicago’s Project Labor Agreement. Very few residents are aware that, for any city construction project valued at over $25,000, union contractors must be engaged. “We support the formation of a PLA, we support prevailing wages. What we will not support is a blanket monopoly on the work when there’s no visible benefit to our communities.” The current PLA is devoid of equity and hiring goals for people of color and women—minority groups often pushed out by the trades unions.
And now we have a culmination of events—the pandemic, the racial reckoning and civil uprising, and the infrastructure bills coming down the pike—that have put us on the precipice of change and opportunity. “We have billions of dollars in infrastructure money that’s coming to the city. The time is now to change the face of construction in Chicago so that it’s more diverse and more equitable.”
Along with Chicago Women in Trades and a handful of progressive union contractors, Manny and the RW team have put together a comprehensive list of recommendations that speak to diversity and inclusion and equity in an effort to make sure people of color are represented in the field. “I am cautiously optimistic that, with the backing of prominent employers and supporters of RW, we will make progress.”
Why we advocate
“Advocacy work gives voice to our underserved communities, to the people we serve,” Manny said. “It’s making sure that our processes and our procedures and our laws are equitable and fair. Without this, no one we serve is going to achieve financial prosperity. And that’s unacceptable. So that’s why we fight.”
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