Ameya Pawar on “Race, Class, Geography & Narrative: An (Unlikely) Chicago Alderman’s Perspective”

Ameya Pawar's seminars will be held on Mondays at 12:30 PM. 
Lunch will be provided.
Sign up for office hours here.

All IOP Pritzker Fellows Seminars will be held in the IOP Living Room unless otherwise noted. 
All seminars are students only and closed to press/off the record.


Chicago politics is certain to evoke an immediate image, maybe even a strong feeling.

For some, the image that comes to mind is a smoky room in the back of a bar where political deals get cut and careers are made, sometimes destroyed. This is probably fair as the ‘Chicago Machine’ was, and in some ways still is, real. And while this job has definitely led this alderman to some dark bars (sans the smoke, Chicago banned that ;-), that is only part of the story. 

Others think of iconic skyscrapers, imagine windy gusts blowing away pedestrians, and the Blues Brothers. 

For Chicagoans, though, most think of the City through the history of the mayors and city council; their leadership and the people and politics of the neighborhoods they represented. The hope brought by the first African-American mayor, Harold Washington; the long reign of the Mayors Daley; the first/only female mayor, Jane Byrne; and the first/only Jewish mayor, Rahm Emanuel, former Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama.

Ameya Pawar is currently one of the 50 aldermen that make up the Chicago City Council. As the first Asian American elected to City Council, he is an unlikely one to boot (more on that in seminar!). Ameya is part mini-mayor, part feudal lord, and part legislator. On any given day, he could be involved in meeting with dignitaries from around the country/world on the most pressing issues of our time, or making sure the garbage gets picked up. Usually on the same day.  

With national (and global) politics and rhetoric harnessing people’s most base instincts, governments are being held hostage to ugly politics. There is, however, a distinct area of hope for a more progressive democracy. Major cities have the opportunity to change the trajectory of the nation and troubling global trends as they begin functioning as nation-states. Chicago has the opportunity to lead a national and global dialogue – but to do so, we must reconcile and reckon with our past

Seminar 1 (10/1): Unfunded, Unknown & the First Asian American to Win – Cutting My Teeth in Chicago Politics  | RSVP

When I announced my run for Chicago alderman, most people laughed. Seriously. Some even cautioned me. I was running against a thirty-six-year incumbent with a million-dollar war chest. I was reminded of my negative net worth, that I owned only one suit, and that I was the renter of a garden apartment. All I had was a few dollars, hustle and sweat, and the guidance and endurance of my best friend (later my wife). 

In this seminar, we will discuss what it is like to run for office, what it takes, and how to overcome structural barriers to run a good race.

Seminar 2 (10/8): Hurricane Katrina & Chicago: The Politics of Disaster & the Narrative of Deserving/Undeserving | RSVP

I ran for office after watching politicians and policy-makers like FEMA and Ray Nagin blame poor people for poverty in the direct aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Chicago response to Hurricane Katrina was dramatically different and is often seen as a model for disaster recovery because it took short and long-term needs into account. Chicago addressed affordable housing, mental health, and jobs as part of a holistic recovery. The broken discourse around social welfare policy and the narrative of deserving/undeserving in public policy led me to politics.

In this seminar, we will discuss how disasters can be used to shine a light on pre-existing conditions and lead to progressive solutions.

Seminar 3 (10/5): Running for Governor in the Age of Divide & Rule | RSVP

I was the first candidate to declare for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Illinois. I campaigned on a New Deal for Illinois, a platform based on FDR’s New Deal, touring the state discussing wealth worship and how politicians use race, class, and geography to prevent poor white communities from uniting with poor black and brown communities to force progressive change. 

In this seminar, we will discuss my experience on the campaign trail and my time on the road in a blue state where an overwhelming majority of the state is red. Our candid discussion will touch on the urban-rural divide, the economic anxiety of the white working class, and more. 

Seminar 4 (10/22): Chicago Feudalism: Zoning, Land Use & Affordable Housing | RSVP

In my time as Alderman, the city council has advanced legislation to protect single-room occupancy hotels in Chicago, and I am currently working to complete a new low-income senior affordable housing project in my ward, along with transit-oriented development projects. As the local decider on land-use, I have seen first-hand how zoning policies and a collective fear and misunderstanding of what affordable housing is contribute to a housing crisis in Chicago and beyond. 

In this seminar, we will discuss the linkage between NIMBYs, affordable housing, and a tendency for people to rationalize their misunderstanding of affordable housing into opposition to it. 

Seminar 5 (10/29): School Pressure: Preparing for College in the 3rd Grade | RSVP

When I was knocking on doors in 2011, parents kept bringing up local high schools and selective enrollment high schools. In Chicago, many parents begin to prepare their child for entry into a selective enrollment high school at an early age. All of this in an attempt to eventually secure admission to a highly selective college. The narrative around the selective enrollment system creates intense pressure for kids and parents. After winning in 2011, I launched GROW47 (now non-profit GROWCommunity), one of the City’s first initiatives to link neighborhood public schools to neighborhood high schools. The goal: to push Chicago Public Schools to invest in neighborhood high schools and focus less on constructing new selective enrollment schools. 

In this seminar, we will discuss the work to improve neighborhood high schools and attempt to push a more rational narrative around high schools in general.

Seminar 6 (11/5): Passing Legislation & Politics as a Relational Sport | RSVP

As Alderman, I have led efforts to guarantee paid sick leave to Chicago workers, raise the minimum wage, combat wage theft, and create the nation’s fourth independent budget office. I have had success in passing over a dozen pieces of citywide legislation through persistent advocacy and working to cut deals to move legislation. But passing legislation also requires bringing together coalitions, an area where, at times, I have struggled. 

In this seminar, I will discuss my efforts to pass legislation and offer a candid perspective on some of the intentional and unintentional impacts of pushing for fast change. 

Special Guest: Michael Tubbs, Mayor of Stockton, California

Seminar 7 (11/12): Fighting Poverty in Major Cities: The New Nation States | RSVP

With rapidly increasing income inequality, the coming threat of automation, and the ineffectiveness of state and federal governments, major cities are the only level of government where major progressive policies are able to pass. Large cities are the new nation-states – capable of passing legislation and addressing income inequality in ways state and federal governments cannot. 

In this seminar, we will discuss piloting universal basic income in Chicago, efforts to address automation from a race and class perspective, and the possibility of public banks, social housing, a jobs guarantee, and other policy innovations to help address income inequality and lead a national conversation on the future of work.

Seminar 8 (11/19): The Power of Narrative – Government as a Force for Good vs. Starve the Beast | RSVP

Fox News. Breitbart. Illinois Policy Institute. The genius of these outlets is they play the long game in shaping a narrative about public institutions, who they are, who they are supposed to serve, etc. These news outlets have helped shaped a cynical discourse about government and have successfully used race, class, and geography to prevent unity around issues impacting working people.  

After my campaign for governor ended, I launched One Illinois, a non-profit news outlet to unite Illinoisans across race, class, and geography around issues such as public education investment, infrastructure, childcare, etc. By telling stories about people and communities, One Illinois hopes to bridge the divides and play the long game. It intends to create a new narrative around public institutions being a force for good when people across the spectrum unite with one another around kitchen table issues. 

In this seminar, I will provide a candid insight into what it takes to launch a news startup in an environment where the press is under constant attack, newspapers are closing, and news deserts are targeted by partisan outlets.