American Planning Association “People Behind the Plans” Podcast 11/14/2019


Originally published by the American Planning Association 11/14/2019

Certain concepts in the planning sphere can be hard to make tangible for residents, but property taxes is not one of them. Kelwin Harris knows this reality well. As the director of outreach and engagement for the Office of the Cook County Assessor — which is responsible for valuing 1.8 million properties for tax purposes in and around Chicago — he and his team have been eagerly getting out the word that the the office, with all its political baggage, is changing. It’s committed to transparency and efficiency, including seeking better, more accurate data through SB1379, or the Data Modernization Bill, which would eventually reduce the backlog of appeals currently burdening the system.

Before he went to work for the Office of the Assessor, Kelwin worked in various capacities at the city and regional levels and in grassroots neighborhood economic development. He is a former senior outreach planner for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), and prior to CMAP, he worked on Chicago’s South Side in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood as director of social services with St. Sabina Church and Catholic Charities. He held numerous roles in this community, directing programs and interventions to improve job skills, address food insecurity, combat violence, expose youth to colleges, and provide financial assistance for thousands of residents. He even served the City of Chicago as assistant to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and acting chief of human infrastructure. Many lessons he learned in his previous roles and through his previous experiences make their way into his conversation with podcast host Courtney Kashima, AICP: how communities get the development they actually want, why the South Side of Chicago is far more multifaceted than its media portrayal, and how the Wu-Tang Clan helped a young Kelwin plug in to the world beyond his window.Continue reading “American Planning Association “People Behind the Plans” Podcast 11/14/2019″

What Does Inclusive Growth Mean in the Chicago Region – an RSA US Panel Discussion at North Park University


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Chicago Fellows from The RSA recently hosted a panel discussion at North Park University in Chicago. The panel was moderated by RSA Fellow, Kelwin Harris, a Senior Outreach Planner with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) and included the Provost of North Park University, Dr. Michael Emerson, along with community psychologist, Dr. Tiffany McDowell and sociologist and gentrification expert, Dr. John Joe Schlichtman.

The purpose of the discussion was addressing inequality and inclusive growth in Chicago in the backdrop of the city’s recent election of the first female black mayor. The Chicago region faces serious threats. Growth in uneven. Downtown is booming while many neighborhoods are struggling. Many black residents are giving up altogether and leaving. More than ever Chicago must address challenges to inclusive growth and provide strategies for prosperity for the good of everyone.

Our panel discussed multiple facets of the issues, from systemic policies that produced inequality and racial segregation, to gentrification and the effectiveness of economic incentives. Panelists also offered strategies and interventions to point the way forward.Continue reading “What Does Inclusive Growth Mean in the Chicago Region – an RSA US Panel Discussion at North Park University”

Sacred Ground: Venerable Man – Timuel Black, Elder Statesman of Black Chicago

I recently had the privilege of hearing one of Chicago’s eldest and most important oral historians of our time, Dr. Timuel Black, speak about his life and new book, Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black. The book is part memoir, part lovingly written tribute to the “Black Belt” of the south side of Chicago, now considered “Bronzeville”, where blacks were forced to concentrate when they came from southern towns in the early 20th century. Dr. Black sees it his responsibility to transfer the stories from his lived experiences to the next generation. He does so with keen wit and wisdom.

At 100 years old, Dr. Black has seen a lot. Having come from Birmingham, Alabama with his family when he was less than a year old, he has witnessed firsthand a century of Chicago history. Dr. Black’s sacred ground cultivated many great Americans like Nat King Cole (a classmate of his), Harold Washington (who he organized massive voter turn-out for), Carol Moseley Braun (who he helped get elected), Carter G. Woodson (who he witnessed create Black History Week – now Month), and Lorraine Hansberry (whose family solicited him for grocery runs).Continue reading “Sacred Ground: Venerable Man – Timuel Black, Elder Statesman of Black Chicago”

Robbins, Illinois – A Story of Environmental Injustice and Resilience

Robbins’ origin story is one of a small village with a big history. It’s the oldest primarily African-American suburb in the Chicago region and one of only a few in the nation. Having recently celebrated its centennial, the village reflects the pioneering spirit of its early settlers who incorporated it in 1917 to be an independent and self-sustaining African-American enclave buttressed from forced segregation and discrimination in big cities.

Robbins was started with the ethos of black self-determination rooted in the philosophies of black leaders like Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey who promoted self-reliance, black empowerment, collective work and responsibility at the turn of the last century. Robbins was founded by former slaves and descendants thereof during the period of “reconstruction” when blacks were emerging from rural poverty and legally enforced Jim Crow segregation to establish their identity in northern cities. Archetypal founding residents during this period have been described as “strivers” because of their dogged determination, tenacious perseverance, and will to prevail against daunting odds.[1]Continue reading “Robbins, Illinois – A Story of Environmental Injustice and Resilience”

Vilified Sister Cities: Chicago, Mexico City and The Case for Citizen Diplomacy

The following was written after participating in the US-Mexico Leaders Initiative with the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Mexico City.

Much has been written about subnational and local diplomacy as a foreign policy strategy and antidote to populist xenophobic rhetoric. Urbanists and mayors from Bruce Katz to Mike Bloomberg have sounded the clarion trumpet that we no longer have to wait for our federal governments; we can build allies ourselves. This is especially true for the US and Mexico. As John Creamer, the Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy Mexico City shared with me recently, citizen diplomacy is the glue that holds the bilateral relationship together even when the national government throws it away. Around the globe, government and business-leaders, lawmakers and entrepreneurs, academics and community organizers are replacing national actors in areas where federal responsibility has been abdicated. Examples include Mayor Bloomberg’s American Cities Initiative which organizes city leaders for local advocacy in Washington. C40 cities also organizes mayors around adhering to the goals of the Paris Agreement, even if their national governments dismiss it. C40’s slogan, “Cities Will Shape our Future” is a bold assertion as to the preeminence of the local role.Continue reading “Vilified Sister Cities: Chicago, Mexico City and The Case for Citizen Diplomacy”

How European cities address racial equity, statues, and the politics of choosing to not forget - a memoir

During my recent Marshall Memorial Fellowship with The German Marshall Fund of the United States, I had the opportunity to learn how European cities solve similar challenges we face in Chicago in the context of the transatlantic relationship and our shared national interests. The German Marshall Fund was founded in 1972 as a non-partisan, non-profit organization by a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to the assistance of the Marshall Plan, which provided economic assistance to rebuild western Europe after World War II. The German Marshall Fund created the Marshall Memorial Fellowship in 1982 to introduce emerging leaders from both sides of the Atlantic to relevant policy issues. The fellowship involved six months of preparation through readings, conference calls, and twenty four days of travel to Washington D.C., Brussels, London, Barcelona, Bucharest and Berlin.

Each city we visited had a local coordinator who plotted our itinerary and navigated us through meetings and site visits. Scheduled programming was punctuated with a few hours allotted for personalized meetings with professionals of our choosing. I found many common themes that were persistent throughout my journey as each city struggled to live out its own interpretation of freedom and democracy in the context of their unique national identities. The following is a summary of observations, reflections and conversations that may be useful for leadership, planning and policy in the Chicago region.Continue reading “How European cities address racial equity, statues, and the politics of choosing to not forget - a memoir”

My “South Side”: Reflections on Natalie Moore’s memoir and the nearby neighborhood I grew up in.

I recently read Natalie Moore’s The South Side and found some striking similarities in our upbringing and experiences.  I grew up in Chicago in between St. Leo High School and St. Sabina in Auburn-Gresham: a virtually all-black neighborhood on the South side of Chicago – about three miles west of where Natalie Moore lived in Chatham.  We actually grew up in the same era – the late eighties and nineties.  My parents moved to Auburn Gresham after having lived on the West side of Chicago in the 1950s. They migrated from a small town in Arkansas called Cotton Plant (named after its lucrative cash crop). They were one of the more than 5 million African-Americans who moved from the South to northern cities between the 1940s and 1960s.  Like most Black families that moved North, they sought good jobs, an improved education for their children and an overall better quality-of-life.  For many southern-born African-Americans of their time; the North was a symbol of freedom, hope and escape from Jim Crow oppression.  It was also a means to add a new chapter to a narrative that had been tied to the land.Continue reading “My “South Side”: Reflections on Natalie Moore’s memoir and the nearby neighborhood I grew up in.”