Black Bench Chicago graduates first group of young Black leaders in public affairs. Creators hope it’s the start of an emerging, ongoing talent pipeline.

·4 min read

When then-labor organizer Anthony Driver spoke in February about Black Bench Chicago — whose purpose is to educate participants on legislative processes, special interests, the history of Black organizing in Chicago, campaigns and budgets, among other topics — he was excited to find a vehicle that would help him bridge the gap between the best and worst the city has to offer. His goal: to take the new knowledge and use it to better the Black community.

It was the reason he looked forward to being a part of the first cohort. On Sunday, Driver, along with 30 others, graduated from the program. He said the program helped bridge a number of different gaps.

“This is the only program I know that exists to create a pipeline of people to replace the leaders of today and yesterday where the sole focus is advancing Black people; it’s simply preparing you to lead,” Driver said. “I think many times in Chicago, loud voices try to paint Black people in a binary way, when in reality, there’s a lot of nuance and complexity of Black life — I saw that reflected in the Black Bench. It was a group of people that span the political spectrum. Yet, we all have one goal, which is to see Black people in the city of Chicago succeed and thrive.”

The brainchild of Alexandra Sims, president and founder of APS & Associates, community organizer Ronnie Mosley and Jonathan Swain, a Chicago Board of Elections commissioner and president of the mentorship nonprofit LINK Unlimited Scholars, the nonpartisan Black Bench was created to build a pipeline of Black leadership through monthslong teaching, passing knowledge from the old guard of Black politicos to the new. Cohort fellows ranged from activists to radio personalities to law partners to nonprofit leaders. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and activist Jacquelyne Grimshaw served as program chairs and Andy Zopp, Michael Strautmanis, Larry Luster and Melody Spann-Cooper sit on the advisory board, among others. Experts led monthly discussions over Zoom with participants in a collaborative format.

According to Driver, everything from media (learning how editorial boards work) to electoral organizing to labor history was discussed, blending the past with the present and showing how fights that started 40 or 50 years ago are still continuing today.

“We had folks from a range of different professions help us to contextualize and understand where exactly we fall in this fight for Black people in the city of Chicago,” Driver said. “As we were engaging in these different sessions, different things would come up. Once we voiced a concern, the coordinators pulled folks together and gave us an opportunity to engage with them directly for an hour or two that was completely unscripted. We would call them deep dives.”

Kyra Woods, a clean energy policy advocate, said she was grateful for the diversity of thought and the knowledge and relationships from Black Bench allowed her the opportunity to better understand the city’s political and civic landscape to be a more effective advocate.

“There’s something really powerful about the opportunity to learn together, to problem-solve together and to ask potent questions together. Even if we don’t actually come with hard solutions, Black Bench provided a space for us to do that as a set of young leaders,” she said. “This is us coming together as young leaders saying, ‘this is where I’m at, this is how I got here, and as we envision a stronger, more just Chicago, this is how we can build that together.’”

Sims said Black Bench is about the importance of having more people of color at the table.

“There are too few of us in these rooms and having each other to lean on will be crucial for our success,” she said. “I am hoping that our generation finds a way to talk about what is uncomfortable. We cannot fix the inequities until we directly confront institutional racism — this group is ready to push programming in their individual prospective fields with that lens in mind.”

Michelle Jenkins, deputy chief of intergovernmental affairs at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, said the Black Bench experience provided a safe space to have intimate conversations with people one normally wouldn’t, and to attack different issues from a holistic standpoint. She’d recommend Black Bench Chicago for others willing to apply.

“It’s good for anybody who is interested in learning more about Chicago’s political field, who’s currently in the midst of leading some organization and could use that extra support of a network,” she said. “The great thing about having a bunch of leaders from a bunch of different fields, is we’re both learning across as well as learning up.”

“There’s so much to unpack in our history as Black Chicago and understanding that Black political history,” Woods said. “Keep an eye out for those of us in the program, and for those who are curious and interested in doing that learning with one another, and honestly being ready to roll up your sleeves and ask the tough questions.”