Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled on Thursday what is, to date, her most comprehensive framework for how the city will approach legacy racial disparities revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Forward Together,” a 104-page report, is intended to force the city to address what it calls “new and old traumas” related to decades of income inequality that have now become baked into the character of the city and remains, according to Lightfoot and the task force she assembled, catalysts for the city’s current struggles with violence, healthcare, education, food insecurity, and more, and that are endemic largely in Black and Latino neighborhoods.
“While our strengths of these past few months have shown through, our vulnerabilities born of generational inequality and systemic racism have flashed like a neon sign,” she said at the South Shore Cultural Center. “We knew we had to act both in the short term and the long term and we had to do so holistically. Not just to address the economic impact … but to recognize the social and mental health impacts as well. We can’t move forward unless we think about how we can heal our region.”
The report guides readers through phased rollouts of plans through 2023. It intends to make Chicago “the most advanced healing-centered region in the country” by increasing access to mental and emotional health resources to marginalized communities and by creating an expanded workforce of mental health workers. Chicago’s public health department will shift to revamping its services to be “trauma-informed,” public schools will receive a staff of mental health specialists, and the city will pilot new approaches in policy and infrastructure to improve mental health outcomes. The report also recommends the creation of a multilingual phone line, 211, where residents can access social services.
The approach counters the approach that previous administrations have made toward mental health. In 2012, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics, a cost-cutting decision that hounded him during his second term, especially after the Chicago Tribune found the city could not track what happened to the patients who were receiving treatment before the closures.
Lightfoot’s plan also calls for a doubling down on core industries, specifically transportation, distribution and logistics, the life sciences and healthcare, and agribusiness. Regarding agribusiness, the plan calls for making Chicago the capital of food manufacturing and ag-tech — a continuation of the city’s legacy as a meat producer and processor but in a modern realm. Through public-private partnerships and agreements with labor unions, the city wants to create a worker pipeline into those industries through a training programs, education support and ultimately, jobs.
“We need to create good paying jobs,” she said. “We need to make sure that Black and brown young men recognize their life’s journey does not have to end at a corner that it can and must end college or in a career.”
Like previous mayors, Lightfoot is turning to Hollywood. She wants to attract more major Hollywood studios to create studios in Chicago in areas where the city has large swaths of land and warehouse infrastructure, as there is currently a lack of studio space in California and in New York City. “Law and Order” creator and producer Dick Wolf, who produces many of his shows here, will be involved in leading that effort. The city’s Department of Planning and Development and local real estate brokers will be involved in identifying sites.
Finally, the report calls for rebranding Chicago from “The Windy City” and “The Second City” to a new identity that focuses on change and a break from the past.
A response to the pandemic
Lightfoot and recovery task force co-chair Sam Skinner, a former White House Chief of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, said that goals are ambitious because the stakes are high: The Covid-19 pandemic revealed harsh disparities among Black and Latino Chicagoans.
As of late June, they accounted for between a third and half of all positive cases and deaths. Yet accessible and affordable healthcare remains a struggle. Less than 10 percent of the city’s population lacks health insurance, and Latinos represent the highest rate of the uninsured at nearly 18 percent. Treatment for mental illness is minimal.
A task force of 200 industry experts, regional government leaders, community leaders, and policymakers were involved in creating the report. The process started in April.
Skinner, a Chicago native, called the process “a labor of love” and “an opportunity of a lifetime.”
“This is one of the key seminal times in the history of the city. This report gives us a battle plan … She will not let this sit on the shelf,” he said of Lightfoot.