Before Ameya Pawar ran for alderman of Chicago’s 47th Ward in 2010, he gave ample thought to the reasons why he should wait. Just 30 years old, Pawar was a novice in politics, and was still a graduate student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.
But his professors’ encouragement — and his concerns about the city’s problems — convinced him that waiting would only delay the work of addressing those ills. With endorsements from the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, Pawar won last November’s election, taking nearly 51 percent of the vote and defeating three other candidates.
To Pawar, the 47th Ward is an example of what a community should be. “If you can understand why you moved here, you can understand why other communities don’t thrive,” said Pawar, (SM,’09) who earned a master’s degree in the Threat and Response Management program of the University’s Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. “We have the Brown Line, which connects housing to parks, libraries, and schools. All of these different resources connect to build a community.”
But after living in the ward for the past five years, Pawar has become concerned about the issues that threaten it and the city as a whole. The most pressing issue, he said, is the exodus of residents leaving Chicago for the suburbs in search of better schools. The U.S. Census reported that about 200,000 people, or 7 percent of the population, left Chicago in the past 10 years. The decline has continued steadily since the 1950s, while suburban cities, like Joliet, Bolingbrook and Aurora have grown by 30 percent or more.
Pawar’s strategy is to build up the 47th Ward’s schools to stabilize the population and stimulate economic development. Some of the key ingredients for this strategy are parental involvement, fundraising and leadership. “If you get all those working simultaneously, you can turn a school around, and it can happen relatively quickly. If we anchor every new project in schools, that will be more effective to drive economic development. More schools equal a high level of well being, and then new businesses come in.”
Many of the solutions Pawar is putting in place are grounded in his education at the University of Chicago. For example, “some of our work and thinking was based on a class with Andrew Velazquez, the regional administrator for FEMA,” Pawar said. In another class, “we got into the inner workings of how the European debt crisis unfolded, then matched that up with the literature.” Studying international and domestic crises has helped Pawar’s team think more globally about addressing local issues.
Some of Pawar’s professors even helped him knock on doors during the campaign and craft his policy stance. His connection to University alumni has been important as well. Charna Epstein, his chief of staff, is a 2005 SSA graduate and a fellow 2009 graduate of the Threat and Response Management program in which she and Pawar met. Jim Poole, who graduated from SSA in 2011, serves as Pawar’s community specialist.
In the future, Pawar hopes to bring his public policy experience back to the University of Chicago, possibly teaching at the undergraduate level. In the meantime, he’d give other students the same advice about running for public office: “Every one will ask you how many campaigns you’ve participated in or what experience you have. Not many will ask if you really just care about the community. My advice is just do it. Don’t wait.”By Kadesha Thomas