The job now: Undoing decades of disinvestment

“I know it seems insurmountable, but taking small steps can begin the process and lead to some concrete changes.”

Like many Black men, Adam Slade had the experience of being stopped by police while out with friends and had a gun aimed at his head.

But he also got needed police protection when he was a student at Northside Prep and was being threatened by a group of white kids.

He spent a year teaching elementary school in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in communities severely crippled by drug use, poverty and violence.

And he’s recently been mourning the loss of his goddaughter’s cousin, Sincere Gaston, a 20-month-old boy who was the victim of a bullet in Englewood.

Slade knows the challenges Chicago faces and he knows their full complexity. He knows of what he speaks, and he speaks about the need to seize the moment his native Chicago now has to bring an equity lens and a budgeting-for-outcomes approach to the city.

Slade, an associate at the Metropolitan Planning Council, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public policy and a master’s in education, and he is working toward a doctorate in public administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “There are some basic things that the city of Chicago can do,” Slade says, “but all cities should do, to make sure they’re spending money fairly.”

“We must fundamentally rethink how services are shaped, how they are budgeted, and how the government delivers services to all residents,” he wrote in an analysis for MPC earlier this summer.

Slade notes there’s a wide range of city spending, with $750 million recently proposed for Invest Southwest, but double that for the two mega-TIF districts in more affluent communities, Lincoln Yards and the 78. And the city could better communicate how it spends its capital budget and how those priorities are measured and evaluated.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched a series of community budget hearings shortly after taking office in her first year, but how many of us know what came out of that? Drilling down further, Slade also wonders, can the city get to a point where the next time someone like Laquan McDonald is in distress, the response comes from mental health professionals?

Now is when city officials need to flip the script, Slade says.

He would meet with community organizations, ask what they need to build safer neighborhoods and then figure out ways to measure progress. That feedback would then inform how money is distributed in those communities and in related departments. And yes, that could mean redirecting some police funding or spending less on some TIFs and funneling it to after-school programs or job creation in struggling neighborhoods.

What conditions would need to occur for the city of Chicago to be safe, Slade asks?

“At its foundation,” he says, “it really is having city officials explaining how services are funded now, and getting feedback from communities now, and adjusting to better reflect that instead of it being an opaque process that lacks transparency.”

New York City and Los Angeles have done some shifting of police funding, Slade notes. The process is time-intensive and emotions run high, but we’ve seen that the old approaches need to shift. Something’s got to give because people who are hurting are demanding better and they deserve better.

Slade says he’s led a relatively privileged life, but he knows from his experiences that change is complicated. “Unpacking decades of disinvestment is the tallest order, and I know it seems insurmountable, but taking small steps can begin the process and lead to some concrete changes.”

He can’t forget the death of 20-month-old Sincere Gaston. “I just don’t want that to be the future for our babies,” Slade says. “They deserve love, protection and the chance to be their complete selves.”

This column was originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business.