AFT's Randi Weingarten welcomes Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson to the Netroots Nation stage (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)
AFT's Randi Weingarten welcomes Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson to the Netroots Nation stage (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Hel­lo again from Chicago!

The first day of Net­roots Nation 2023 is draw­ing to a close. Fol­low­ing the adjourn­ment of today’s break­out ses­sions, atten­dees gath­ered in the Hilton’s large and ornate Inter­na­tion­al Ball­room for the open­ing keynote to hear from speak­ers like Chica­go May­or Bran­don John­son, Illi­nois State Sen­a­tor Robert Peters, AFT Pres­i­dent Ran­di Wein­garten, Cook Coun­ty Pub­lic Defend­er Sharone Mitchell, Jr., Chica­go orga­niz­er Emma Tai, and the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Party’s Mau­rice Mitchell. 

Mitchell led off the pro­gram, telling the crowd that his appear­ance felt like a home­com­ing, because he had just begun lead­ing the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty the last time he spoke at the con­fer­ence. Mitchell exhort­ed atten­dees to remem­ber the why, a refrain that has been uttered through­out the day at pan­els and train­ings. He observed that we’re liv­ing in a time when destruc­tive forces are mount­ing an all-out attack on democ­ra­cy, human rights, and freedom.

The stakes of our work are, con­se­quent­ly, as high as they could be. Mil­lions of Amer­i­cans are count­ing on the pro­gres­sive move­ment to be suc­cess­ful to have a chance at liv­ing freely and safe­ly. The promise of life, lib­er­ty, and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness can’t be real­ized unless we defeat the evil of neofascism.

Mitchell was fol­lowed by Cook Coun­ty Pub­lic Defend­er Sharone Mitchell, Jr., a promi­nent fig­ure in the fight for crim­i­nal jus­tice reform.

Rec­og­niz­ing the inequities and injus­tices per­pet­u­at­ed by the cash bail sys­tem, Mitchell has been a staunch advo­cate for its abo­li­tion. Through his tire­less efforts, Mitchell has worked to dis­man­tle the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry prac­tice of cash bail that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affects low-income indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties of color.

Mitchell Jr. has cham­pi­oned alter­na­tives, such as pre­tri­al ser­vices and risk assess­ment tools, to ensure fair­ness and equal treat­ment under the law. His laud­able com­mit­ment to end­ing cash bail has made him a lead­ing voice for trans­for­ma­tive change in the crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

Atten­dees were then treat­ed to a mul­ti-part Jus­tUs per­for­mance from Motus The­ater’s DA Tour. Trail­blaz­ing Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney Kim Foxx joined Colette Payne, Jus­tUs’ monolo­gist & Direc­tor at Women’s Jus­tice Insti­tute Recla­ma­tion Project, to read a mono­logue cre­at­ed by Payne about the hurt­ful impact of the crim­i­nal legal sys­tem on her and her fam­i­ly. Stand­ing side by side, they shared Payne’s riv­et­ing sto­ry with the Net­roots Nation audience.

After the read­ing, the ReMINDers, a dynam­ic musi­cal duo, took to the stage to trans­form Payne’s sto­ry into music. NPR Music’s Live Ses­sions archive poet­i­cal­ly describes the pair, con­sist­ing of emcee Big Samir and Queens-born emcee/vocalist Aja Black, as “a rare and remark­able musi­cal duo seam­less­ly blend­ing soul­ful sounds and roots music with insight­ful mes­sages and thought­ful lyrics.”

It is hard to put into words how enchant­i­ng the per­for­mance was — it real­ly must be seen and heard to be ful­ly appre­ci­at­ed. It was a beau­ti­ful, mov­ing response to Payne’s mono­logue, and it brought the audi­ence to their feet.

The ReMINDers perform at Netroots Nation 2023
The acclaimed musi­cal duo The ReMINDers per­form at Net­roots Nation 2023 (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

The Jus­tUs project, now four years old, “was devel­oped by Motus The­ater in 2019 and pre­miered as a keynote at the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Com­mu­ni­ty and Restora­tive Jus­tice Con­fer­ence in front of 1,600 stake­hold­ers,” Net­roots Nation says. “Since then, Jus­tUs mono­logues have served as keynotes for eleven nation­al and inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences and have been read by law enforce­ment, dis­trict attor­neys, DOC staff, and leg­is­la­tors. Motus Theater’s mis­sion is to cre­ate orig­i­nal the­ater to facil­i­tate dia­logue on crit­i­cal issues of our time.”

The Jus­tUs mono­logues are some­thing you tru­ly don’t see every day: for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple shar­ing their sto­ries on stage along­side dis­trict attor­neys. The goal is to “inspire thought­ful dia­logue on the impact the crim­i­nal legal sys­tem has on our coun­try.” You can’t not be moved by watch­ing one of these per­for­mances. Peo­ple who don’t appre­ci­ate the harm caused by sys­temic racism and dis­crim­i­na­to­ry sys­tems real­ly ought to hear the sto­ries of peo­ple like Colette.

Illi­nois State Sen­a­tor Robert Peters spoke next.

Peters, a ded­i­cat­ed advo­cate for social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice, referred repeat­ed­ly to his home state as “fly­over coun­try” to dri­ve home the point that what hap­pens in the Mid­west often does­n’t receive the atten­tion of goings-on at the coasts.

With a focus on uplift­ing mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, Peters has been instru­men­tal in push­ing for pro­gres­sive poli­cies and reforms. He has active­ly worked to address issues such as crim­i­nal jus­tice reform, afford­able hous­ing, health­care access, and edu­ca­tion­al equi­ty. Like Mitchell Jr., he has been vocal in call­ing for an end to cash bail in Illi­nois, rec­og­niz­ing its dis­pro­por­tion­ate impact on low-income indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. He tout­ed that work in his remarks.

Orga­niz­er Emma Tai fol­lowed Peters. She recount­ed the days when Rahm Emanuel was in the may­or’s office and under­min­ing the city’s pub­lic schools.

“We strug­gled for jus­tice and for the pub­lic good at a time when aus­ter­i­ty and pri­va­ti­za­tion ruled the day,” Tai told the con­ven­tion. “Erect­ing a polit­i­cal alter­na­tive. Means we use every tool in our tool set strikes and occu­pa­tions, nego­ti­at­ing for leg­isla­tive con­ces­sions when we can get them intro­duc­ing leg­is­la­tion that we know won’t pass because we need an alternative.”

Ran­di Wein­garten, the long­time Pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, then took to the stage to intro­duce new Chica­go May­or Bran­don John­son, who recent­ly suc­ceed­ed his embat­tled pre­de­ces­sor Lori Light­foot. Wein­garten denounced the right wing’s war on pub­lic edu­ca­tion, decry­ing efforts in places like Flori­da by ultra MAGA Repub­li­cans like Ron DeSan­tis to impose a regime of fear, cen­sor­ship, dis­crim­i­na­tion, and absurd restric­tions on what teach­ers can teach.

“Extrem­ists try to divide Amer­i­cans,” said Wein­garten. “They know pub­lic schools are try­ing to unite us. They wage cul­ture wars in schools, even though par­ents know that we have our kids’ best inter­ests at heart, not some oth­er bizarro agen­da that I don’t even under­stand what they’re talk­ing about.”

“What do we do? We present facts. We help young peo­ple learn how to think, to dis­cern fact from fic­tion, to be curi­ous to lean into their poten­tial and their pas­sion. We try to address learn­ing loss and the dis­con­nec­tion and alien­ation peo­ple still feel. And because of that, that’s why nine­ty per­cent of par­ents send their kids to pub­lic schools, and that’s why a large major­i­ty of par­ents want to see schools strength­ened… but, as the extrem­ists con­tin­ue this to unleash this vit­ri­ol, you’ll notice they don’t offer one sin­gle idea as to how to strength­en pub­lic schools because they don’t wan­na improve pub­lic schools.”

“They wan­na end pub­lic schools. And they’re not shy about telling us.”

“I often say our job is to be activists, aspi­ra­tion agents, hope bringers,” Wein­garten said a lit­tle lat­er. “Our job is to help lift all to make the mid­dle class cool again. To ensure that every­one gets to their God-giv­en poten­tial. But per­haps there’s no bet­ter exam­ple of the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of that than our next speak­er, Chica­go May­or — I love say­ing that! — Chica­go May­or Bran­don Johnson.”

John­son’s recent vic­to­ry in the 2023 Chica­go may­oral race was a big moment for the pro­gres­sive move­ment in Amer­i­ca. Chica­go may be a heav­i­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic city, but that does­n’t mean it has had the ben­e­fit of authen­tic pro­gres­sive lead­er­ship. John­son, a for­mer teacher, was not con­sid­ered by pun­dits or the media to be the like­ly vic­tor. But he ran a com­pelling cam­paign, orga­nized effec­tive­ly, and secured the sup­port need­ed to win in a local elec­tion year with low­er turnout.

John­son demon­strat­ed in his remarks why he was able to con­nect with vot­ers, mix­ing jokes with pas­sion­ate calls to action and engag­ing the audience.

“Isn’t it great to be in the great­est freak­ing city in the entire world, the city of Chica­go?” John­son said. “I have to tell you, though… being here today, you know, reminds me of, of why we do this work. And, quite frankly, this is home. To be in a room full of indi­vid­u­als who love peo­ple, who are will­ing to invest your time in orga­niz­ing to make sure that we do every­thing in our pow­er to bring peo­ple up out of pover­ty, and to ensure that those of us who are part of the work­ing class have a real shot at the dream that our ances­tors could only imagine.”

“Now, I have to be hon­est with you all. I know some of you are not used to see­ing me in a suit. I’ve always been this cute though, make no mis­take about it. Just did­n’t always have to dress up as much — not used to hav­ing armed guards sur­round me and take me from place to place. And, quite frankly, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to that, because one of the most impor­tant deci­sions I’ve ever made in my life was becom­ing a Chica­go pub­lic school teacher teach­ing sev­enth and eighth graders, and it taught me an awful lot about what’s pos­si­ble when we actu­al­ly spend time help­ing young peo­ple see and know their value.”

John­son devot­ed a sig­nif­i­cant amount of his speech to reflect­ing on his remark­able cam­paign vic­to­ry. He got in a good dig at Rupert Mur­doch’s FNC and got the audi­ence cheer­ing as he called for greater equi­ty and broad prosperity.

“No one should be too poor to live in one of the rich­est cities — Chica­go — in one of the rich­est coun­tries — Amer­i­ca — at the rich­est time in the his­to­ry of the world,” said John­son. “There is lit­er­al­ly more than enough for every­body. Every­body. No one should lose at the expense of some­one else winning.”

The ball­room roared in agreement.

John­son added:

“Now, the soul of Chica­go was on full dis­play tonight because you see, and you can feel it in the air. This mul­ti­cul­tur­al inter­gen­er­a­tional move­ment that has pro­pelled us into this moment where we don’t have to shrink and we don’t have to hide from our val­ues. We can actu­al­ly run on our prin­ci­ples and val­ues and win.”

“We get to trans­form this coun­try with the very peo­ple in this room, and for those who wish to divide us at this time, we’re not gonna allow them to do it,” John­son said in clos­ing. “We’re gonna look each oth­er in the eyes and we’re gonna live out the full man­i­fes­ta­tion of those who only can dream of this moment.”

“We will not cow­er. We will not flinch in this moment, but we will swing back with the full author­i­ty of the ances­tors that made this moment possible.”

“God bless you all, Net­roots. Let’s build a bet­ter, stronger, safer Chica­go. Let’s build a bet­ter, stronger, safer America.”

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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