Ric Wilson; Laundi Keepseagle; Damon Williams and Jennifer Pagán; Maira Khwaja and Trina Reynolds-Tyler; Eva Maria Lewis; Nash Alam; Pidgeon Pagonis; Rivka Yeker and Morgan Martinez Credit: Michael Salisbury; courtesy Laundi Keepseagle; Kaleb Autman; Jacob King; jeff marini for the chicago reader; Sarah Ji; Isabela Giancarlo; courtesy Rivka Yeker and Morgan Martinez

Say what you will about 2020, but it was a year for people in Chicago to make their own agendas and to control their own destinies. Chicago organizers took action not just for themselves, but for young people growing up in the city, especially in Black and Brown neighborhoods. In the face of adversity, these folks who call the Windy City home got to work in times of crisis, and their work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Here are 11 people who gave a damn in 2020; and they’re nowhere close to stopping any time soon.

Eva Maria Lewis
Executive Director of Free Root Operation/artist

For South Shore native Eva Maria Lewis, traveling to and from the north side for a quality education exposed the disparities between white and Black students in Chicago. In 2015, she founded Free Root Operation, an organization fighting gun violence through compassion and opportunity, and this year Lewis developed programming for Bouchet Elementary, located in South Shore, to introduce peace rooms, a place for students to decompress, stretch, or relax as an alternative to punishment, to foster social-emotional learning. She plans to expand these efforts to more under-resourced schools in 2021. “I allow myself to imagine, ‘OK, we’ve never had something like this, [but] it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.’ What do you need to do to get there? There’s so much being accomplished, it’s here to stay. It’s just going to get better.”

Laundi Keepseagle
Executive Director at Save Money, Save Life

In 2016, Laundi Keepseagle, a Standing Rock Reservation native, met rapper Vic Mensa at the No DAPA protests, where they discussed sustainable change that would be grounded in community and safety for Black and Brown youth. Two years later, Save Money, Save Life was born. SMSL’s mission is to use art, education, entertainment, and projects to foster and empower BIPOC folks, whether it be training street medics volunteers to aid gun violence or hold drives for back-to-school aid initiatives. Over the course of this year, the organization pivoted from their regular programming and helped distribute 100,000 pounds of food across the city, raised funds and awareness for homeless youth during a sleepout, and took to the streets to protest for George Floyd and Black lives. Keepseagle has, among other youth programs, a Black and Indigenous teen exchange program in the works for Summer 2021. “Living on a reservation, I didn’t really understand the rest of the world, which limited possibilities for myself, and I know a lot of people from the city also experience that. We live within these borders and don’t understand the rest of the world.”

Nash Alam
Digital Organizer at Grassroots Collaborative

Nash Alam used to not believe in “Slacktivists,” performative activism a la social media, but as someone who has been both rooted on the ground and behind the screen, Alam highlights the need for both roles. “I’m constantly thinking about what it is that young Black and Brown people really care about.” As the face behind the socials for Grassroots Collaborative, a community-labor coalition, Alam shares content consisting of memes, infographics, and illustrations that provides information and resources relating to racial justice and economic equity. During the summer, Alam trained the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council’s youth group, and with the police brutality uprising, “absorbed the momentum” and wrote scripted e-mails for citizens to send out to the city council and other representatives. Going forward, Alam’s work will continue the fight to push city council to enact progressive revenue options. “Jeff Bezos made billions in the first three months of the pandemic and the media was talking about looting. It’s about fighting that narrative consistently to really uplift the struggles that the working people of Chicago are facing, and policing as a root cause of violence.”

Ric Wilson

Sitting comfortably at more than 800,000 Spotify streams, Ric Wilson’s uprising-anthem of the summer, “Fight like Ida B. and Marsha P.,” combines a disco tempo accompanied by odes to Black freedom fighters with solidarity with marginalized communities. “I wanted to make a song about folks who I felt like really had super duper huge courage to do the things they were doing at the time they were doing it.” The same week the song was released, Wilson doubled down on his lyrics, “The liberation of black trans women leads to the liberation of all black people / this isn’t an option,” which Twitter itself turned into a billboard, placed on 15th and Ashland, and per Wilson’s request, had the company send the $5,000 revenue to Brave Space Alliance, a Chicago-based Black, trans-led LGBTQ+ center providing affirming services on the west and south sides. Wilson’s funk-infused rap resonating with so many fans over the summer suggests there could be more of a balance in the world of activism, centering the love of people over money. “People say artists should be a reflection of the times.”

Rivka Yeker & Morgan Martinez
Founders of Hooligan Magazine

For more than six years, independent publication Hooligan Magazine, founded by best friends Rivka Yeker and Morgan Martinez, has always centered BIPOC voices, but this year, Martinez says, “forced us to experiment with the way we approach interacting with our readership and community.” For instance, she and Yeker crafted Hooligan Hangouts, an Instagram Live show where folks could virtually enjoy live performers or be led through a healing session with artistic cooperatives like the Black, trans-led organization Activation Residency. “We have this future that we’re committed to make sure we can still produce content that’s valuable because I really do believe popular media is never going to give information you actually need,” Yeker says.

Maira Khwaja & Trina Reynolds-Tyler
Founders of TM Productions

Work partners Maira Khwaja and Trina Reynolds-Tyler met while working at south side-based journalism company the Invisible Institute, where the two continue to work, but wanted to produce content surrounding the importance of elections designed for young people. They started off with original multimedia content to combat misinformation on social media, but further continued this with their strategic communications-based company TM Productions to make legal and political information more accessible to Black and Brown people. In addition, this year, the duo decided to run for local school council—and won (Khwaja in Hyde Park, Reynolds-Tyler in South Shore). Khwaja and Reynolds-Tyler also built up “an ecosystem of mutual aid,” which Khwaja says is “a form of direct action,” with Reynolds-Tyler distributing food for south siders with the People’s Grab-N-Go and Khwaja with Market Box, a collaboration with Star Farm Chicago to ensure food security for the west and south sides. “We fit so well together,” Reynolds-Tyler says. “The work that we do creates an impact on people’s lives: people who are not on the Internet, people who don’t have access to fresh produce, people who are, in many ways, the forgotten people.” As for the new year ahead, Khwaja is hopeful. “2021 will be about leveraging and strengthening so we can continue to generate that power.”

Pidgeon Pagonis
Intersex activist/writer

Pidgeon Pagonis found out they were intersex after retrieving their medical records at 18 during their freshman year at DePaul University, and thus the journey toward ending the unnecessary medical procedures began. At the time, Lurie’s Children’s Hospital, where Pagonis was harmed at birth in the late 80s, was across the street. This past July, with the unstoppable work by the Intersex Justice Project, cofounded by Pagonis, Lurie’s released a statement acknowledging the harm done to patients and is making conscious efforts to end intersex surgeries. “A lot of us who are in a social movement come from a place of oppression or trauma,” Pagonis says. “When you grow up different [in a way] that’s so foundational to society [like] the [gender] binary, you feel like you’ll never be loved as you are.” Now at 34, Pagonis is focusing on writing their memoir coming out in fall 2021 and plans on taking steps toward restorative, healing practices, citing, “Activism can be an addiction.”

Damon Williams and Jennifer Pagán
Cofounders of the Let Us Breathe Collective

If there was a power couple of the Black Liberation Movement in Chicago, it would be cofounders Damon Williams and Jennifer Pagán of the Black-led healing through arts and organizing #LetUsBreathe Collective. During the uprising protests this summer, Williams, also the cohost of Chicago favorite AirGo Radio, and Pagán, a cultural worker and educator, were attacked and arrested by the Chicago Police Department during a Black Lives Matter protest. Reflecting on the incident six months later, Pagán says the events over the summer have been a “transformative experience.” “I feel more grounded in what has come of it,” she says. And what has come of it was building the Black Abolitionist Network, which ran the campaign for #DefundCPD. “What’s really frustrating is that we’re not saying anything new,” Williams says. “We’ve been saying it for five years [but] we just now had the momentum. It pushed us to be what we’ve been naming, to go back to this point of radical imagination. We’ve been summoning thousands of people demanding this, and we didn’t even have to talk to them directly for its manifest.”   v