This is part of a series of interviews Windy City Times is running on LGBTQ+ candidates in the 2023 municipal elections taking place Feb. 28.
Youth educator and activist Rosanna Rodriguez Sanchez is seeking her second term representing the 33rd Ward on the Chicago City Council. In 2019, she narrowly beat out incumbent Deb Mell by only a handful of votes; the following year, Rodriguez Sanchez came out as queer during Pride month.
Rodriguez Sanchez is a member of both the Progressive and Socialist Caucuses, and has made access to mental health services one of her key issues. She spoke with Windy City Times about a number of issues, including what it's like to legislate on the Council as well as housing affordability in her ward.
Windy City Times: How do you think you have effected positive change the last four years?
Rosanna Rodriguez Sanchez: When we came into office it was really important for us to provide space for community participation and co-governance. We started with a participatory budgeting process that probably about 20% of the wards useit's not a common practice. It allowed the community to propose infrastructure projects that benefited the community, so that we knew that the things we were investing the infrastructure money in would be beneficial for everybody.
We also created a community-driven zoning process. I think one of the most important things that came from our time in office is a complete overhaul of how we organize politically, in terms of the vision of a project, and who funds our campaign. Everybody that was in this office before me took contributions from developers and the real estate lobby, and everybody has an interest in zoning. Zoning is a superpower in Chicago; aldermen have aldermanic prerogative, and we can zone however we wantour colleagues are going to vote with us, because they want us to vote with them when they have a zoning matter.
You can choose to use that power for self-gain, or you can choose to use that power by passing it on to the community. We decided to do the latter. … People could come and weigh in on how we were developing the community
A community-driven zoning process can lend itself as a tool of gentrification, because you can have people who are opposed to affordable housing who are going to be well organized. So it takes not not only the community-driven zoning process…but educating and giving people the information about the importance of affordable housing as well.
If you know anything about city politics, you know that alderpeople are not really expected to be legislators. Chicago has been wired so that everyone (on the City Council) is just expected to side with the mayorwhatever the mayor wants. And then you get things for the community so you can expect to be elected. But we are a legislative body, and we are supposed to be coming in with ideas on how to solve the problems that our communities face.
In my time in office, I office, I created and introduced the "Treatment, Not Trauma" ordinance, trying to create a model of addressing and responding to the mental health crisis, with public health solutionsthe right tools. We have been relegating public health issues to Chicago Police Department for a long time, which means the 911 system is always overwhelmed.
We created a model based on work that's been done all across the country, in places like Eugene, Oregon; Denver; Portland [Oregon]; and Albuquerque. We visited all these places and talked to people who have been running them. We have learned a lot from them.
In the last election, in November, we were able to put a question [about mental health] on the ballot, and it passed with 92% of the vote. It was a non-binding question, but it was where people were at in terms of what they want for us to be able to address issues that have to do with public health and mental health.
The other thing we were able to doand I am so proud of this because I am a rookie alderis I was able to pass the Bodily Autonomy Sanctuary Ordinance. I got to work as soon as the Dobbs decision was leaked. I am one one the chief sponsors of the Welcoming Cities Ordinance in Chicago, which protects undocumented people from being prosecuted for immigration. I thought that, since we had a blueprint, we could extend protections to people seeking abortion-care and gender-affirming care. … We are making sure that every agency in the city of Chicago is dedicated to protecting bodily autonomy for everybody.
We just got $5.8 million to build a school a turf field at Roosevelt. That is our only neighborhood high school96% kids of color. They've never had a home game in 100 years. They're going to have a home game very soon, because we will be able to build a soccer field for them.
We are opening a 50-unit affordable-housing building in our community, at a time when displacement has urgency. We have been doing a lot of work in the community, and we have centered the most marginalized people. I'm very proud of the work that we've been done.
WCT: You're one of the members of the Council's socialist caucus. I don't ask this to problematize that label, but I do want to ask what that designation means for you as a representative at the municipal level?
RRS:We live in a capitalist systemwe live in the city of Chicago. We know that it's hard to change the systembut we are trying to make the system more equitable for everybody, so that we can have a more equitable distribution of resources in our city. One example is that measures that the city has taken that are socialist measures are historically institutions that operate for the collective well-being, and are accessible to everybody.
For example, the Chicago Public Libraries are a socialist measure. It welcomes everybody; anybody can use them and has equal access. Throughout the years, we've tried to undertake measures to make it even more accessiblefor example, right now, there are no fines.
One thing we have been trying to do is increase the accessibility of public services for everybody. One of the things I 've been doing the most is working on mental health. We're really working to make sure that the mental health centers that were shuttered by Daley and Rahm Emanuel can be resources available to people. Anyone could come, regardless of immigration status, income or raceanyone knows they have a center close to them that they can use.
We want to expand those things and fight neoliberalism. All of these policies of austerity that have been implemented over decades have gathered resources from the city and either passed them on to private companies or nonprofits.
Nonprofits are super-important to society. They need to exist, and make up a really important ecosystem. But what we have done is delegate a lot of work that the government should be doing to nonprofits, without [giving them] the resources for them to be able to do them, which ends up with the exploitation of labor, workers that are tired and overworked. … That always ends up in the rationing of services. You do the best that you can, and [we end up with] people who cannot be served.
WCT: What has been the most difficult part of being a member of the Council?
RRS: The corruption and the old school politics. I thought that they were going to be different in this administration, but the reality is that the City Council is wired one way. Chicago is the only major city in the United States without a constitution. We are operated by tradition, and the tradition is that you are going to have a mayor that is going to come in and be a boss, and whatever the mayor is what you are going to do if you want resources for your community.
The legislative part of our work is difficult because of that. You can't do the work because the mayor is not going to allow it, particularly if it is not convenient for the mayor. One of the most frustrating things is knowing that you are bringing in an evidence-based piece of legislation that is popularthat is well researched and tried in other placesand you still are not going to move it because the mayor doesn't want it. … It is always so hard to accomplish anything, because of the way City Council is wired.
It is on the Council. Yes, the mayor has a lot of power, and if any mayor of Chicago would have wanted to have real reform for the purpose of ethics and efficiency in City Council, and transparency in government, they could have done it. But the reality is that there's not enough of us on City Council that are willing to take that step and say, for example, "The mayor is not going to appoint committee chairs. We are going to appoint committee chairs."
The other thing is that there's a very toxic, sexist culture in City Council that has made it very hard for people like me to come in and be respected as somebody that has the intellectual capabilities, to be able to do the work.
WCT: You came out as queer in the summer of 2020. What prompted that, and what was the reaction of your constituents?
RRS:That's the interesting partI never felt the need to come out. The people around me knew me. I never felt like I had to say it out loud. I never felt like I had to explain myself to anybody.
But I realized that, in terms of visibility, it was important to say it out loud, to say, "This person representing 55,000 people, the first Latina in this seat, is also queer. I don't want to be seen as a straight cis woman. I'm not interested in being seen that way.
All I got was support. It's interesting how people outside the LGBT community came and congratulated me for coming out. But it wasn't like I came out because I needed relief or to come clean. I never felt that way. I had a very supportive network around me…I also know that's a privilege. But I had to explain that I wanted people to feel represented. I wanted them to know that I am not straight, and I wanted them to see themselves in me. It's always been important for me to see people like me in spaces of power.
WCT: What are the most important issues for LGBTQ+ constituents in the ward? What have they been most concerned with?
RRS:I've been a teacher in Chicago, and I've worked with some of the most vulnerable people in the city. I think for youth, I would say that housing is the most important thing right now. We don't have the resources for it, which makes me really sad and scared. I have had people come to my office, because they know me from when I was teaching in Humboldt Park. They tell me, "We need housing for this personthey are in an abusive relationship [for example]."
For a lot of trans youth, particularly Black trans youth, it has been difficult to find spaces to be in. Often their families don't accept them, and they are kind of banished from family life. Not only do they not have a roof, they don't have any support networks. That's something we have to tend to.
It is really scary. I lost a student of mine, a Black trans girl, who was student of mine in Humboldt Park. She was found dead in an abandoned building a couple of years ago. That shouldn't have happened. I am really committed to finding resources so that our LGBTQIA youth, particularly trans youth, can have safe spaces.
See rosannafor33.org .