Publishing house Haymarket Books presented a book-signing and interview session with longtime LGBTQ+ ally and former Chicago Ald. Helen Shiller on Oct. 17.
Shiller was interviewed by noted Chicago Tribune political commentator Laura Washington on Shiller's new book, Daring to Struggle Daring to Win (Haymarket Books) before answering questions from an SRO crowd of well-wishers.
Shiller's book recounts her being radicalized by participating in a faction of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s while in college at the University of Wisconsin and participating in the anti-Vietnam War movement and Students for a Democratic Society. The work also looks at her move to Chicago to attend DePaul University's School of New Learning Master's Program and the start of her activism in the Uptown area, her foray into politics and her work with the late Harold Washington during the storied "Council Wars." After winning her first aldermanic race in 1987, Shiller worked with Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago, focusing on affordable housing, care for HIV/AIDS victims, domestic violence, and care for low-income households in the 46th Ward.
For years she was a contentious opponent for Richard M. Daley, Washington's successor, particularly on the city budget; however, in later years, they supported each other in the creation of Wilson Yards, a newly built residence for senior citizens and low-income households. Shiller also fought for an increase in Chicago's budget for HIV/AIDS victims, coming close to tripling it and co-sponsoring Chicago human-rights legislation that added LGBTQ+-related anti-discrimination amendments.
Open Hand co-founder Lori Cannon said of Shiller's work with the LGBTQ community: "She was our only ally on the city council. Daley said, 'There's no money for AIDS.' Helen went through the books and found a million dollars. All of a sudden we had so many community non-profits springing up in the community: Chicago House, Open Hand, TPAN. She was the only one who stood up to the mayor and made things happen."
Shiller served in office from 1987 to 2011.
Opening the conversation with Washington, Shiller said, "I was in discussions for such a long time with so many people about writing the book when I was still alderman, but I wasn't ready. Still, I looked back and realized that I was always dealing with the same issues in my life; housing, education, healthcare and I thought about writing the book as 'lessons on being a politician in Chicago.' But when I got to the end of [writing] the book, I realized that I didn't end; it was not over."
Shiller added that what pushed her, in part, was (and is) the current state of national politics: "The politics in Chicago foreshadow what we are seeing now. This current polarization, the backlash with [President] Obama, was foreshadowed by what happened decades before in Chicago politics. I thought it would be important and helpful as well as informative to finish the book now."
When Washington asked her about the subject of race and whether long-term change is a possibility, Shiller said, "So many different times, there have been events that dealt with race and nothing seems to change. And someone always writes about what should be done. Well, my attitude is to stop talking about what should be done and just do it. You have to change the narrative: 'How does it have to be different for it to change?' We go two steps forward and three steps back, but I think change can happen. The key is having a long-term vision. These things take time and [people should not] get frustrated when it does not happen right away."
Speaking about her time with the Black Panthers versus being in politics, Shiller said, "As an activist we would say 'Do this' and we would expect the person to do it. In politics, the things people wanted to happen quickly couldn't happen quickly. Part of the frustration for me in politics is the process of explaining to people and making sure they understand. The truth is, people think politicians have more power than they really do while politicians think they have less power than they really do."
Discussing current threats to democracy, Shiller said, "Anybody who doesn't believe in fascism is not in touch. I remember watching the McCarthy trials in the 1950s. I remember that from the age of 6. My father would make me watch and he would say, 'You may be bored, but you have to remember fascism, always.'"
Wrapping up with a final question on what she would like for new leadership to look like, Shiller said, "My hope is for leadership to be willing to look out of the box. We can't go backward; we need to have a new approach to policing, a new approach to mental health, a new approach to people getting stable housing, a new approach to people getting an education."