Meet the New Leader of Chicago’s Progressive Political Powerhouse

Kennedy Bartley is taking over as the next executive director of United Working Families, the group that helped elect Chicago’s new left-wing leadership.

J. Patrick Patterson and Miles Kampf-Lassin

Kennedy Bartley Photo courtesy of United Working Families

Chicago’s current political terrain finds progressives in a surprising position: the driver’s seat. After decades of neoliberal mayors and city councils dominated by machine-backed power brokers, a new era has been ushered in. In May, longtime labor organizer and former public school teacher Brandon Johnson was sworn into office as the city’s 57th mayor. A historic number of left-wing alderpeople were elected alongside him, all promising an unapologetically pro-working class agenda that solidly breaks from the corporate-centric status quo of the past. This transformation didn’t happen out of nowhere — it was catalyzed by a coalition of social movements, labor unions, grassroots groups and youth-led organizing projects that years ago set out to remake the city’s political landscape.

One of the most impactful organizations in this coalition has been United Working Families (UWF), the political arm of Chicago’s left-labor alliance that helps recruit, train and run candidates for office who come from working-class and social movement backgrounds. Started in 2014, UWF has scored victories at all levels of government, with endorsed officials serving in the Illinois state legislature, Chicago City Council, Cook County Board of Commissioners, U.S. Congress and now the mayor’s office. The powerful Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), alongside labor allies at SEIU HCII, independent ward organizations and community groups, played a lead role in engineering UWF. A number of CTU leaders have served key roles in the organization, including CTU President Stacy Davis Gates who is UWF’s Party Chair. After engaging in major strikes under previous mayors Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot, CTU finally has an ally on the fifth floor of City Hall — a shift that Davis Gates and UWF helped make possible.

So it’s appropriate that UWF’s new leader, Kennedy Bartley, credits Davis Gates with inspiring her to join the organization in the first place. UWF, Bartley says, is where she could help realize a vision of economic and racial justice. Today, Bartley was announced as UWF’s new executive director, and will take over from Emma Tai, who had served in the role since November 2016. In an exclusive interview with In These Times, her first since the announcement, Bartley discussed UWF’s priorities for the coming year, how the group will approach co-governance with its endorsed elected officials, how they plan to navigate a big-tent coalition and much more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

J. Patrick Patterson: What do you hope to accomplish as executive director?

Kennedy Bartley: I think that UWF and our movement is in this critical and unprecedented time and it calls for some reflection. And as I reflect on this moment, I think about where and who I come from, and what really shaped and informed my politics. Those are the same politics, obviously, reflected in UWF, which is my political home. 

I think a lot about my mom and my grandma, and it’s like these strong working-class resilient women who always made a way — and always made a way for other folks — and taught me, modeled for me, radical love and resilience. 

I think that’s what is, in this moment, needed. We’ve gotten this electoral win; we’ve gotten a little bit more governing power. We are responsible for the conditions that we are currently organizing under, right? We’re responsible for the fact that we have a mayor who leads with this idea of radical love as his politic. And so I hope to further that love — to be reflected in our demands so that things like Treatment, Not Trauma and Bring Chicago Home become the floor and we keep creating new ceilings. 

I hope to bring the resilience to sustain those wins, sustain that governing power, remain grounded in the why” — the communities that we do it for. To ensure that when we’re talking about this idea of co-governance, right, like this buzzword, that it’s not governments continuing to co-govern with the billionaire class or businessmen or corporations, but co-governing with the people most directly impacted by the policies, and making sure that those policies aren’t just shaped with them in mind, but with them in the room, working toward these end goals of housing for all and healthcare and mental healthcare for all and good-paying jobs and clean water and clean air — the demands that we’ve had for decades. Those are my hopes for what guides me and my leadership. And in four years, I want to be able to look back and say we’re closer to that.

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JP: How does UWF navigate the contradictions of being a big-tent coalition?

Kennedy: There is a tendency to believe that contradiction and conflict are regressive versus necessary steps toward the synthesis needed to move forward. So, recognizing that we are a multi-tendency, multigenerational, multiracial organization, I think embracing contradictions as points that create opportunity for new ideas and more expansive politics and sharpened demands is really key. I think that is what makes us strong.

I think when we’re talking about building true working-class, anti-racist, anti-capitalist power, we have to have a coalition, we have to have a united front. I think that there is a long tradition, particularly in the Chicago context — thinking about the Panthers and the Rainbow Coalition — that models for us what moving through contradictions looks like, and I think that it requires discipline and a constant commitment to working and reworking our theory of change and our why,” and getting buy-in and the solidarity required for any coalition work.

JP: What role does social movement organizing play in the electoral arena during this mayoral and City Council term?

Kennedy: I think that when we’re talking about this idea of co-governance, we talk about it as like a new idea, particularly in the U.S. context and in a major city. I believe that we have watched governments co-govern for a really long time, just with the Ken Griffins of the world, right? And in some cases, the Catanzaras of the world.

And so I think that now we are at a time when co-governing is happening by the folks who have created the conditions for this moment, right? We don’t get a Brandon Johnson without a Jeanette Taylor doing a hunger strike, right? Or without Matt [Ginsberg-Jaeckle] supporting an occupation of [the lot across from] the Woodlawn mental health center on the south side. Or without a Karen Lewis. And so we’re standing on the shoulders of the social movements that were once deemed fringe or radical. And now we honor those social movements by ensuring that they are the guiding principles behind our governing.

And when I say our governing, I’m taking responsibility for the movement and for community, because it is our responsibility to govern as well as to make demands and to organize. And to make sure that what we were calling for four years ago or 10 years ago becomes the floor and we’re creating new ceilings. And so I think that the role of social movements in this particular moment of governing will be our North Star.

I believe that we have watched governments co-govern for a really long time, just with the Ken Griffins of the world, right? And in some cases, the Catanzaras of the world.

JP: Will movement groups like UWF be more focused on pushing leaders they helped to elect to be bolder on important issues, or on defending these elected officials from likely attacks from conservative and business-aligned groups?

Kennedy: I think that it has to be both, always, right? It’s not enough to win power, you have to sustain it. And, you know, it’s not enough to run on a platform, you have to deliver. And we recognize — that’s why I keep saying we have a little bit more governing power, right — we are still situated in the Chicago context of entrenched neoliberalism and corporate billionaires and hyperpolicing and surveillance and so on.

We have the governing power, but we still have to be clear about what we’re up against, right? And we still have targets and an electoral victory does not create conditions under which folks aren’t still spewing anti-Blackness and harm through the Chicago Police Department and where folks aren’t still looking to see our services that our human rights privatized. And so as we are seizing more governing power, we must protect that power and make sure that we’re setting ourselves up for a sustained power. And a part of doing that is ensuring that we are supporting our elected leaders and ensuring that they are bringing our communities to the table to hold some of the weight of this moment.

Kennedy Bartley (center right) at the 2022 UWF Member Convention with fellow UWF members Photo courtesy of UWF

JP: How do you see UWF’s relationship with Mayor Johnson evolving now that he is on the fifth floor?

Kennedy: It brings me back to this idea of co-governing. I think that UWF will take responsibility for ensuring that Mayor Johnson’s administration is creating policy, creating governing practice alongside community, alongside the folks who are most directly impacted by that policy. I think that’s always been UWF’s role, and now, of course, we have more of an ally on the fifth floor. But we will continue to organize for the bold and visionary demands that our neighbors need — all the while ensuring that we aren’t just making those demands from the sidewalk or from the streets, but that we are sitting and co-creating the legislative expressions of those demands alongside the administration.

JP: How do you view what the new administration has done or prioritized so far? What are some areas where you expect quick movement from Johnson and his team to break from the status quo under Lightfoot and Emanuel?

Kennedy: I think as an organizer, as someone who lives on the west side, there are things that we have been demanding for a very long time that I am like, I want this now.” I feel the urgency, both because I’ve been fighting so long for these demands, but also because I’m watching people be displaced rapidly from the city, watching people prematurely lose their lives, watching people have to choose between paying their gas or electric bill or feeding their families.

So I feel the urgency of the moment. And I feel deeply aware of the fact that these are a lifetime’s worth of institutions that we have to upend and rewrite and recreate in order to build out the transformational government that we want to see. I believe that Mayor Johnson’s election was a poll, a mandate, that folks want to see true public safety in the form of investment in people, in the form of investment in housing, Bring Chicago Home, Treatment, Not Trauma, in the Peace Book.

I think that it is a requirement to deliver on the promise that drove folks — folks who hadn’t voted before, folks who had been largely disaffected for a really long time — to the ballots. And we must deliver on those promises because we’ve been given — rather, not we, but the mayor has been given — a mandate to create public safety.

JP: What is your vision of what politics in Chicago will look like in 2027? What will be the markers of success?

Kennedy: In 2027, in my vision for what politics will look like, I think that folks will recognize that we must listen to the people most directly impacted by our policies when we are creating policies and when we are putting forth solutions. My hope is that we will have built out a system where co-governing with folks who are led by teachers, working-class communities, young people is normalized. I believe that public safety will always be a conversation. And my hope is that by 2027, we aren’t using policing and public safety interchangeably. And I think that we will have won Treatment, Not Trauma, we will have brought Chicago home, we will have the Peace Book. And folks on the west and south sides and some north side communities will have the self-determination to craft the lives that they deserve, and not just worry solely about surviving.

JP: What do you think movement groups and other cities around the country can learn from the recent victories in Chicago?

Kennedy: I think that movement groups can learn that you can win governing power, you can win electoral power on a platform that doesn’t centralize privatization, overspending in police budgets, that centralizes investing in people and housing, in good jobs and young people, in violence prevention and interruption. I think that it’s our responsibility to make clear to folks how we got here. This election was a structure test for all of the demands that we have been making for decades, right? It was a structure test to see, Does Chicago want true public safety? Does Chicago want to see investments in people?” And it feels important that folks know that you can have an unapologetic, radically loving platform that wins you governing power in one of the largest cities and one of the wealthiest cities in the history of the world.

J. Patrick Patterson is the Associate Editor at In These Times. He has previously worked as a politics editor, copy editor, fact-checker and reporter. His writing on economic policies and electoral politics has been published in numerous outlets.

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKLassin

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