I met Rafael Yañez last week at Tierra Caliente, a small, bright Brighton Park taquería owned by Yañez’s uncle. We sat at a booth next to a picture of a waterfall in Michoacan, where Yañez’s father is from, and we talked about his positions on ward issues from policing to affordable housing.
Yañez himself was born in Chicago, but he grew up in Michoacan before moving back to live in Pilsen at age ten. After age nineteen, he moved to Back of the Yards, where he has lived ever since. He has a bachelor ’s degree in law enforcement management and a masters in public safety administration and has worked as a Chicago police officer since 2003. Yañez has occupied various positions in CPD, including youth officer in the 7th District which includes parts of Englewood) and, most recently, “crime prevention specialist,” a role which involves writing curricula there are officers to provide services for youth in their communities. In 2007, he founded a nonprofit organization, the U.N.I.O.N. Impact Center, to offer sports and leadership training programs for local families. In 2012, he completed a doctorate in education at Argosy University; his dissertation was on mentoring programs as a tool for reducing violence in Englewood.
Unlike most police candidates, Yañez is running as a progressive candidate, one who’s more than willing to say “I don’t like police” and “policing is not the solution.” His platform has attracted an impressive array of progressive endorsements, including from Jesús “Chuy” García and former Cook County Clerk David Orr, and unions United Working Families, the Chicago Teachers Union, and SEIU Healthcare Illinois. He’s taking on incumbent Raymond Lopez, who beat him in a runoff in the 2015 election.
The day after our interview, Yañez would have his final day of work at the Chicago Police Department, before devoting himself full time to the campaign and, he hopes, the office of alderman. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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How would you explain the alderman job to someone who doesn’t know very much about politics, in your own words? Include what you think the role is like now, but also what it should be.
That’s a very good question. I think what people tend to see as the role of an alderman is someone that is responsible for collecting garbage and providing city services. In my ward specifically, what the role should be is totally different than what people view as an alderman’s role. Because we’re basically talking about things that are institutions, right? Things that affect people’s lives, whether it’s creating policy, creating revenue, taxing bodies, and so on.
What I would like to see in the role of an alderman is someone who advocates for resources, someone that advocates for funding structures that are necessary to improve the quality of life. We need good quality education. We need to make sure that our schools have proper funding, to make sure that we have the proper counselors to deal with mental health, to deal with trauma. Because, you know, a big concern in our ward is violence and when we talk about violence, we also have to talk about mental health, we have to talk about trauma, we have to talk about jobs, we have to talk about affordable housing, so everything’s connected.
I feel that an alderman can use that position to create a participatory process. It’s not easy by far. But it’s necessary because people have to be heard. In many ways, you know, elected officials are making decisions that affect families for generations, and they don’t have a seat at the table. They’re not being heard. So I want to see a alderman that works with the community.
Do you think that residents in your ward don’t realize the potential of what an alderman can do?
The thing is that for generations, our communities, and specifically the communities in the 15th Ward, have been abandoned since white flight. So when we get a little bit, we tend to be just okay with it, because we haven’t gotten much, right? So when we’re building a campaign, it’s not just about getting people’s votes, it’s about creating awareness. It’s about educating people. It’s about having conversations about how we need to demand more. So I think this is a continuation of what we started in 2015. It’s very difficult because of segregation. The city was built to keep communities divided and segregated, and we’re trying to do the opposite, we’re trying to build. And so there’s a lot of tension. So it’s not easy.
With the campaign so far, what has that been like trying to unite those those different parts of the ward? Have you faced challenges? How have you overcome them?
The 15th Ward is one of a few wards where we have the potential to build racial unity, Black and brown specifically, because of the demographics. So that’s the type of coalition that we want to build. We have an alderman who divides our community. He goes to one side of a community and tells them one thing about, for example, West Englewood. He goes to another part of the community and tells them one thing about Brighton Park. And so kind of he’s supporting the issue of segregation. So that is the challenge. He’s made it more difficult for us to rebuild trust. He’s the elected official, he’s the incumbent and we’re coming in to to create this image of hope, and it’s so difficult for people to embrace hope when they have been let down for so long.
How does it feel campaigning in West Englewood as a candidate from Back of the Yards. Have you faced mistrust there? Is it hard to get people to open up to you?
I worked in West Englewood for over fifteen years, you know. I started working there as a police officer. And then I came back to run youth programs, to be part of the CAPS programs, and participated in organizing community stakeholders and providing the Officer Friendly program in the schools.
I mean [in West Englewood] you have a population that has been there for over twenty, thirty, forty years. And then you also have a percentage of people that are new. You could knock on the door, and the person that used to live there no longer lives there, you see a new person. So that has also created tension, because it’s a fear of gentrification. Because, you know, in West Englewood after the federal crash, eight percent of the housing market was completely abandoned. It created a market for investors to buy property for cash values of $5,000 or $8,000. There has been an increase in the immigrant population coming in to buy properties in West Englewood. And the elected official has not created a plan for affordable housing where families who live in the community have access to those properties. It’s just very difficult. You have to run through all this politics to be able to buy a property: you still have redlining going on, it’s still very difficult to get a loan, and the affordable housing projects are nonexistent in the West Englewood community. So those are the challenges that we’re facing.
Do you have specific affordable housing policies in mind, particularly in West Englewood and across the board?
There’s a lot of organizations that are experts in that matter, right? My goal is to make sure that I work with organizations that have done the work. There’s organizations that are working on projects to reduce unnecessary homelessness. For example, [the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless] proposed to put a tax on properties that are sold for over a million dollars and the percentage will go to this bucket where that money will be used to help end homelessness. And the current alderman refused to support that, even though none of the properties in the 15th Ward will be affected by that.
What I’m planning to do is to bring organizations like them in the table, you know organizations that have created proposals and plans in place. We know that City Council—as far as housing is concerned—they haven’t put in place an action plan to make sure we address that problem. So I want to make sure that families that are there get priority on having access to those projects and it doesn’t become a gentrification plan. So we have to learn from the lessons of Pilsen, for example, and other communities that have been pushing families out.
What are your plans for addressing crime and violence in the 15th Ward?
The way we reduce violence is by investing in after-school programs, investing in our youth, investing in workforce development programs. I’m against spending $95 million for a police academy when in our ward our school suffers over $10 million of cuts in the school budgets, where they had to let go of teachers and counselors. I believe that our priorities are upside down, we have to invest up front, not in the end. Criminal justice is not the solution to this environment. We need to invest in social services and mental health programs to make sure that we address the historical trauma that we’re facing, that we’re living as well, as immigrants, as people who have been oppressed.
And also I believe that we have a lot of work to do as far as reforming a police department that has in many ways been built to oppress communities, you know. There shouldn’t be a “lock him up” approach. It should be a building trust approach. Also, we should change the evaluation system. Right now, there’s a heavy emphasis on how many guns, how many arrests, how many tickets. So before a police officer goes home, they have to check back to say how they did that day. And those boxes, that’s the matrix. Nowhere in that matrix says how many people you didn’t arrest because you took them to the hospital, you took them to a clinic, you were able to defuse the situation, you were able to have a conversation with a group of young people. We should be measuring that too.
Your opinion on this stuff is pretty different than a lot of people in the police department, or at least some of the loudest voices representing the police department such as the Fraternal Order of Police. Has your opinion changed over your years in the police force?
I mean my experience with police officers growing up wasn’t that positive either. You know, I don’t like police. I don’t like people that oppress people. I don’t like injustice. I was in wrestling and I’d wear my hoodie and my gym bag and I would get stopped by police officers every now and then and the way they talked to me was bad, disrespectful: “What gang? What drugs? What guns?” And I’m like, ”Dude, you just stopped me yesterday. I told you I’m not in a gang.” But then you know as I got older, I still had that calling to fight for justice and to solve problems. I joined the force, I became a young dad, I needed a job too, and I felt this is a good way to serve my community, to help my family have food on the the table and shelter, and let’s fight crime. But then as you’re growing and maturing and then you see the reality of the disinvestment, you see it here, you see it on the West side, you see it everywhere. And, wait a minute, their story is like my story, and then it becomes more clear. Then I really knew: policing is not the solution.
Since you are part of the police department, is it challenging to convince people who distrust the police that you understand and that you’re on their side?
It’s not a challenge because I’ve been there for so long. People know Rafa. They have the cell phone of Rafa. And if they don’t have it, someone’s gonna get it or give it to them. People sense when it’s genuine. l’m part of that community. Maybe there’s some people that don’t trust me because I’m a police officer. But maybe it’s someone that just has recently moved, who doesn’t really know me. For the most part, people that are in the community—some people don’t even know I’m a police officer. Because I’m just there, you know.
So when I go to high schools and I give a workshop, I might start by saying, “Who in here had a bad experience with a police officer?” And I apologize. We have a lot of healing to do, a lot of restoring. We have to accept that we have done wrong and we have to face that. I have to be vulnerable. I have to apologize—even though it’s something that I directly didn’t do—but it’s the uniform I’m wearing.
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