By Kadesha Thomas
Photo by Jason Smith

Before Ameya Pawar ran for alderman of Chicago’s 47th Ward in 2010, he gave ample thought to the reasons why he should wait. Just 30 years old, Pawar was a novice in politics and still a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.

But his professors’ encouragement—and his concerns about the city’s problems—convinced him that waiting would only delay the work of addressing those ills. With surprise endorsements from the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, Pawar won the election in February, taking nearly 51 percent of the vote and defeating three other candidates.

The dramatic, long-shot victory took Pawar and his supporters completely by surprise. But they all say the experience has confirmed their belief in the importance of getting engaged in public affairs, even when the odds of success are low. They are now facing the welcome challenge of channeling their ideas and energy into policy solutions for Pawar’s ward and the city at large.

“Everyone will ask you how many campaigns you’ve participated in or what experience you have,” Pawar says. “Not many will ask if you really just care about the community. My advice is, just do it. Don’t wait.”

That simple call to action motivated many of Pawar’s advisers and volunteers from the University community.

Edward Tanzman, one of Pawar’s instructors in the graduate Threat and Response Management program of the University’s Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies, vividly remembers Pawar’s unlikely rise.

Crafting policy, knocking on doors

“I had no reason to believe that he had a shot at winning,” says Tanzman, who also is the co-director of the Center for Integrated Emergency Preparedness at Argonne National Laboratory. “But we didn’t really discuss the chances of victory. He was focused more on the rightness of it than the practicality.”

That was enough to convince Tanzman to volunteer in the campaign, critique Pawar’s policy stances, donate, and even spend the Sunday before the election sloshing through the rain to knock on doors.

“I could say to those families, ‘I know this man,’ says Tanzman, who in the past had won five elections as a community representative for a Local School Council. “As an instructor, if I have an opportunity to help a student make the world a better place, then I will try to help.”

Pawar also was able to tap other mentors at the University for campaign support and insight into navigating Chicago politics. He had received his Threat and Response Management degree in 2009 from the Graham School in addition to pursuing his SSA degree. Fellow classmates used their course work to help him craft policy positions. Two of those classmates still serve on his staff: Charna Epstein, his chief of staff, is a 2005 SSA graduate and a fellow 2009 graduate of the Graham School program where she and Pawar met. Jim Poole, who graduated from SSA in 2011, serves as Pawar’s community specialist.

"When Ameya announced he was running for alderman in our class—with Jim by his side as his field director for the campaign—I think his classmates were a bit wide-eyed and at the same time immediately supportive of both," says Dean of SSA Neil Guterman. "It's this kind of imagination that we like to see and nurture in our students, and now Ameya will have the opportunity to serve his ward and the city with skills and knowledge he's gained from his studies at SSA," adds Guterman.

From coursework to local solutions

Now, as alderman, many of the solutions Pawar is putting in place for the 47th Ward are grounded in his education at the University of Chicago. For example, “some of our work and thinking was based on a class with Andrew Velazquez, the regional administrator for FEMA,” Pawar says. In another class, “we got into the inner workings of how the European debt crisis unfolded, then matched that up with the literature.” Studying international and domestic crises has helped Pawar’s team think more globally about addressing local issues.

To Pawar, the 47th Ward on Chicago’s North Side is an example of what a community should be.

“We have the Brown Line, which connects housing to parks, libraries, and schools,” he says. “All of these different resources connect to build a community.” But after living in the ward for the past five years, Pawar has become concerned about the issues that threaten it and the city as a whole. The most pressing issue, he said, is the exodus of residents leaving Chicago for the suburbs for a variety of reasons, including access to better schools.

Pawar’s strategy is to build up the 47th Ward’s schools to stabilize the population and stimulate economic development. Some of the key ingredients for this strategy are parental involvement, fundraising, and leadership.

“If you get all those working simultaneously, you can turn a school around, and it can happen relatively quickly,” Pawar says. “If we anchor every new project in schools, that will be more effective to drive economic development. More schools equal a high level of well-being, and then new businesses come in.”

By Kadesha Thomas

Originally published on September 27, 2011.