Pawar to the People

By Steve Hendershot
Pawar to the People
Alderman Ameya Pawar (M.P.A.'07) with 47th Ward intern Erin Scheffler
Photo: Michael Goss

As staffers buzz around the new 47th Ward office, cleaning desks, arranging chairs, and checking the clock, the new alderman glances around the room once more at his just-assembled collections of donated office furniture and neighborhood art.

It’s been only four months since Ameya Pawar (M.P.A. ’07) pulled off a stunning election-night upset of Tom O’Donnell, the rival candidate hand-picked by the ward’s retiring 37-year incumbent, Gene Schulter.

Pawar, 31, won by promising an approach to governing that would be based on transparency, responsiveness, and community engagement. Tonight, at his first 47th Ward 
open house, his challenge is to begin to turn those promises into action.

The first residents through the door are Helene Ortega and Barbara Rila, both of whom have lived in the 47th Ward for decades. Ortega heads straight for the alderman.

“Congratulations!” she says. “I told all my friends to vote for you. Now, what are you going to do for the seniors?”

Soon, Pawar, Ortega, and Rila are looking at ward maps. Ortega is pointing out streets with troublesome potholes, and Pawar both notes the locations and explains that he’s placed a freeze on re-paving projects until he’s able to coordinate with local utility providers to avoid duplicating the work.

Pawar knows that a large part of being an alderman is dealing with people who want things from you—residents, businesses, nonprofits, city council members, and the mayor, among others. He insists that he’s prepared for the challenge of putting his approach to work in a real-world context.

“It’s easy, as a candidate, to look in and think everything is broken,” Pawar says. “Once you’re inside, you see it’s not so. A lot of aldermen would say my approach is not new, and that greater transparency and responsiveness are things they wanted. But the bureaucracy can be hard to navigate.”

When Pawar returned from a 10-week stint in India as a State Department Scholar in 2009, he decided to run for alderman. He had previously developed a theory for community governance called “Social Intelligence” 
along with some fellow University of Chicago graduate school classmates, and he asked them to help with the campaign. (Pawar has a master’s degree in threat and response management from U of C in addition to his IIT master’s degree.)

Charna Epstein agreed to help with Pawar’s campaign. She says the 47th Ward is an ideal community for putting Social Intelligence to work.

“In our ward, we have a lot of people who are really invested in community and in sharing information. That means [Pawar] can actually make an impact,” says Epstein, who is now Pawar’s deputy alderman and chief of staff.

One 47th Ward resident promises to be particularly vital to Pawar’s success: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Pawar predicts Emanuel will rely on the city council more than his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, did.

The open house, however, isn’t about the mayor or other power brokers. It’s a chance for Pawar to meet residents like Ortega and Rila. He is learning quickly how many different directions an alderman gets pulled.

Pawar isn’t overwhelmed, though. As various homeowners, businesspeople, parents, and seniors raise their concerns, he listens, takes notes, and asks questions. During the campaign, Pawar introduced an iPhone app that allows residents to relay service requests to the ward office. Pawar’s Social Intelligence model is based on real-time feedback and participatory democracy, so the issues these residents raise aren’t a nuisance; they’re critical data points and opportunities that will allow Pawar to show that he can make a difference.

Leaders in the 47th Ward say he’s gotten off to a promising start.

“[Pawar] has done a really good job of inviting community involvement and encouraging a collaborative process to solve the issues facing our neighborhood,” says Melissa Flynn, executive director of the chamber of commerce for Lincoln Square, a 47th Ward neighborhood.

Pawar hopes that someday Social Intelligence will transform communities far beyond the 47th Ward. He also understands it’s a long, slow process—one that starts at a ward-office open house, talking about potholes and planning a bright future.