There’s a long, storied history of organizing in Chicago, including the infamous Haymarket affair that is largely credited as the origin of International Workers’ Day and for Labor Day in the United States.
Nearly 100 years after the Haymarket affair, Crystal E. Gardner was seemingly born to carry the mantle for organizers on the Westside.
“I grew up in a two-parent household,” Crystal said. “My mom and my dad were public servants. They were both community and political organizers.”
When your parents’ wedding was officiated by the late Rev. Clay Evans and Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., co-founders of Operation PUSH, you get the sense that you were born into the movement.
“I grew up in community meetings, political meetings,” she recalled. “I grew up in Rainbow Push, walking the halls of Rainbow Push, or running the halls.”
For all the organizing and public service that her parents engaged in, it was the foundation of love and support that they instilled at home before and after her father’s passing that resonated most with Crystal. She credits her mother for maintaining the family’s stability.
“She has been an amazing example and model of what it means to be a Black woman who is successful and operates from this place of love,” Crystal said about her mother. “She has always modeled this unwavering loyalty and commitment to community, her family, her neighbors and Black women, Black Chicago.”
Crystal’s mother has made an indelible mark on her life, offering an inspiring example of determination and perseverance. Her mother, Mary, was one of seven people who survived the Cook County Administration Building fire in 2003 after being rendered unconscious in the highrise’s stairwell after being overwhelmed with smoke. The fire claimed six of her co-workers' lives.
“I think that story is enough to capture (her essence),” Crystal said. “That and the fact that she was able to maintain our lifestyle and the net, the foundation that my parents created after my father passed.”
While she became familiar with some of the most influential civil rights leaders in our nation’s history at an early age, Crystal was ready to set out on her own path when she enrolled at Florida A&M University, a historically Black college in Tallahassee, Fla., with some formative lessons on their way.
She bounced between Chicago and Florida for a couple of years, even taking a semester off at one point while entertaining a troubled relationship with an older man.
“I didn’t know how to be in real relationships then,” she said. “I was at that rebellious age.”
“The (relationship) experience was terrible. When I was in it, I couldn’t see how horrible it was, how damaging it was and how abusive it was.”
When she decided that enough was enough, she placed a phone call to her sister.
“She came and got me, took me back home and life was back to normal,” Crystal said. “That’s a blessing. That foundation remained.”
Her family structure was not only life-changing for her, but also informed her work and positions about the intersection of community and government.
“That safety net,” she reflected. “Having structures in place so that if I fall I can get back up again. I think that government, our city, has a responsibility to do the same for our communities.”
It is from that vantage point that Crystal operates, but it’s not without its pitfalls and it’s not for the faint of heart.
“I came from labor. I used to be a union organizer. I organized myself and my co-workers in 2018, over in North Lawndale.”
“Because I was leading those efforts and, in many situations, the face and the voice of the organizing drive, management targeted me,” Crystal recalled. “They wanted to fire me. I got my first write-up in the four years I had worked there during our organizing campaign.”
Instead of an ongoing battle for her job, she was offered and accepted a position with AFSCME Council 31, a public sector union across the state of Illinois. For a stretch of her time with the council, she was their only Black organizer in the state.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the leadership of my former supervisor Abby Davis,” Crystal said. “She taught me a lot, but most importantly she allowed me to do the work and facilitate it on my own.”
“That prepared me for the work I’m doing now in the community.”
She’s now spending time with the 290 IPO, an independent political organization that will conduct extensive political education and support issues ranging from homelessness and mental health to school funding and environmental justice.
“We have to educate our folks in order to bring them in,” she said. “There is a solution to these issues.”
“What an IPO does is identify, train, recruit and run candidates,” Crystal said. “The effort is transforming our communities and creating this model of co-governance, where the people, the neighbors, the residents are either in power or at the table.”
“I was activated to community organizing and activism is different from organizing,” she described. “An activist will go in and disrupt some things. An organizer is going to come up with a strategy to create opportunities to have conversations.”
Voter registration, public service announcements, and community advocacy work just scratch the surface of the issues that drive Crystal into action. It’s fitting that her current role is that of associate political director for United Working Families.
“We’re trying to organize people on the Westside.”
“You’re bringing people together, they have the same issues,” she said of the issues facing Westside residents across wards. “Empowering and encouraging people and giving them a strategy, a plan, and the tools to transform their own community provides a sense of ownership.”
And that’s really the plan, to give power back to the people.
“Let’s try to be the power and the change that we seek,” she implored. “We can’t do that siloed and individually. We have to come together.”
Crystal E. Gardner is one of 18 up-and-coming Westside leaders selected to be a part of the inaugural cohort of Community Leadership Fellows. Community Leadership Fellows (CLF) is a leadership development experience that involves educational workshops, tactical training, collaborative learning, coaching, mentoring and networking. We believe that the investment in homegrown talent will lead to sustainable, vibrant communities.
Crystal E. Gardner, CLF ’23 Fellow and Associate Political Director at United Working Families. Hear more about her mission to build political power on the Westside