By Lauren Grimaldi
Standing in Grant Park in back of thousands of people losing their minds over a surprise Chance the Rapper performance, Jen Dean recalled not being able to believe what she was seeing. Just an hour prior, Dean was sprinting down the street watching performance equipment being rushed to the venue half an hour before the performance was scheduled to begin.
But after just two weeks of planning, Chicago Votes’ joint event with Chance the Rapper was well underway. Chicago Votes had partnered with Prime Fortune and Chance The Rapper’s organization Social Works to host a city wide Parade To The Polls just prior to Election Day. Following a quick performance from the famed Chicago performer, attendees, most of whom in their late teens or early 20s, walked to the polling station to cast a ballot in the 2016 election in a event designed to get out the vote named Parade to the Polls.
“I think around 6,000 people showed up to the concert and then 3,000 voted that night,” Dean said, noting that the initial turnout was only expecting to be around 1,000 people.
For the past four years, Dean has worked with Chicago Votes to organize members of disaffected communities, help them vote, and allow them to become more politically aware.
Growing up, Dean remembers seeing injustice those around her were facing. A native of Utica, NY, she watched as the large political refugee population of the area struggled to adjust to life in a new country. Her light eyes widen as she runs her fingers through her blonde hair and describes moments throughout her childhood that led her to become politically active.
“At a very young age I realized the impact that politics can have on people’s lives for better or for worse,” Dean said.
Dean cited the movie “Hotel Rwanda” as the spark for her activism as she was growing up around people that were affected by political violence in their home countries.
“I really got interested in organizing around refugee rights and genocide prevention,” Dean said.
At age 18, Dean left home and moved to Tampa, FL to attend college. She graduated with a bachelors in psychology before obtaining her masters in sociology while additionally beginning two organizations in the Tampa area. Dean began Baby University in order to help low-income, expectant mothers learn information about care taking they may not otherwise know.
Dean also founded STAND at the University of Tampa, which focuses on assisting refugee communities and those affected by political violence by aiming to stop genocide. At the time, the group focused mostly on the conflict in Darfur, Sudan.
“We made 30,000 phone calls to legislators and asked them to acknowledge it as a genocide that is currently happening in Africa,” Dean said.
Rudy Garrett, Dean’s coworker and best friend, said she could sense Dean’s passion for organizing on the first day they met. The two were scheduled to go to the University of Chicago and meet with students in regards to voter registration. Instead, they got to know each other by walking through the entire campus and talking about their lives.
“We bonded the entire time. That was my first interaction with her,” Garrett, the deputy director of Chicago Votes said. “It was like we’re not working today, we’re just going to become friends now.”
As a graduate student, Dean studied violence on the South Side of Chicago for her thesis. She said that the administration at the University of South Florida was reluctant to approve a project in this area of the country.
“I had to jump through a ton of loopholes to have the administration even OK my project to begin with,” Dean said. “Which is super problematic when you really think about it.”
As the Organizational Health Director for Chicago Votes, Dean, now 30, has helped create different programs to help people from all parts of Chicago registered to vote.
At first, she and Garrett did not know exactly how to proceed with their plan to increase voter participation with their Parade to the Polls initiative. But they decided to go for it anyway. Dean recalls that Garrett rented white vans to drive around the South Side in and use to take people to the polling station. She said that they would look for people waiting at bus stops and ask them where they were going, told them to get in the van so they could go vote, and then take them to where they needed to go.
Looking back now, Dean admits this was not necessarily the best way to attract a large number of people to their cause, but now believes that Parade to the Polls is one of the most important events the organization does. They then connected with the Chicago Public Schools to help register students to vote and take them to vote.
“It’s one thing to register people to vote, but it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll actually go do it,” Dean said. “But bringing them to a polling location is a whole different thing because then you’re banking votes.”
The past few months prior to the 2018 primary election in Illinois have been very busy for Dean.
In addition to Parade to the Polls, Dean has been working in the Cook County Jail to give inmates and convicted felons the opportunity to cast a ballot. The idea for this initiative came after Dean saw what the criminal justice system did to a young man she accompanied to court that had false felony charges against him.
Dean knew there had to be a way to try and change the system. Her eventual initiative to run voter registration initiatives in the jail and for convicted felons stems from realizing that people most directly impacted by the criminal justice system are the most likely to care about the judges that are up for election on the ballot.
“Judges are an elected position. We have the power to keep them or kick them out of office,” Dean said. “So I thought who’s gonna care about our criminal justice system? Who is going to care about these judges? People who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.”
This realization led Dean to educate incarcerated people about the city government and each judge that’s on the ballot. In conjunction with the Illinois Justice Project, Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law, state lawmakers and the ACLU of Illinois, Dean helped write House Bill 4469 in the Illinois state legislature. If signed into law, the bill would require all jails across Illinois to put a secure procedure in place for pre-trial inmates to cast a ballot.
Similarly, the bill requires all inmates to be given a voter registration packet upon their release from prison to inform them of their rights.
“The goal is to get people who have been impacted by the system to feel powerful enough to start holding people accountable,” Dean said. “And the easiest, quickest way to do that is to vote.”
Casimiro Pena, the Get Out the Vote Coordinator with Chicago Votes, said that working with Dean has been very easy since he first began working with the organization as a fellow.
“Jen and I hit it off from the get go because we both have our masters in sociology but didn’t find ourselves gravitating towards academia,” Pena said. “We both found ourselves wanting to become more apart of grassroots community organizing.”
Garrett added that her first initial introduction to meeting Dean helped define their relationship.
“We set the tone that first day,” Garrett said. “And from then on she’s been my partner in crime.”
Reflecting on all of the work she’s done with Chicago Votes, Dean still comes back to that moment she watched Chance the Rapper perform in Grant Park and urge people to vote. “I was in the back of the crowd watching these thousands of kids as he’s performing with the city in the background,” Dean said. “And I just thought it was the most beautiful moment.”