Willie Cochran: Public Servant and Community Man

Alderman Willie Cochran’s interest in public service began when he was a schoolboy growing up in the Chicago suburb of Robbins/Blue Island. Every morning on the bus to school, he would sit next to kids of all different backgrounds and races. They played on the playground together, sat in class together, and drank from the same water fountains. The TV, however, showed an entirely different America—the America of the early Civil Rights movement, which faced powerful opposition in its fight for equality. As a young boy, Cochran remembers asking his parents, “Why don’t they want their children to go to school [with African-American kids]? Or for people to be bused into their community? Why don’t they want to share the same water faucets?” As Cochran was coming of age, he saw that society was still struggling to provide equal opportunities and equal protection for all of its citizens. He knew, even then, that “the best place for [him] to be was to be in a position to impact society in a positive way”.

But Cochran was not sure how to become a civil servant, and his hometown had taught him that the best way to become successful was to go into industrial business management and to work up through the ranks. Unlike many working in industrial business, Cochran had earned a BA in sociology from Eastern Illinois University in 1975. For that reason, his welcome into this sector was “not one of embrace, but of resentment.” For example, his colleagues would give him only half of the required instructions to complete a project so that he wouldn’t be able to finish or so that he would skip important steps in the process. Frustrated by the discrimination and hostility that he felt from coworkers and bosses in the manufacturing industry, Cochran decided to take a job at the Chicago Police Department in 1977. “Because the manufacturing field put a glass ceiling on me and discriminated against me in wages and other things on the job,” Cochran explained, “I went to the police department and there I stayed.”

Cochran’s move to the Chicago Police Department marked the first step in his path to becoming a public servant. He policed Woodlawn, the neighborhood in which he lived. This connection between his home and work provided him with a unique opportunity to be, in his words, a “community policeman.” During his time on the police force, Cochran expanded his community engagement outside of his daily policing efforts. He was a local small business owner, opening a family-owned laundromat in Woodlawn in 1995. He also volunteered at the YMCA as a coach, was the president of his Block Club (a group of neighbors that organizes to improve quality of life in their neighborhood or on their block), and raised his five children in the Woodlawn community. Around the neighborhood, Cochran was known as a family man. In fact, the Cochran house became a safe space for kids in the afternoons, where they would go to play on the small playground and basketball court that Cochran had built for them in his backyard.

Cochran’s community engagement did not go unnoticed; he was urged by neighbors to run for alderman. Cochran was surprised by the request, but was happy to run—he saw it as “God’s order” to go into public service, and he considered the position a way to continue serving his community after retiring from the police force.

Before running for alderman, however, Cochran wanted to have more experience in community service work and community organizing. For this reason, he started to work as an organizer in the New Communities Program in 2003. The goal of this program was to support “comprehensive community development” in various Chicago neighborhoods including Woodlawn. It seeks to do this by bringing people together and focusing on the question: How can we improve the quality of life in our community? In Cochran’s words, “The program is about building capacity in people and getting their input. You want them to choose an area that they are interested in and to take part in the evolution of that area.” As an organizer, Cochran was able to achieve many of his goals for the community. Partnering with other community members, Cochran wrote a comprehensive Quality of Life plan for Woodlawn that tackled complex issues such as crime, ineffective schools, unaffordable housing, and lack of jobs, to name a few. These plans, which were all set to be revised every four to five years to account for progress and unexpected difficulties, helped Woodlawn to develop and provided Cochran with what he called a “roadmap” for the work he does as alderman today.

In 2007, Cochran ran for alderman against incumbent Arenda Troutman and won. During his first term, he accomplished a great deal for the 20th ward, including advocating against the closing of mental health clinics in the ward, organizing the sale and acquisition of Grove Park apartments to make way for more comprehensive housing reform, and partnering with the University of Chicago and the Cara Program, a job-training and placement provider, to open an employment center in Woodlawn. Furthermore, Cochran drew from his experience in the Woodlawn NCP to help create a similar program in Washington Park called the Washington Park Consortium.

He was re-elected as alderman in 2011 in a race against rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith. During his second term, he is most proud of what he accomplished for schools in the 20th ward. In 2013, the City of Chicago proposed one of the largest mass school closing programs in the country. Cochran strongly opposed the measure and fought to prevent thirteen schools in the 20th ward from closing. Cochran beams with pride when he discusses how the quality of the remaining Woodlawn schools has increased significantly. In Chicago, public schools are ranked on a 1-3 scale. A score of 1 means that the school is in “excellent standing,” a score of 2 means “good standing,” and a score of 3 means that the school is on “probation.” At the beginning of Cochran’s time in office, the 20th ward had mostly Level 2 and Level 3 schools. Now, there are five schools ranked 1+, five schools ranked 1, and seven schools ranked 2. Cochran also pushed for the expansion of the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum in the schools of the 20th ward, opening up an IB kindergarten to prepare students for rigorous studies from a young age.

Cochran is also proud of the progress made in the housing market during his time as alderman. In 2015, Cochran supported a federal grant of $30.5 million that went to a non-profit organization called Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH). Although Cochran has been criticized for this move by opponents, he has defended the grant, claiming that it was part of a larger partnership between multiple entities, including the University of Chicago, to invest over $200 million in Woodlawn’s housing market. Between 2011 and 2015, this money was used to build over 500 new housing units. Currently, Cochran is working with with local developers to build 225 new homes in the next five years.

Despite Cochran’s accomplishments, he is not free of criticism. Many condemned a deal that he made with the Norfolk Southern Railroad, which would, in the words of one South Side Weekly journalist, have Englewood “partially fed to private industry for its own good.” Under the terms of the deal, several blocks of Englewood neighborhoods would have to relocate to make way for further expansion of the Norfolk Southern Railroad in return for promises from the company to implement environmental protection measures and to invest thousands of dollars in Englewood’s schools and businesses. Cochran celebrates the deal as “bringing new industries, such as transportation logistics, to the 20th ward.” He also claims that the deal was done with input from the community and that he never received any complaints, except for one from a tenant who had to relocate. For this tenant, Cochran negotiated with the railroad company to pay for all moving costs associated with the displacement.

Cochran has also come under fire for a scandal involving campaign funds, for which he is currently being investigated by the FBI. Specifically, Cochran has been accused of paying himself more than $131,000 out of his campaign fund and of revising campaign reports to show this only after the fact. Cochran has responded to these accusations, stating that the funds that he withdrew were not used to pay himself directly, but to pay people who worked on his campaigns. The problem, he argues, was simply that the names of the recipients of the money were not provided in his reports of campaign fund usage to the state board. He has apologized for bookkeeping errors, but assures the public that he did nothing illegal. The FBI has not yet come to a conclusion in their investigation.

Cochran has fought hard for his constituents in the last decade, but there is still a lot to do in the neighborhoods of the 20th ward. According to Cochran, the biggest challenges facing the ward today are strategic development and organization, safety, responsible landlords, retail and commercial development, and employment. When asked what University of Chicago students can do to become more involved in the surrounding community, Cochran suggested “supporting quality programming and organizations” in the community, or even starting our own community-oriented groups within the university. Regarding his own future, Cochran isn’t sure how much longer he wants to stay in public service, but emphasizes that no matter where he ends up, “I will always be making a contribution because that’s the kind of life I’ve been given.”

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

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