Stadium Goods is proud to kick off our "Block by Block: Chicago" series by highlighting an extraordinary community organization based in the city, E.A.T. Chicago.
The goals of E.A.T. are wide-ranging, but its core mission is to help provide opportunities for Formerly Incarcerated People to enter the workforce and uplift all marginalized and/or disenfranchised people within the community. Or simply, as E.A.T. founder Richard Wallace put it below, to allow "people to show up as their whole selves."
I don’t know Richard personally or live in Chicago (as your humble writer here is on the Stadium Goods NYC team), but after learning more about him through this interview, I’d say it’s a pretty good bet that he is one of the most respected, inspirational, and invaluable individuals among all of the city’s activists and grassroots organizations.
Richard was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us, to offer all the details of exactly who and what E.A.T. Chicago is, and why they do what they do for the community.
First, can you please introduce yourself. What should we know about Richard Wallace?
My name is Richard Wallace, many know me as Epic from Chicago’s infamous rap group BBU. After my career in the music industry, I went back to school to study sociology. Even as an artist I was interested in society at large and the ways people think and act. It mostly stems from my upbringing and witnessing the good, the bad, and the ugly in both myself and the people around me. I’m from the school of hard knocks. I tried on every hat until I found one that fit, from BMX and Hip-Hop to incarceration and Indie Rock. I’m a culmination of all those experiences and lives and they inform everything I do today. I am the Founder and Executive Director of Equity and Transformation (E.A.T.), the co-founder of the Black Roots Alliance, a Soros Justice fellow, Voqal Alum, and one of the inaugural Fellows of the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity.
Can you tell us the history and mission of E.A.T. Chicago? When was it founded, and why?
E.A.T. was founded in 2018. At that time I was the Director at a prominent labor organization that was well respected by many people in the organizing community, but I felt empty. The suit, the tie, the code switching to make everyone but me comfortable had me depressed. That same year I applied for a fellowship called the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, I can still remember receiving the call from the Director of the fellowship, informing me that I was selected. A week or two after I was accepted, I resigned from my job to create E.A.T. I wanted to develop a space that allowed people to show up as their whole selves. Where Formerly Incarcerated People (FIP) could lead the work and the culture of the institution reflected the culture of the team. Today, 100% of our team is formerly incarcerated or impacted by incarceration. That means a lot to me because the same folks we have leading state wide initiatives and building public policy, have historically been told they are ineligible for employment due to their backgrounds.
E.A.T. is a continuation of Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People's campaign. To me, there is no greater indicator of an individual's proximity to poverty than their ability to acquire formal employment in the US. In Chicago, we have neighborhoods where 81% of Black males ages 17-24 are unemployed. Living in areas that have no jobs to offer, many turn to the streets to make ends meet in local informal markets. The occupations in the informal markets range from bucket boys to selling loose cigarettes. Although informal occupations have their challenges they are often the only occupations available. The growth of the informal economy in places like Chicago’s South and West Sides occurs at the nexus where poverty, joblessness, racial discrimination, and the mark of a criminal record conspire to exclude many from employment opportunities in an otherwise booming regional economy. It is our belief that in order to change those conditions, the people most impacted by those conditions must have a voice in our democracy, and hopefully E.A.T. can be a vehicle to help make it possible.
How many people in addition to yourself are on the E.A.T. team?
We currently have five employees including myself: Communications Director Nicole Laport; Program Director Glenn Taylor; Lead Organizer Alonzo Waheed; and our Digital Organizer Alex Perez. Our work is anchored by our volunteer leadership council which is made up of four brilliant community leaders: Brittney, Shabazza, Mendai and Solomon.
What is your goal for what E.A.T. can ultimately achieve?
Our goal is to provide a space for historically unemployed Black people to imagine new possibilities and do our best to provide the tools for them to create it. At the end of the day we envision a world free from racism, homelessness, hunger, prisons and police. With that in mind, we are for the abolishment of institutions and any related policies that produce those conditions. I believe that we can achieve a radical restructuring of the US economy, one that’s rooted in the needs of those in need, opposed to the needs of those in power.
Are there any E.A.T. branches in other regions than Chicago? Are there any plans for additional branches in the future?
E.A.T. currently has active chapters in Chicago and Joliet, Illinois and Benin, West Africa. We have every intention of extending our reach in the US nationwide, with a particular focus on the South.
What is one of your proudest accomplishments while working with the organization?
One of the proudest moments at E.A.T. has to be the Cannabis Equity campaign in Illinois. On May 31st, 2019 Illinois became the 11th state to legalize cannabis and the policy we informed was praised as being one of the most “equity-centric policies in the nation.” Through it, nearly 800,000 Illinois residents became eligible for expungement, along with a host of associated equity provisions we helped define in partnership with the PURE Cannabis Coalition. Coming in close second is our COVID-19 Mutual Aid Campaign where we were able to provide direct financial assistance and resources to over 800 Illinois residents since March of this year.
The call for racial and social justice has been in the national spotlight more than ever over the last few months. Have you seen the community respond in support of E.A.T. more than ever as well?
No lie, over night our Instagram and Twitter followers quadrupled. We had a Go Fund Me up since 2018 that was hovering around $3,000 and within a few weeks it hit $40,000.00. We received donations from hundreds of people and a number of local businesses like Dorians, Stolen, and Hidden Characters. Additionally, the volunteers and new members have increased dramatically and not a day goes by where we don’t receive a request from someone to join. We are humbled and grateful for all the support.
What can somebody interested in the mission of E.A.T. do to help?
You can become a member: Link
You can Donate: Link
You can sign our petition: Link
All photos compliments of Richard Wallace