Who is Zehra Quadri and what would she do as alderman? Her campaign Web site provides some answers and raises some questions.
It takes some searching to find “Zehra’s Vision,” but if you scroll to the bottom of her homepage you’ll find the link. Once there, you’ll read that Quadri plans to “integrate” existing “vibrant business districts” and “diverse neighborhoods” and will invest in the residents through unspecified “workforce and business development.” What this means and how it would translate to real-world activities as alderman isn’t clear. One problem with “Zehra’s Vision” is that her ideas are lost in nearly impenetrable jargon. She needs to communicate much more clearly and forcefully just what those ideas are.
It is not surprising that Quadri’s vision is rooted in her life’s work of community empowerment. Improving workers’ skills and educational levels is key to individual success, but the central issue in this election is what candidates would do to improve our dying business districts. A better-qualified, higher-skilled workforce will remain unemployed or underemployed without successful, profitable businesses to provide work. What does she think of the existing business mix? What kinds of businesses does she think the ward needs and would support? How would she persuade these businesses to come to the 50th ward? Quadri is oddly silent on these questions.
Quadri plans to support entrepreneurs by “connecting them to funding, technology, and retail spaces that enliven business districts.” She would also find corporate internships for high school students and support local hiring. These are laudable goals and suggest that she is thinking of establishing the 50th Ward as a business incubator for entrepreneurs. She has experience in such endeavors via Zam’s Hope, the community organization she founded more than 15 years ago.
One of the projects she created at Zam’s Hope is a commercial kitchen. Once fully operational, it will provide food service experience to entrepreneurs who want to explore turning a favorite recipe into a profitable business. Plans include a small restaurant where customers can purchase meals or carry-out, rate the foods, and help determine which products might be successfully marketed as either fresh or frozen items to be sold in local and specialty markets. Quadri’s organization would offer production and marketing support and help secure retail outlets.
Quadri, a designer by training, has also established a boutique and tailor shop at Zam’s Hope staffed entirely by immigrant women who are paid for their work sewing, embroidering, tailoring, and selling clothes and accessories. Work at the boutique gives the women experience, makes them self-sufficient, and gives them the confidence, training, and support they need to become successful business owners.
It would appear that Quadri’s experience and accomplishments as an entrepreneur herself would be assets as alderman. The critical question is whether she can use that experience to create and implement a credible economic development plan that will revitalize business and create jobs. Existing businesses need direction and support. The next alderman must also establish a working relationship with the new director of the Chamber of Commerce, an organization that appears clueless about why shoppers have abandoned neighborhood stores. Positive change will not be possible without buy-in from business owners, and they have demonstrated a marked reluctance to respond to community input. The next alderman must forge a mutually beneficial relationship between business interests and the community.
Can Quadri make a persuasive case that the ward would improve under her leadership? Would her innovative approaches to business development help restore the ward’s dying commercial districts? Can Quadri persuade business owners that change will lead to profitability? Could she provide the kind of tough-love leadership the business community needs? Does she have the ideas and the drive to get the ward moving again?
Quadri has to prove she’s up to the challenge.