Last Thursday night, Chicago lost one of its best. Longtime political operative, school budgets expert and all-around fighter for justice Dion Miller Perez died unexpectedly at age 56.
A friend described him as “Dion, who’s always there.” And so he was.
When Chicago founded Local School Councils, he was among the first elected to serve. He spent time on three elementary school councils: de la Cruz, Burroughs and Finkl. As a staffer for the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, he fought for equity in school construction spending—still a source of contention today. At the Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform, he taught LSCs and community organizations how to dig in on budgets, whether for their local schools or for the district as a whole.
I got to know Dion when he joined the editorial board of Catalyst Chicago. His dry wit enlivened many a meeting. Those years planted the seeds of a friendship that grew into Saturday afternoons walking through my neighborhood, Back of the Yards, him with a clipboard and me with my daughter in an Ergo, gathering petition signatures for Chuy Garcia’s 2009 comeback campaign for Cook County Commissioner.
Earlier in life, Dion took a shot at being a political headliner, running for the aldermanic seat current occupied by George Cardenas. But he found his home behind the scenes, training volunteers and managing campaigns. It suited his natural gift for teaching, building relationships and community organizing. This spring, he celebrated wins for a trifecta of young progressives: State Rep. Aaron Ortiz (a school counselor at Back of the Yards High School), Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya and Judge Beatriz Frausto-Sandoval.
Perhaps the most formative experience of his career came between 2005 and 2009, when he served as executive director of the Telpochcalli Community Education Project. There, Dion created space for women and young people in Little Village, his neighborhood, to build community, speak truth to power and forge their own destinies.
I had the great privilege both to write about the work and, later, to serve on the TCEP board of directors. When nonprofits were struggling during the recession, Dion chose to move on and made room for longtime organizer Maria Velazquez to move into the role of executive director. Today, she’s still at it. It’s not everyone who has the courage and humility to make a decision like that.
In progressive parlance, the cool thing these days is not to be a mere “ally,” with its overtones of saviorism and profiting personally from the struggles of others, but an “accomplice,” one who listens with respect, builds trust and walks side by side with those on the wrong side of economic and political divisions. Dion lived his life in many worlds: Mexican, Scots-Irish, wealthy and poor. He was no one’s savior and everyone’s support.
As he himself once wrote, “Many of the daily struggles that TCEP’s families face are the same as those my grandmother and grandfather experienced in the 1920s and ’30s. Often, today’s TCEP families’ experiences are worse. That knowledge propels me to continue to work with the women leaders at TCEP to upend racism, classism and sexism.”
Dion learned his work at the feet of a Jedi Master—his mother, educator and activist Angela Perez Miller. The last substantive conversation he and I had was about what to do with her papers. In all things he supported and was supported by his soul mate, Susan Mullen, an artist and longtime art teacher at Wells High School.
As a writer, Dion was no slouch. But his legacy will not live on in papers. It will live in the lives of the many young people of Little Village he nurtured—artists, fighters and community builders—including his three sons. Others I am honored to know personally include Fanny Diego Alvarez, Paulina Camacho, Henry Cervantes and many more.
In Latin America, there is a long tradition of reading the names of those killed due to political repression and responding “Presente” (here) to each, as if calling an attendance roll. It is a reminder that the spirit of each person remains with us long after their life ends. Dion Miller Perez, presente.