Back 2 School Illinois Helps Underserved Youth Get the Most Out of Class-time

Back 2 School Illinois Helps Underserved Youth Get the Most Out of Class-time

It’s no secret that public schools in Chicago have struggled to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students. Ever since the 2013 closings of 47 underutilized Chicago Public Schools [CPS] elementary schools—the largest number of schools closed in one year by any district in the country at the time—public scrutiny of the school system’s budget shortages, policy overhauls, and overturning leadership has only intensified.

Amidst this turmoil, the day-to-day challenges confronting students affected by poverty can fade from focus all too easily. For more fortunate students, it might be inconceivable that these pervasive cracks in the system and a host of other factors can deprive students from low-income families of resources as simple as pencils and notebooks.

With this chasm between underserved students and their peers in mind, Matthew Kurtzman founded Back 2 School Illinois [B2SI]. “The need is staggering,” he says, adding that 1.2 million students in Illinois come from low-income households that often cannot afford the basic school supplies their kids need.

Originally known as the Illinois Currency Exchange Charitable Foundation, Back 2 School Illinois became a 501c (3) nonprofit in 2010 and has continued to grow in the ensuing years. At the heart of the organization’s efforts is its free school supply distribution program, the largest one in the state.  The program helps kids develop the confidence they need for bright, successful futures, while lessening the financial burden felt by their families. “There’s a whole self-esteem thing that comes into play when kids don’t have the basic supplies they need to succeed in the classroom,” Kurtzman says, highlighting how discouraging it can be for students who don’t have access to the resources that students from wealthier families enjoy. “When a kid goes back to school and they don’t have everything they need, it can be very demoralizing.”

Kurtzman has a long history working with nonprofits. He organized a walk-a-thon while in college that raised $100,000 for the American Cancer Society, and during a twenty-year career in marketing he encouraged clients to participate in community outreach activities. By the time he started B2SI, he had a strong sense of education’s profound importance in society at large. “I just think education is a universal concern because we’re all affected by it, directly or indirectly.” Given today’s polarizing political climate, Kurtzman says, a quality education is more important than ever. “So many of the problems we’re seeing: the divisiveness in our society and the inability of people of different mindsets to have constructive dialogue all goes back to education.”

Back 2 School Illinois’ work to create and support educational opportunities that enrich the lives of underserved students may empower some community members to want to help. Those interested can visit to make a donation or explore other ways to get involved.

B2SI distributes its signature Back 2 School kits (filled with core school supplies children need) in partnership with more than a dozen government agencies and community organizations, including the YMCA of Metro Chicago, Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago. JCC Chicago, Operation Homefront & the USO. In the past year alone, B2SI helped to distribute 34,200 of these kits—over one million school supplies in total.  

Continued expansion is in-the-works at B2SI. Later this year, they plan to begin a financial literacy program, in which volunteers from sponsoring financial institutions will help students understand the basics of sound budgeting and thoughtful financial planning.  

B2SI even has an eye on areas beyond Illinois’ borders, with the recent creation of Back 2 School America. “We’re starting to test the waters a bit,” Kurtzman says of the expansion into other states. “We’re talking with a potential distribution partner in Texas and did a program up in Milwaukee last year with Operation Homefront,” a non-profit that provides resources to military families. A collaboration with Bernie’s Book Bank to include books in B2SI’s school supply kits is also on the horizon.

B2SI’s mission clearly is to step up to help fill the gaps of a poor state economy and help alleviate challenges to our schools and low-income families.  Through its events and volunteer opportunities, B2SI has established a base of dedicated volunteers. And there’s no need to look further than B2SI’s own alums for examples of how “giving back” and community service can inspire. About a month ago, Kurtzman heard from the first recipient of a college scholarship awarded by B2SI, a young woman who now lives and works in Philadelphia.  “She said that she’s so appreciative of the scholarship and what it did for her, that now she wants to help,” explains Kurtzman. “So, we’ve asked her to speak at our annual Kick-Off fundraising dinner in May.”

Call to Action

You can support Back 2 School Illinois’ mission in a variety of ways. For starters, individuals or groups can buy school supply kits (which contain 30 basic supplies) via B2SI’s Buy-A-Kit program, and then pick up and distribute the kits themselves to a local school, church or community organization, OR folks can simply buy the kits and then have B2Si distribute them to the organization of its choice.

B2SI’s Build-A-Kit program is a great team-building activity for organizations large and small, and involves businesses, law firms and community groups buying bulk school supplies from B2SI and then building school supply kits for underserved kids.  It makes for a fun, rewarding experience for community groups and organizations, and/or for a great corporate team building event.

Also, coming up on May 9th B2SI is holding its annual fundraising Kick-off Dinner; volunteers are needed for the event, as are silent auction items. Finally, coming up on April 10th, from 6pm- 10pm, B2SI is hosting one of its “Notes of Inspiration” event at Elixir Lounge in Lakeview.  The event offers volunteers an opportunity to personalize notes of encouragement to be included in B2SI’s school supply kits. Folks can contact Back 2 School Illinois if they’re interested in hosting their own Notes of Inspiration event.

The Night Ministry: Bringing Support to the Streets of Chicago

The Night Ministry: Bringing Support to the Streets of Chicago

      Instead of waiting for people to come to them, The Night Ministry is taking to the streets of Chicago. The Night Ministry is a non-profit which provides housing and support for those confronting homelessness.

      Unlike many similar organizations throughout the city, The Night Ministry puts boots on the ground in the streets of Chicago each day in their Health Outreach bus. This bus, which is roughly the size of a CTA bus, transport social workers, nurse practitioners, members of The Night Ministry’s team, as well as volunteers throughout the city  to help individuals who aren’t able to reach clinics and other service locations that are open during the day. The team on the Health Outreach Bus provides free services such as confidential testing for HIV, Hepatitis C and STDs. They also provide basic medical care, pregnancy tests and provide referrals for medical and dental care for those in need. For encampments these large buses are unable to reach, The Night Ministry sends out a street medicine team to help those in need. The street team visits individuals living under bridges and other outdoor locations to provide survival supplies and connect them to needed support services.

     The Night Ministry also makes an impact through its five housing programs for young people experiencing homelessness. The non-profit’s doors are open to anyone and everyone, with specific support services for LGBT youth and teen mothers. Barbara Bolsen, Vice President for Strategic Partnerships and Community Engagement at The Night Ministry, stated “Success is measured in small steps – almost 90% of former residents of our youth housing programs say they feel confident and stable in their current living situations and more than 60% of Health Outreach Bus visitors say that relationships they’ve built at the Bus have led to new opportunities”. At The Night Ministry, they are not simply lending out a helping hand, they are setting individuals up for a successful and independent life.


Call to Action

  • Donate! The Night Ministry is always accepting packages of new white or black adult socks, packages of new adult sized underwear, single-ride Ventra passes, and $5-$10 gift cards for McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks and $15-$30 gift cards for stores like Jewel, Mariano’s, Walgreens, CVS or Target. Drop off times are Monday-Friday 9am-5pm at 4711 N. Ravenswood Ave. 
  • Volunteer! Serve a meal with a group of friends at “The Crib,” a LGBTQ-friendly overnight shelter, or provide street meals alongside the staff of the Health Outreach Bus. Volunteer on a Saturday to create hygiene kits for distribution! E-mail or call 773-784-9000.

  • Learn!
    Invite The Night Ministry to your workplace for a “Corporate Lunch and Learn” including a presentation on their efforts, and complete a service project (making sandwiches or creating hygiene kits) with your coworkers!
Uplifting Youth and Families Confronting Homelessness

Uplifting Youth and Families Confronting Homelessness

La Casa Norte is a non-profit that aims is to uplift Chicagoans who find themselves facing a period of homelessness. Serving youth and families, their mission states, “We provide access to stable housing and deliver comprehensive services that act as a catalyst to transform lives and communities.” La Casa Norte [LCN] supports youth and families with emergency, transitional and long-term housing options when they are in need, but they don’t stop there. They also assign a case manager to each individual they serve to ensure that they have all of the support necessary to place everyone on a successful track. Whether it is supportive housing, food, clothing, school supplies, job skills, or health services, the staff at La Casa Norte take the steps to uplift Chicagoans in need.

Part of supporting youth, apart from basic necessities, is supporting their focus on a successful future. La Casa Norte’s Youth in College program allows for college-aged individuals to do just that. Through collaboration with schools, LCN is able to target and support college students in need through tuition assistance, dorm-style housing options, academic services, and career services. In the coming months, LCN is making even more leaps and bounds in supporting youth and families.

In March, they will be hosting their fundraiser “Unveiling Homelessness,” where people will have the opportunity to share the untold stories behind homelessness in Chicago. They will also be launching “Project Period” in March, in which they will be fighting to end the taboo surrounding female menstruation, and raising funds for feminine hygiene products for women in need. In August of 2018, La Casa Norte plans to unveil their Foundation Project: a brand new, state-of-the-art facility including housing units, showers, a food pantry, a nutrition center, an employment training center, and a medical health center.

At La Casa Norte, they work endlessly to support any and all individuals who come knocking on their doors because they truly believe in their mission of transforming lives and communities here in Chicago!


Call to Action:

Giving Girls the Tools to Succeed

Giving Girls the Tools to Succeed

Twenty-two million. That’s the number of refugees worldwide living outside their home country. The U.S. has made efforts to combat this crisis, resettling over 3 million refugees since 1975, but giving refugees a safe place to call home is only the first step.

Founded in August of 2011, GirlForward began when founder Blair Brettschneider started to work with a refugee resettlement agency. Brettschneider noticed that girls especially had trouble accessing resources, and with all the refugees resettling in Chicago, GirlForward was born as a reaction to the community’s needs.

GirlForward aims to provide girls with better access to education and opportunities to explore and express their identities. Though GirlForward has evolved since its founding more than six years ago, its primary focus remains the same: building its programs around the interests of the girls, making sure they each have a voice to allow them to dictate how the programs run and change.

GirlForward offers three programs aimed at girls ages 14-22 years old:

  • The Mentoring Program pairs girls with mentors meant to serve as role models, friends, and someone to confide in. The ultimate goal of this program is for the girls to graduate high school, but it also aims to help them foster relationships, human connections, and mutual respect between themselves and their mentors.
  • The Safe Space Project provides designated safe spaces allowing girls access to resources like books, computers, and tutors, as well as opportunities to connect with other girls and explore their own identities. These safe spaces are open to any high school girl, regardless of her status in the U.S. There are three in-school centers, as well one at the GirlForward headquarters located on Devon Avenue in Edgewater/Rogers Park.
  • Camp GirlForward is an academic summer program centered around English language learning with an emphasis on establishing community and encouraging social justice. Camp GirlForward is targeted towards girls coming to the U.S. as teenage refugees.

Ashley Marine, GirlForward’s Director of Girl Engagment, works as a manager dealing with program design and evaluation as well as working on the ground as a staff facilitator and, most importantly, collaborating with the girls served by GirlForward to continue to build programs and curriculums based on their interests and needs.

As one of GirlForward’s first staff members, Marine has witnessed the organization’s growth and evolution and has seen all that’s been accomplished. One of the accomplishments she’s most proud of is how the Chicago community has come together to support its girls and young women, and how the staff continues to challenge and be critical of larger systems of oppression. The most rewarding experience, Marine says, is seeing the girls express themselves and explore their identities by setting and achieving goals.

With programs already established in Chicago and Austin, Texas, as GirlForward looks to the future, there is talk of expanding to yet another city. Through this process, though, the emphasis remains on meaningful growth that includes the girls’ voices and lets them have a say.



Relativity, a Leader in Corporate Giving

Relativity, a Leader in Corporate Giving

Corporations of all sizes are seen as our employers of goods and services. Sometimes lost in their identity is their critical role in giving back to society. Businesses can possess vast resources, knowledge, and skills to make significant and lasting impact on our communities. Chicago Rises has highlighted many nonprofits and social enterprises and their amazing work. But we also want to profile companies in the business world and how they are making a difference. Last month, I spoke with Colleen Smith, who leads the Community Engagement effort at Relativity, to see how one Chicago company gives back.

Relativity, is a leader in the e-Discovery sector and a fast growing technology firm in Chicago. The core principal behind their philanthropy program, Relativity Gives, is leveling the playing field in regards to access to technology in education. “We truly believe whether a kid lives in Evanston, Austin, or Englewood, they should have access to great technology,” Smith said. “We believe it’s that important to their future and the well being of the community and we want to make sure they have equal access to those things.” Much of Relativity’s focus is on education and schools and there are four programs (or pillars) that make up Relativity Gives.

The first pillar is Wired to Learn, a grant program that provides an influx of technology to schools in the greater Chicago area that need it most. The grant awards qualifying schools  $250,000 for 3 years and is milestone-contingent based. Past recipient schools of the grant have experienced transformative changes and very positive results. While just having technology is not a silver bullet to solve all issues plaguing a school, explained Smith, access to great technology can improve drastically the students’ learning experiences and aid in teacher and community development. “The teachers will be the first to say that having the resources they need and having a company believe in what they are doing can change the culture of a school.”

Geek Grants makes up the second pillar, which are $2,500 grants awarded monthly to nonprofits, school, and causes nominated by Relativity employees. Anything technology related is eligible to help the grant recipients achieve their mission. Common uses of this funding have been for Chromebooks and iPads for school and after school tutoring programs. “We’ve seen everything from girls learning how to code, after school programs, and Cradles to Crayons actually used it to upgrade their systems. They needed additional server space to grow from serving 16,000 kids to 32,000 kids,” said Smith.

The Volunteer program is the third component of Relativity Gives. It focuses on allowing their employees to step away from their desks periodically and do something good. Relativity hosts quarterly field trips or events for Wired to Learn partner schools or Geek Grant schools at their downtown office. Employees can host a coding workshop, talk about career exploration, or give tours of the office, just so students can get a taste of what it feels like to work in a tech environment. Outside of technology, employees also have opportunities to share their favorite organizations they support with their colleagues.

Community Partnerships is the final pillar, which encompasses partnerships with various organizations around the area. These can include events like food drives and holiday gift sponsorship of local children in need. One community partner is Embrac, a nonprofit that helps kids get to and through college through experiential learning. Relativity hosts coding sessions with kids to expose them to new experiences and technology. Another partnership that Smith was especially proud of was their relationship with Cristo Rey Jesuit and Christ the King high schools. These schools offer a unique work study program to their students where a student goes to school four days per week and then one day per week interns at a local company. This helps fund the student’s private education and gives them exposure to people that have gone to college, to careers, and perspectives that are outside of their neighborhoods. Relativity has eight interns from this program, including one student/employee who has been with Relativity for over six years!

From these four pillars of Relativity Gives, you can see the diversity in the programs which gives both opportunities to internal employees to give back and allow for different types of community partnerships to flourish. It’s not just about donating money, time and talent are as valuable or more so than just giving money according to Smith. She feels it is important to have their employee’s talents be exposed and shared both in or outside their office. As for how Relativity Gives is managed, decisions are made democratically within the organization. Whether someone has worked at Relativity for one week or five years, anyone can get involved.

One of the main questions I had was why is it important for corporations and for profit organizations to give back? “We are part of change in the world every single day through technology, it just makes sense our neighbor should have access to being part of that change as well,” answered Smith. Whether it’s through industry changing software like Relativity or high speed internet access in the classroom or something non-technology related, it’s the right thing to do for corporations to help others via their resources. As for why Relativity gives back, Smith said it’s in their company’s DNA and the mission of leveling the playing field for access to technology comes straight from their CEO, Andrew Seija. He fully supports and empowers Relativity Gives and this mentality permeates throughout the organization. Smith described how there was such a giving community inside the office and that passion fuels their giving programs.

One challenge Smith noted was that there was far more need out there that they can be meet alone. So Relativity Gives looks for as many opportunities as possible to partner with organizations. A couple of cool ones in the technology space are Chicago Tech Rocks and T4Youth. They also look for opportunities to evangelize what they are doing. “If you’re a startup with seven people, there’s stuff they can do now. You don’t need a quarter million dollars or 800 people or massive infrastructure to do something,” said Smith. She is open to providing informational sessions and talking to people from other companies looking to start similar programs and to share knowledge and learnings. Internally to Relativity, the challenges come from being in a fast growing company and people being busy. So Smith focuses efforts on breaking down barriers to give to make it easy for employees to volunteer, such as doing things online.

In the last year, one of the proudest accomplishment Smith highlighted was the work and progress made by the Wired to Learn schools, Pickard and Ruggles, who have experienced remarkable success and growth. Though much of the credit is due to the schools, teachers, parents, and the students themselves, the grant to transform the technology available at those schools was certainly one catalyst for the positive changes. Smith recalled how walking into the schools and seeing the changes in how the students interacted with technology and how the staff feels about coming to work was so inspiring. Internally, she is very proud how the Relativity team has stepped up for giving events. For example, there was a waiting list for sponsoring kids this past holiday season well beyond the 301 kids already helped. Small things done by the employees make a difference, from taking time to spend an hour to help, to donating to a food drive.

As for upcoming goals around Relativity Gives, they recently relaunched Wired to Learn to open it to more schools in the greater Chicago area. They are also going global by extending Relativity Gives to their Krakow and London offices. As mentioned earlier, Smith continues to look for ways to make it easier for a rapidly growing employee population to volunteer. A new event that they will host this year is a volunteer fair of 15-25 organizations at Relativity so employees can meet local nonprofits personally to potentially support. As Relativity’s business continues to grow, it is great to see how Relativity Gives scales with the growth. It is a example that other businesses can certainly follow to increase their community impact.


Call to Action

  • Know a school that can benefit from the Wired to Learn grant? Spread the word and go here to find more information and apply. The application deadline is February 14th.
  • How can someone outside of Relativity help? Smith said if you are a company or work for a company and you’re not engaging with the community to its full potential, Relativity is willing to talk and share knowledge. Here’s some advice to other corporations and businesses on creating and growing giving programs:
    • Start small and with something close to home that is a good fit. Close to home means seeing who your employees are connected to and what they care about. This approach will be more meaningful and impactful for your employees.
    • Create an advisory council and codify processes and procedures.
    • Integrate your giving program into what the company does everyday and line it up to the mission of the company if possible.
Riser of the Month: Hugo Colin

Riser of the Month: Hugo Colin


Featured as our Riser of January is Hugo Colin. At 16 years old, Hugh volunteers his time at various nursing homes, hospitals, and non-profits around Chicago offering tribute performances to Elvis Presley, and he pulls out all the stops. Between the costumes and the dynamic performances, Hugo is sure to show his audiences a good time.



How did you start doing this work? In kindergarten, I was six years old, and I  performed my first Elvis songs just for fun for my school’s first annual PTA Talent Show. While I was in elementary school, I learned to perform a different Elvis song each year. I have been an Elvis fan all my life, and singing these great songs made me realize that lots of people still like to hear Elvis’ hits. After my final talent show in 8th grade, I really wanted to continue performing because I saw how happy people were to see this type of entertainment. The following summer, I started volunteering at local senior nursing homes and not for profit organizations (NFPOs) such as the Ronald McDonald House, Shriners Children’s Hospital, and the Misericordia Home.

Why do you keep doing it? Having the opportunity to volunteer my ‘tribute to Elvis’ performances for seniors and friends with special needs is a big honor. My family helps me out all the time. We see that the people sometimes look down and uninterested but then they start tapping their feet, dancing in their seats, and by the end of my show they all are bursting with happiness. Maybe because most of them remember the music from their teenage years, or maybe because they are Elvis fans, too. Elvis songs just get people feeling young and full of excitement. The energy that I bring to nursing homes and hospitals makes them feel as happy as I am to be there.

Do you think celebrating what you have is important? I can say that it is important to me, as an Elvis fan, to share my talent and and do what I can to add a little more happiness to the lives of my audience at nursing homes and hospitals. We all get to enjoy ourselves during the tribute show, and the enthusiasm stays with the my new friends as they leave. I get to celebrate my gift every time I make someone happy during my performance. This makes me the most proud of myself and my family and is why I love to perform for others. I know many will be even more happy waiting for me to return for my next performance with them.

What is your favorite quote? I’ll quote Elvis here because this is exactly how it is for me when my family and I walk into a new place and see that we have a tough crowd. But once I get going, they put their worries aside for a while and start enjoying themselves: “Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do ’em all together, I guess.” I’ve had the opportunity to perform for audiences of all ages and a few that don’t speak English. Great music speaks many languages. Music makes people feel good. Elvis music makes people feel even better. And I am glad to do what I love to do for them.

If you could teach any subject, what would you teach? After thinking this over, I decided on history. Maybe music history. Kids my age know a few Elvis songs because of the Disney movie, “Lilo & Stitch” and his biggest hits or else not at all. I would like to teach kids the history of rock’n’roll and all the different styles that lead up to the first sounds of rock’n’roll. Actually, I do mention a small bit of historical information as I introduce each song. That helps teach or remind the audience of a point in time when the music was new. These great songs that Elvis recorded over 60 years ago and recognized around the world will live on for another generation to appreciate, with a little help from me.

If you could pass a message to a large group of people, what would it be? “Volunteer any way you can; if you have a talent, share it.” Year after year, I enjoyed performing Elvis songs but after I graduated elementary school and knew I wouldn’t have anymore talent shows, I decided to volunteer at places in my neighborhood. I do get bookings for paid performances now, but I still look forward to the volunteer shows at great NFPOs around Chicago. Our small act of kindness is a special way to give back for all our blessings.



Check out Hugo’s Instagram, @hugoselvista, for information about his performances around Chicago!


Corporations: A Surprising Leader in Community Impact?

Since the inception of Chicago Rises, we’ve told the stories of many organizations and people making a difference in the city. A large percentage of those folks naturally are involved in nonprofits. When people think of entities making positive impact in society, nonprofits and social enterprises first come to mind. We at Chicago Rises want to explore all players in Chicago that contribute to a better world. This includes corporations which can possess the resources to make significant and lasting impact on our communities.

Last month, we sat down with Relativity, a leader in the e-discovery sector and a fast growing technology firm in Chicago, to learn how they give back. Story coming soon!

Making Tech accessible at The Difference Engine

Making Tech accessible at The Difference Engine

As technology and software become an indispensable part of our lives, the demand for skilled people to work in this sector continues to skyrocket. For those looking to start new careers in software, it can be intimidating to obtain a computer science degree. Recently, the rise of development boot camps and online courses have opened the doors to more people trying to enter the tech field. But even then, there are still considerable challenges for these people to convince tech companies to hire them since they don’t have real world experience. That is where The Difference Engine comes in to help.

The Difference Engine was born out of the experience and passion of Kimberly Lowe-Williams. As a young child, she knew she wanted to be involved with computers in some capacity. Lowe-Williams pursued the use of computers in high school and naturally went on to major in computer science in college. In her first computer science class, she realized how difficult software development was and how it is truly a collaborative effort. Life took her away from computer science for a while, but Lowe-Williams’ passion for it never diminished. When programming courses started becoming more readily available online, she started to get back to pursuing her interests around software development. She discovered a development boot camp called Actualize and went through that program. After completing the program, Lowe-Williams started applying to development jobs, but encountered another barrier in landing a job.

Tech companies were still skeptical that developmental boot camp graduates had the necessary skills to build applications and software since they did not go through the traditional four-year computer science path. They wanted more experience in these graduates. Lowe-Williams explained, “There needs to be additional support after people finished the boot camp because a few months can pass where you are not getting a job and you’re not coding and you’re not building your skills and skills do atrophy”. The time gap makes it difficult for applicants to pass coding challenges and to articulate what they have learned in an interview. This was an issue that Lowe-Williams wanted to solve. She is passionate about making tech more accessible since she experienced firsthand how it allowed her, as a girl from a small town in Northwest Indiana, to make a living and support her family. Also while volunteering as an adult, she saw the challenges nonprofits faced that could be addressed by technology, but these organizations didn’t have the resources or funding to take advantage of tech solutions. “Technology was changing the world and people who can most benefit from it are locked out”, Lowe-Williams said.

The Difference Engine solves problems for two groups that have needs. On one hand, you have aspiring software developers who have dedicated time and effort to change their careers, but encounter challenges in showing prospective employers they have real world skills and experience to do the job. On the other hand, there are numerous nonprofit organizations trying to change the world, but operate inefficiently and don’t have resources to use technology to help them. Lowe-Williams used her background working in technology companies to create an apprenticeship for the boot camp graduates to simulate an actual software work environment where a product is delivered. In this case, the product can be a website or application built for nonprofits to help carry out their mission. “The apprenticeship is a safe way to transition from one career to the next and keep growing, keep coding,” Lowe-Williams said. “The true heart in the mission is to make tech accessible. The reason tech is not accessible is because how much it costs. To make tech accessible we have to keep the cost no to low. That is one of the reasons why we are a nonprofit to keep us mission first.” With this approach to eliminate the barrier of cost, The Difference Engine can support the large number of people trying to enter the tech world.

The process of the program starts with an applicant submitting a letter of interest to join the team as an apprentice, followed by a phone screen or face-to-face meeting. Another method to inquire is to attend one of the info sessions. Once an applicant is accepted, a technical assessment is done by the volunteer staff so they can place people on the appropriate project based on their skill and experience level. Lowe-Williams said they will not reject anyone that qualifies, but that there may be a waiting list depending on the number of projects that need to be staffed. One requirement of the 17 week program is that you need to be actively looking for a job. This serves as a motivator and confidence builder for the apprentices.

The process for nonprofits/social enterprises is similar in requesting help to work on a project. They should email The Difference Engine with details on the project and the organization must have no or low revenue. They also must have an open time frame since The Difference Engine can be constrained by the number of available developers. Requested projects must be new code (not fixing an existing site for example) and open to The Difference Engine determining the type of technology best to deliver the project. The goal is to build a minimum viable product (MVP) to solve business problems for the nonprofit or social enterprise.

The biggest challenge The Difference Engine faces is finding more funding and sponsorship so they can provide more nonprofit projects for apprentices to work on and help the program become more sustainable. As with many startups and nonprofits, building a team of advocates and board members to network is also a necessity to succeed. Another challenge Lowe-Williams pointed out was to break down biases toward non-traditional software development candidates. Many tech companies filter out non-traditional resumes, so many people with high potential are left struggling to find jobs. So working with startups to diversify at conception versus trying to change views on this bias later is ideal. Partnering with good companies that believe in their mission and developing a pipeline of volunteers that understand the challenges facing these non-traditional applicants will help remove these biases and lead to more successful job placements.

During her journey so far, Lowe-Williams feels giving a voice to people trying to get into tech is one of the proudest accomplishments of The Difference Engine. Many of the apprentices didn’t have knowledge of technology or what a developer was only a short time ago. “They were working in manufacturing, were construction workers, guitar instructors, Uber drivers, moms, former nannies, and there’s been quite a few people who now have had their lives transformed.” She said these people’s children now know what a developer is and with this exposure to tech, can see the field as an option for a future career. These stories and impact fuels Lowe-Williams and The Difference Engine to support others to make that leap.


There are several ways to help The Difference Engine keep running and making an impact.

  • Join as a technical (Product Owners, Dev Leads) or admin volunteer to be part of the team supporting the apprenticeship program
  • Donate to help support more nonprofit projects for apprentices to work on
  • As a nonprofit looking for development work to aid their cause, submit a project request!
  • Volunteer as a board member! Applicants with nonprofit and fundraising backgrounds are especially needed.
Chicago Rises on Founder Stories

Chicago Rises on Founder Stories

Recently we collaborated with the platform Founder Stories to share what we do here at Chicago Rises. It was the first time I remember doing a video interview, so I admit it was a bit awkward at first talking straight into the camera. But I was able to quickly loosen up and really enjoy the interview. It was a great experience and hopefully I was able to articulate Chicago Rises’ mission to viewers. We’re always looking to collaborate and partner with other organizations to help lift each other up.

Thanks Founder Stories for sharing our story!

Good Food, Good Company, Good Cause: Soup and Bread’s 10th Season Is Underway

Good Food, Good Company, Good Cause: Soup and Bread’s 10th Season Is Underway

Winter break ushered in temperatures in the single digits and the days of below-zero windchills have carried into the new year. The January cold may be an indication of dark winter days and cabin fever yet to come, but it also marks the return of a beloved Chicago tradition: Soup and Bread at The Hideout.

In a major metropolitan area like Chicago, a chance to bump elbows with your neighbors and break bread together in a small, cozy setting may sound like a vestige of a bygone era, but every Wednesday through March, Soup and Bread serves as an opportunity for community members to do just that. Each week volunteer chefs bring a soup—and plenty of it—to share with anyone who cares to drop by. Partakers pay a donation in an amount of their choosing and then enjoy the offerings of the day, along with delicious bread donated by Publican Quality Bread. All proceeds are donated to local nonprofits combating hunger in Chicago, like the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Call to Action

We all know that heavy winter feeling that beckons us inside, shielding us from the harsh elements right beyond our doors. But summon the intrepid winter traveler within you (you know you have one if you live here) and check out Soup and Bread, which kicked off its tenth season this week at The Hideout. Sample some outstanding food (with vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options often available), enjoy some camaraderie with your fellow Chicagoans, and support important causes that serve Chicago’s most vulnerable citizens. You’ll be glad you did.

Fancy yourself quite the cook? Consider making a pot of your favorite soup for Soup and Bread this season! Email to get in touch with the organizers.

Raising the Next Generation of Givers

Raising the Next Generation of Givers

You’re never too young to learn the importance of giving back, and Families Helping Families Chicagoland [FHFC] knows it.

Families Helping Families Chicagoland aims to improve the lives of low income families and foster children in the Chicagoland area. The charity collaborates with different social service agencies, homeless shelters, and schools to find needs they can help fulfill. To meet those needs, they hold monthly donation collections, sponsor foster children for their birthdays, and host hands-on events. These events give children opportunities to immerse themselves in the idea of giving back.

Families Helping Families Chicagoland started with founder and president Amy Newman four years ago. Inspired by her mother, a woman who was all about giving back, Newman wanted to find a way to help kids for the holidays. She began collecting donations, and with the help of others, was able to help 200 kids all from her own home.

Since then, Families Helping Families has grown, now complete with its own board of directors, and even a junior board. All 12 board members are volunteers and actively involved in pick-ups, drop-offs and running events. The junior board helps to plan and spread the word about events.

“Getting children involved is very important to FHFC. We feel that giving back is something to be modeled, so our children see it as [a necessity], not just a choice,” Newman said.

With four years under her belt, Newman has enjoyed watching all kinds of people come together to make a difference. The most rewarding part is “seeing the relief on people’s faces” and knowing that they’ve helped make hard times a little easier.

Call to Action

Want to get involved?

  • Visit FHFC’s facebook page to find info about their events and volunteer opportunities.
  • Visit their website to find out how to donate.
Matchmakers for Donations

Matchmakers for Donations

It’s that item sitting in your closet gathering dust. Or you find it hidden in a drawer or your garage. Many of us have items in our home that we no longer need. The best option in most cases is to donate the item so it can be re-used. But have you ever wondered if your donation will go to a person or home with the most need?

Fortunately there is a platform that can help with this predicament. GiveNkind directly connects individual donors with 501(c)(3) registered nonprofits to make this donation process more personal and purposeful. I had the chance to meet giveNkind’s founder, Emily Petway, to learn more about their mission.

Petway’s journey to founding giveNkind began in Atlanta. As a music teacher in Atlanta, she learned that some of her students were not able to afford dresses to attend formal dances such as prom. Unwilling to accept this situation, Petway eventually founded the Greater Atlanta chapter of Becca’s Closet, a national, non-profit organization that donates formal dresses to high school girls who cannot afford to purchase them. During her time as a volunteer manager of this chapter, she discovered how much material goods are needed by nonprofits to operate. In cases of small nonprofits, being able to afford these goods is not feasible and can threaten their ability to carry out their mission. For Becca’s Closet, not only did they need prom dresses, but they needed items like clothing racks, mirrors, and chairs among other things. When Petway narrowly missed out on securing a donated lawnmower to help keep the grass in front of their building up to city code, she knew there needed to be a system for donations to be re-purposed for only nonprofits. Determined to solve this social problem, Petway’s idea for giveNkind was born.

The giveNkind platform is straightforward and free to anyone that registers. Once a donor signs up on the site, they can post a list of what the items they have to donate. On the other side, a nonprofit can also post a list of goods they would like to request after signing up. In addition, the nonprofit can explain how the items will impact their organization and communities. “A donor list is available to be seen by nonprofits and a nonprofit list can be seen by donors, so the connection is authentic and direct,” Petway said. That direct connection is important so the actual donation matches are not determined by a third party system, but instead by the two involved parties.

I was able to experience the process through giveNkind first hand when my family needed to donate some baby clothes, detailed here in my story about Cradles to Crayons. According to Petway, my experience is the ideal one in the their system, explaining “We’re of course hoping the item fulfills the need and allows them to extend their reach, but now you’ve entered their circle of volunteerism and potential donors, so that’s expanding not only the nonprofit’s reach but their base of support and that’s awesome!” The goal of fostering these direct connections is for people to get involved in another organization by joining their volunteer base and donating, which can result in reoccurring gifts without giveNkind’s involvement.

Petway’s mission for giveNkind is to grow a community of giving. “We believe everybody has something they can give, even if it’s not money, it’s something that isn’t being used or it’s being underutilized,” Petway said. “It’s some item that’s been misplaced in your home and actually belongs somewhere else.” GiveNkind’s model focuses on the individual donor and enabling them to make the most impact, which results in nonprofits being more productive. Instead of using energy to find things they need, nonprofits can use that energy to focus on servicing others.

The giveNkind platform launched in April of this year, so they are in an early adoption phase while trying to create more awareness of the platform. A couple of challenges that surprised Petway when talking to nonprofits about giveNkind were related to what can be posted and the free cost. She wants to convince nonprofits to post requests for more than the obvious and that they can literally ask for anything they need. As for the free cost, it takes skeptical nonprofits some time to understand that giveNkind is indeed completely free. Petway feels a growing system with more participants will address these issues and earn the trust of nonprofits going forward.

It is amazing that giveNkind is operating with a 100% volunteer base. They have volunteers all over the country, which requires them to meet virtually. A large portion of the team are software developers. For them, being able to give back in way that leverages their skill set is enticing. Petway believes that their structure so far is sustainable because of the low overhead and that they are all volunteers. This fact also gives them credibility in the eyes of nonprofits since giveNkind is a nonprofit itself and not making money off their platform.

The proudest accomplishments so far with giveNkind, Petway said, are the experiences of dropping off donations and seeing someone shopping and using those items. She recalled a time when they dropped off a couch and later found out that it was used by a woman going through a very difficult time in her life. In addition to the donations, Petway also gets to meet and learn about giveNkind’s nonprofit partners and their selfless work. Seeing the impact and gratitude directly is very rewarding, Petway shared.

During our conversation, it is easy to feel the energy and passion that Petway exudes about helping others and furthering nonprofits’ missions. She has a refreshing perspective on how helping others is bigger than any individual and organization. On multiple occasions, Petway said it would be great if people used giveNkind to donate. But if people don’t use them, she encourages others to still use other organizations and take action to make a positive impact.


Call to Action

There are several ways one can make a difference with giveNkind.

  • Have something to donate and looking to make a connection to a great cause? Then register as a donor and make an impact with your donation.
  • Are you a nonprofit looking for items that can help your organization better serve your community? Then register as a nonprofit and share the list of items you need so you can meet wonderful donors that could potentially become future supporters of your mission.
  • Are you a software developer looking to give back by using your skills in technology? GiveNkind would love to have your expertise to make their platform even better and to help bring some great ideas to fruition.
  • To contact giveNkind directly, please email or call 847-802-8977
  • Here’s some parting advice from Petway that resonates: “You have a skill that can benefit someone in the community or organization. Don’t underestimate your ability to affect change. Someone can do anything, however small, to start a chain reaction. Don’t not start because you’re afraid what you’re doing isn’t big enough. Start. Do something. You never know what your impact will be and what that will lead to.”
How Chicago Rises is Rising

How Chicago Rises is Rising

Hello Chicago!

The team has been discussing recently how we can better communicate and engage with our fellow Chicagoans. We want to have an open line of communication going both ways. First, how can we let you know what we’re doing to improve Chicago Rises to best serve you and our communities? This is the purpose of this blog, to inform you of what we’re thinking and doing at Chicago Rises. Then secondly and most importantly, how can we get your feedback and engage you better? Our goal is to connect and rise together in a wave of inspiration and collaboration.

Here at Chicago Rises, we embrace the concept of experimenting. This is a great way to learn and create things that we as a team, and hopefully you as a Chicagoan, value. With that, we are introducing a couple of new features to the site:

  • Riser of the Month: We recently posted about our first Riser of the Month: Justin Cabrera. The idea around this is to put a spotlight on someone in our communities doing amazing work to positively impact others. If you would like to nominate someone, please send them our way!
  • Events: As we meet and hopefully build relationships with the organizations we highlight on Chicago Rises, we want a forum to share their events to allow others to connect and support them. The Events calendar will help our readers and followers find ways to take initiative and answer that Call to Action.

So please look for future postings here from the Chicago Rises team. As always, we would love to hear from you. Talk soon!

Riser of the Month: Justin Cabrera

Riser of the Month: Justin Cabrera

Every time we post an article here at Chicago Rises, we make sure to include a call to action – we want readers to engage with the community and help in any way they can. And we want to show that anyone can volunteer and improve this beautiful city.

So, we decided to talk to one outstanding Chicago citizen each month, and ask them how they got to this point. Hopefully, their stories will inspire others to follow their steps and give back to the community.


Meet Justin

Our Riser of December is Justin Cabrera, a senior at Loyola University Chicago. Justin dedicates at least one day of every week to volunteer with The Labre Ministry, a student-led homeless outreach. They prepare food for the homeless and go to multiple Chicago neighborhoods to distribute it. But most importantly, they make sure they connect with whomever they are helping – they sit with the people, chat with them, hang out for a bit and give them food. Justin’s outstanding engagement through the past four years led to a leadership position – but how did he first get involved with Labre? Fortunately, I got the chance to interview him and find more about his experience in Chicago.



How did you decide to join Labre? “My freshman year I actually got into a little bit of trouble, and the school asked me what I wanted to do throughout my years here in Loyola. I said I wanted to get involved in community service, so I started to go to Labre and it was great. I did this type of service back home, and I wanted to keep doing it in Loyola, it just so happens that it kind of fell into my hands unexpectedly, like a blessing in disguise. And if you ask other Labre leaders, many of them will tell similar stories – that it started as mandatory community service, but they kept doing it.”

Why do you keep going? “When I started I went every week almost, and even after I fulfilled my hours I thought wait, I really like this, so I kept going. Going into my sophomore year they offered me a leadership role. It was cool because now I could actually lead other students and have a final saying in some decisions in the organization.”

Do you think celebrating what you have is important? “Before we go out, I always tell my group to think about what we have and what these people don’t have, because it provides them with more perspective. Remembering how lucky we are, and being aware of it is something we should celebrate.”

What is your favorite quote? “I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me.”

If you could teach any subject, what would you teach? “Sports. I would want to coach, and be a tutor on the side. There is a lot we learn on the field that we can apply to real life.”

If you could pass a message to a large group of people, what would it be? “Be present in the moment and don’t take things for granted. We have busy lives and sometimes we forget to stop and just worry about what is going on right now, rather than what we did in the past or what we are going to do in the future. So, I always try to focus on the present. When we are out with Labre in a circle, talking to one of the people on the streets, we try to be in that moment and listen to what they have to say. We might think that we are doing them a favor and changing their lives, but in fact they are changing ours.”


Call to action

Got inspired? If you are a student at Loyola University Chicago you can always join Labre during one of their weekly outings through the organization’s website.

If you do not attend Loyola, but still want to help feed the homeless, there are many other volunteering opportunities across the city. For instance, Chicago Rises has attended the monthly HashtagLunchbag events, where you can put together lunch bags in a super fun environment! To learn more or to RSVP to an upcoming event you can access their website or their Facebook page. Also, check our events tab to see if there are any upcoming events that you can join.

Giving Kids the Essentials to Succeed

Giving Kids the Essentials to Succeed

As the weather turns colder in Chicago, many of us start taking out our winter clothes from storage or look to purchase new gear to stay warm. Unfortunately, there are kids in Chicago that don’t have this luxury. In fact, many children don’t even have the basic essentials in any season, let alone warm jackets and clothes for the winter. Almost 200,000 children in Chicago live in poverty, which is a staggering number. For Cradles to Crayons, their mission is to help make life better for these children in need by providing them the essentials they need to thrive.

I was recently connected to Cradles to Crayons because my family had some baby clothes to donate. We wanted to make sure that the donated clothes went to a cause or organization that will ensure the items reached kids who would need them most. Fortunately we found giveNkind, a nonprofit that helps connect donors with organizations needing the donations, which matched us with Cradles to Crayons. After dropping off the bags of donations at their facility on the northwest side of the city, the staff was kind enough to give me a tour of “The Giving Factory” and explain what they do there. The Giving Factory houses Cradles to Crayons’ local business and volunteer operations. The organization’s mission inspired me to learn more. In fact, I signed up to volunteer at The Giving Factory and also had a great opportunity to sit down and talk with their executive director, Bernard Cherkasov.

For many people, a single event can inspire and have a positive impact on the direction of their life. For Cherkasov, that was the case when he was a young child. “I have a vivid memory of being 9 years old and us receiving a box of boots and coats for us. I remember the sense of going to school the next day, wearing my brand new coat and feeling so excited that there are people in this world who really cared for us and really wanted us to do well,” he recalled. Years later after studying law in college and then working as an attorney, he saw a chance to become more hands-on in nonprofit and to be part of the change that he wanted to see in the world. The first opportunity that convinced Cherkasov that nonprofit was where he needed to be, was at Equality Illinois, whose mission is to secure, protect and defend the civil rights of LGBTQ Illinoisans, which he led for 7 years. But his memory as a child receiving services similar to what Cradles to Crayons provides stayed with him. “When I heard that Cradles to Crayons was looking to expand to Chicago I knew this was my mission and I wanted to be part of it,” he said.

Cradles to Crayons was originally started in Boston and the Chicago location opened in August 2016. Since that time, the Chicago branch has served 49,000 children (from birth to age 12) and looks to expand that impact even more. With just over a year of operation in Chicago, Cradles to Crayons has worked hard to get a foothold in the city and gain the trust of the community that their work is reaching the kids in need. For Cherkasov, getting established in a new city and gaining that trust of volunteers, donors, and the community has been one of the top achievements of the organization so far. The organization realized its impact was working when they noticed many returning volunteers and referrals. Running The Giving Factory to serve thousands of kids and building a strong base of volunteers and donors is hard work, so it’s incredible that Cradles to Crayons Chicago currently only has 13 staff members! Bernard said this speaks to the importance of the army of volunteers and generosity of the community in their mission.

The Giving Factory

When I volunteered at The Giving Factory a couple of weeks ago, I could feel the impact I had as an individual and how the organization empowers their volunteers to embrace the mission. The Giving Factory is a large warehouse and when you step inside you immediately see the vast amounts of donated material, which include clothes, shoes, backpacks, books, diapers, strollers and an assortment of baby items. Even though there was a tremendous amount of items stacked everywhere, the warehouse was neatly organized in stations.

The process of taking a donated item and getting it to its final form as a kid pack is purposefully detailed to make it as efficient as possible. The first step is to fill out a note with a positive message using markers and crayons for a recipient of one of the kid packs. Then you are directed to a station that the volunteer coordinator deems as a high priority for that day and time. For example, I helped sort clothes into different bins by age and gender and also ensured the clothes were of high quality. There are motivational quotes posted all over the facility that inspire you as you work. One quote in particular resonated with me: “Quality = Dignity”, which is central to Cradles to Crayons approach. Donations are required to be new or nearly new condition before they are delivered to a child. To these children, receiving items that are new helps support their dignity, which is so important.

When I asked Cherkasov who the main beneficiaries of Cradles to Crayons’ services are, his answer opened my eyes to the actual impact of their organization. “I feel we benefit all of Chicago,” he responded. Aside from the Chicagoland kids they serve by providing high quality essentials, Cherkasov explained that the volunteers experience a transformation as well. “Chicagoans that can contribute and volunteer, it is a transformative experience because every moment you spend in The Giving Factory, sorting products for quality, or cleaning toys, or putting together outfits, or customizing the kid pack orders, you know that you’re adding purpose to your own life.” Cherkasov pointed out this transformation is especially important when kids are volunteering and providing these services for another kid. He recounted a story of a little girl who volunteered with her family at The Giving Factory. When the volunteering session was over, the girl asked if she could stay longer. When her mother told her they needed to go, the girl asked if she could come back another time with her friends and possibly even host her birthday party at The Giving Factory. The mother was moved to tears to hear her daughter speak those words.

Volunteering for two hours next to a group of students from a local high school and college students from Northwestern University, I saw how people from all walks of life can band together to make a difference. But most importantly, seeing those students sorting through the donated clothes to ensure the clothes were in good condition, you can see young people comprehending how simple things like having nice clothes that fit could impact a child. Watching the future of our society giving back was pretty amazing.

Call to Action

There are many ways to make an impact with Cradles to Crayons. Check out their Take Action page to see how you can make a difference. Whether you’re donating goods or money, spreading the word, or volunteering at The Giving Factory, your efforts will directly impact a child’s life immediately. To see examples of the impact that volunteers can have, here are some sunshine stories from the grateful families and kids.

Spread your love through coats and warmth

Spread your love through coats and warmth

Winter is coming, and everyone can feel it. Learn how you can help Chicago warm up with the help of Button and Zipper!

Temperatures are dropping in Chicago, which means it’s time to turn on the heater, make a hot chocolate and snuggle under the blankets.

However, for the thousands of homeless people living in the Chicago area, that won’t be possible. Homelessness and poverty affect Chicago year-round, but they need special attention during this season.

Thankfully, some Chicagoans dedicate their days to making sure no one is cold this winter. One of them is Nancy, also known as Ira’s mom, the cofounder of Button and Zipper.

I interviewed her during the October event of HashtagLunchbag, where she collected winter coats. We decided to have a chat on the balcony – we were wearing no jackets and it was 32 degrees outside. It really put the whole issue into perspective.

Her son, Ira, lives in Denver, so Button and Zipper operates in both cities. When asked about how the organization came to be, Nancy said that Ira grew up in Chicago, watching her give back to the community, which influenced him to come up with the Button and Zipper idea.

One of their main goals is to “help kids make it”. For instance, one of their projects, Dress Up The Grad, aims to support at risk high school students for graduation. Still, right now they focused on helping everyone that needs winter coats. Ira’s mom mentioned that Button and Zipper is currently working on multiple new projects, and as it grows hopefully the word will keep spreading and we’ll keep hearing about their programs and their impact on the city.

Right now, Button and Zipper works as the middleman, partnering with different agencies to organize coat drives and then take donations to whoever needs it. If you want to donate winter coats, receive donated coats, or learn more about what they do, contact them directly.

Call to action

If you are ready to donate, check their drop-off locations and see which one is most convenient to you!

Thank you, Button and Zipper, for talking to us about your amazing organization, and we urge all our readers to take some time this month to separate winter coats that you don’t wear anymore. That old jacket thrown in the back of your closet can be someone’s light at the end of the tunnel.


Photo by Blake Lisk on Unsplash

A Safe Space at Broadway Youth Center

A Safe Space at Broadway Youth Center

The Broadway Youth Center (BYC) of Howard Brown Health is a haven for LGBTQ youth and young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability. BYC provides refuge and community as well as medical, social and mental health care services. BYC sees anyone, regardless of ability to pay, and serves more than 1,500 teens and adults aged 12 to 24.

Chicago Women That Will Inspire You

Chicago Women That Will Inspire You

You probably haven’t heard about this organization yet, but they are responsible for helping dozens of women around Chicago.

It is time for you to get to know them.

Chicago Women’s AIDS Project (CWAP) might have a very specific name, but their different programs target a surprisingly broad population.

Project SASS (Sister Advocating for Strong Sisters) helps HIV positive women by partnering with clinics and agencies across the city that provide treatment and education to HIV positive cisgender and transgender women. The goal is to strengthen these women’s coping skills, healthy relationships, and traditional STI/HIV transmission prevention skills.

Their other main project is called Returning Sisters, which is a prevention program. It helps women that are HIV negative, but at high risk of being exposed to the virus, which can be people that experienced or currently experience homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse issues, and mental health issues. CWAP offers free therapy, free recovery coaching, HIV and HEPC testing, and extensive rehabilitation support. They also often offer workshops about a variety of topics, which always have the intention of empowering their clients.

CWAP’s office offers a very informal and welcoming environment, where women can go hang out, ask for help, and feel safe. They are looking for volunteers, interns, and even new staff members. Want to hear more about these women’s stories? Get involved with CWAP’s work! Send an email to Velvian, the Returning Sisters’ Recovery Coach (


Recovery Coach, Velvian (middle), with two of her clients:


Clients often volunteer to help prepare the monthly events:


CWAP helped several women that did not have any social support to get their lives back on track:


In summary, they do an amazing job, and more people should know about them!

Disability Pride Parade

The 14th annual Disability Pride Parade took the streets July 22nd to talk about the civil rights goals they want to achieve for their community and how these issues are addressed in Chicago.

A recurring theme that came up during one of the meetings for organizing the parade was defining the difference between their parade and a protest. Hank, one of the Grand Marshalls, explains that, “The balance is:  what do we want, what will it give us and how will we go about that and how far we are willing to go. My take is, that the balance is, that we’ll go as far as we have to.And that means that we may have to act as advocates”.

It is important to note that although the parade this year has passed, The Disability Pride Parade is striving to create a larger event next year. This can be an intimidating task considering the obstacles they’ve encountered when requesting for a larger street to march down, however this goal is definitely achievable and they are looking for support and solidarity from other Chicagoans.

To learn more about the parade, check out Disability Pride Parade on Facebook or their website !

You can read up on statistics of resources and employment for people with disabilities here.

In Living Color

In Living Color

Vibrant colors of the rainbow splashed across Chicago in June as residents celebrated Pride festivities. The LGBTQ civil rights movement has accomplished a great deal in its short existence, however there is still more to come. A prevalent issue is the lack of racial representation in the queer community, especially considering many of the leaders in the birth of the movement were queer people of color. Some point out that, because the movement is to be focused on sexuality and gender identity, race should not be involved in the matter. However, although ideally race should not be a factor, the intersectionality of race and queerness is very much connected in the way people are treated and viewed by society and thus there have been consistent instances of racism in the queer community throughout its history. Although allyship is always important, the shift of primarily middle class white people at the forefront of the movement has changed the prioritization of civil rights and led to the erasure of queer people of color as well as created an unwelcoming atmosphere from many pride festivities.

In addressing this issue, Philadelphia added two new stripes to the pride flag on June 8 to signify more inclusion to honor queer people of color who have lead the movement yet are rarely talked about as well as those simply living out their daily lives. This year, we decided to take the streets of Chicago’s Pride Parade and ask people of color in the LGBTQ community what these stripes mean to them, what obstacles they have overcome in navigating their identity, and what they are most optimistic about for the future.

What do these stripes mean to you?

Hiram Bowens (Left) expressed his dislike for the additional stripes because he does not think race should be expressed in the flag. Cole Graske (Right) stated, “I think it’s appropriate, especially with our country right now and everything that’s been going on. I’m all for more people of color and equality”.

What obstacles have you faced as a result of your identity?

Eric Obioha (Middle): “I did not overcome **** because I get judged by straight and other gay people…. Until the gay people can learn to unite with each other – the gay guys especially – can learn to unite with each other, then ain’t nobody gonna overcome nothin. It is too judgmental in these gay streets.”

Bowens: “It pisses me off when white people are like, ‘Well, I’m not really into black guys, but…’ Ooh I hate that. I really hate that. I just –“

Friend: “Or ‘You look cute for a black guy.”

Bowens: “Yeah! ‘I’m glad you’re not as ratchet as most black people’ and stuff like that, that really pisses me off.”

What are you most optimistic about for the future?

Graske: “I think with – hopefully, with what’s going on – people see that there’s a real issue and I hope that people join together (points to Eric) like you were saying.”

Obioha: “Just to be open minded and less judgmental.”

Bowens: “I think there’s so much prejudice in the gay community because you’ve got so many sub-cultures…”

Graske: “But there’s only one, really. I mean we’re all part of one community so… well we should be, I think, going forward.”

What do these stripes mean to you?

Regina Brown (Right): “Life basically, ’cause you got to think about it, black people aren’t always recognized, it’s good that we’re getting recognized, and not just black people, gay people too. For us to be gay and black? That’s a lot, and it means a lot for us to be added to something that’s united. And black and brown, you really don’t see that. You don’t. So when you got a whole rainbow, a full rainbow that’s completed, that’s what you call honesty right there. Cause the rainbow’s not completed without black and brown.”

Tateneisha Brown (Left): “It’s a blessing that people are starting to accept us for who we are…. And I’m a happy and humble person, I’m glad to come out here and I call everyone my family. That’s how I look at it, we’re just one happy family and we’re united and we all stand together. … Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, but I’m happy to be here and even the people who are not gay and came out to support us, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Regina and Tateneisha have been together 7-8 years and married for 2. They recently adopted a one year old child and are excited for their future together as a family.

What obstacles have you faced as a result of your identity?

What obstacles have you faced as a result of your identity?

Brianna Luviano (Left): “I feel like I go through many obstacles, not only being a female, but as soon as people know that I do like women, or that I am gay, it’s very difficult in the sense that they judge you right away. …

I’ve been with her (Brittany, Right) for 10 years, and as soon as people hear that… either they don’t take it seriously or they try to take it seriously…and they’re really confused. The reason why I fell in love with her was not on gender or like, I thought she was gorgeous. Her personality and her kindness is what drew me to her… Growing up, I never thought about ‘Is this right? Is this wrong? Should I be with a woman or a man?’ No, it was never about that. If I liked someone, I liked them. And when I had first seen her, I’ll never forget it. I…it was like, when time stops, that’s how I felt and I was like, ‘she’s gonna be mine.’

That’s how I felt.”

What do these stripes mean to you?

Brent Wolff (Right): “I just think it means more acceptance. If anything, that’s what it’s all about. Within the gay community, there’s a lot of different racial tensions and if adding two more colors means that people feel more free and more accepted, like, let’s do it.”

Jordan Jedry (Left): “For me, I really think it’s about coming back to our roots. Trans women of color really started the LGBTQ movement in the United States and I think adding those additional stripes to honor them and the sacrifices they made is something that we really need to think of as a community. They were the driving forces and everything we do is in their honor.”

What do the stripes mean to you?

Sylvia M.: “I think that’s amazing because whenever you look at pride, all you see is predominantly white people, that’s all that’s represented. Just because our community silences [sexuality], it doesn’t mean it’s O.K. We’re misrepresented and underrepresented. It’s so nice to see yourself represented cause when I was younger and having the feelings I was feeling… you didn’t see black gay people. Being gay was a “white thing” that’s what everyone said. So, to be bisexual and finally see yourself represented in this whole entire great thing we call “Pride”, that’s awesome.”

What obstacles have you been faced with as a result of your identity?

Sylvia discussed her internal conflict. Being bisexual, she said she is often dismissed as “straight passing” and so her experience was different, yet she still struggled with determining who she was as well as how she fit in with the queer community. A part of molding her identity was finding validation of her existence in the first place.

Sylvia M.: “When I found out that it was possible to be bi, that it’s possible to like guys and girls, it felt natural to me that that’s a real feeling.”

What are you most optimistic about?

Sylvia: “I’m optimistic that it’s not gonna be a big deal anymore if we add another stripe to the flag. Who cares? That’s just more colors, there’s more colors than just the few you see every day in a rainbow, you know? There’s so many different spectrums that we just can’t see, so I’m excited about that and I’m also excited about the whole community growing.”

Tyrese (Right) expressed that he does not think the brown and black stripes should be added to the flag. Jemily (Left) said she was split about it, concerned it was exclusionary but also stating that, “People of color have always been dehumanized and belittled by everybody else… I think it depends on the social class as well. But I don’t know, I think it’s a good thing”.

Natalia expressed her experience being Mexican and Spanish. The personal conflict she found was that half of her identity had an oppressive history while another half of her identity was the oppressed. She also acknowledged how her experience is different because she has lighter skin and colorism plays a part in her identity as well.

“There should be a general understanding among the Latino American culture that we’re all experiencing something together and to say that, because of our pigment, we can’t identify with our parents… I struggle with that.” She continued to discuss how racism among Latino Americans has created a divide between other people of color, citing her experience with her parents driving through a predominantly black neighborhood and them automatically locking the car doors

“That’s a learned racism, why are we disassociating from black culture if white government and white patriarchy also oppress that (Latino- American) culture?  They oppress us and they oppress them, why can’t we find that common link?”

So do the stripes provide a change for that?

“Yeah, because we should all find that common link…. That link is what chains us all together”.

What are you most optimistic about for the future?

“There’s a number of young folk that are rising to the occasion in whatever way they can. So, that’s a difference. At the end of the day, if Black and Latino civil rights are connected, if they care about us, they’ll always care about you.”



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