Pride y Patria: The Puerto Rican Cultural Center and Chicago

Pride y Patria: The Puerto Rican Cultural Center and Chicago

The Puerto Rican Diaspora has been in effect since the middle of the 20th century. The promise of new work in new industries and the prospect of leaving the failing agricultural, rural lifestyle prompted massive migrations to the United States. Here in Chicago, Puerto Ricans first established themselves in Humboldt Park, and later established areas in Lincoln Park, Woodlawn, and Kenwood. However, due to gentrification, economic struggles and the changes life brings, only Humboldt Park and Lincoln Park retain a large Puerto Rican presence. However, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, or PRCC, has helped build up not just the Puerto Rican community, but the general area of Humboldt Park.

The PRCC provides multiple programs. It offers 5 festivities year-round that celebrate Puerto Rican culture, such as the Three Kings Winterfest on January 6, an annual celebration since 1995 that has been brought from the island that has become tradition within the community. Another of the annual festivities PRCC hosts is the Puerto Rican People’s Day Parade on Division Street that is a celebration of artistic expression for the Puerto Rican populace, as well as providing inspiration in their endeavors. On the educational front, PRCC has multiple initiatives such as their Community as a Campus Initiative, which aims to strengthen the numerous opportunities students receive by offering a strong STEM and artistic foundation, as well as the Humboldt Park Youth Employment Program which is dedicated to teaching students and out-of-school youth business trades by enrolling them in a paid apprenticeship for a span of three months. In terms of health and social wellness, the PRCC offers programs such as VIDA/SIDA, which is an HIV and AIDS prevention group for queer youth. The PRCC also offers the El Rescate Transitional Living Program which seeks to aid homeless LGBTQ and HIV positive youth to give them lasting solutions to make the most of their education and health. These examples are just a taste of the variety of programs the PRCC offers.

The PRCC’s most recent project is a housing project for local artists. This project, the Nancy Franco-Maldonado Paseo Boricua Arts Building, aims to reform vacant buildings into a vibrant community for budding artists to socialize, develop their work and sell it in stores or in the downstairs lobby, the latter of which serves as a commercial center for the artists as well as a social hub.  The architectural plans include the installation of features such as a theater in the lobby and rooftop gardens. The plans demonstrate the PRCC’s ambition to create a “sustainable, thriving catalyst for creativity and artistic exchange,” as well as facilitating the continued education in the arts.

Despite the massive projects, the PRCC has run into some problems. Aside from the need for more donors, the PRCC has had to face massive gentrification within Humboldt Park. According to PRCC’s Executive Director, José Elias López, this is the main issue, “Humboldt Park is prime real estate. It’s not that far off from downtown, and due to being once settled in by a majority minority community it became a prime target for ‘renovations.’ Before we knew it, property owners had their premiums and rent skyrocket, and were forced out of their business and homes.” However, the PRCC has developed a plan to combat gentrification. “We are declaring a good portion of West Division Street as a historic Puerto Rican town,” López said. “The local alderman Roberto Maldonado will be presenting our case.” Through these efforts PRCC would secure two miles of territory dedicated to the Puerto Rican community and fight back against gentrification tactics.

Puerto Ricans in Chicago have a history of fighting back against oppression and looking forward to the future. The PRCC carries that legacy with its incredible projects. The Puerto Ricans within Chicago serve as one of the most forward thinking groups, as their aid to the queer and impoverished groups suggests. This is why the PRCC’s motto, “To live and help to live,” resonates so strongly: they are committed to their words through effective action.


Call to action:

If you are interested in the PRCC, would like to volunteer or seek work opportunities, or would like to donate to their organization, go to their website.

General website:


For Donations:

Notable Initiatives:


Community as Campus:

Bohio Housing:


Empowering Students and Families to Become Self-Advocates

Empowering Students and Families to Become Self-Advocates

Parents and educators are taking action in the pursuit of transparency and democracy in school politics. Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education (RYH) “engages, informs and empowers parents to protect and strengthen public education for all children in Chicago and Illinois, eliminate inequities in public schools, and work at the grassroots for the public good that is public education,” as stated on RYH’s website.

In the wake of funding issues within Chicago Public Schools [CPS], this group of parents and education professionals collaborated to provide resources for families to better navigate the educational system in Chicago and across Illinois. RYH advocates for the reduction of high-stakes testing, the establishment of an elected school board, the avoidance of school privatization, increased special education services, the protection of student data privacy and the education of families on each student’s rights.

RYH’s website holds a myriad of resources for students and families, including updated educational research, tool kits for understanding school budgets, testing, special education and the contact information of local and state representatives to help make family voices heard. While many of their resources may be found online, one will also see RYH advocating at CPS board meetings and community events, elevating the voices of parents and families.

On the ground, RYH engages the community in workshops such as the “Parents Know Your Rights” workshop where families are educated on their students’ rights in the field of special education. In this workshop, RYH provides families with materials to organize the forms and documents necessary to understand and track their students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEP). In RYH’s Local School Council  Empowerment (LSC) workshops in the near south side  neighborhoods, RYH educates people on the responsibilities of the Local School Council. By providing families with these resources, RYH has not only empowered families to advocate for their own students, but for policy issues which affect whole school districts. Making resources accessible to all, RYH has established a level of transparency, along with a thirst for and ability to create action!

Call to Action:

Call to Action: Grow Your Own Illinois

Call to Action: Grow Your Own Illinois

Students come from numerous social backgrounds, each with their different world views, circumstances and needs. Therefore, teachers need to be prepared to handle that variety of world views. Grow Your Own Illinois, or GYO, understands the necessity for teachers to not only understand the needs of students, but empathize with them as well. Thus, for the past 11 years GYO has dedicated itself to mobilizing and aiding prospective teachers of diverse backgrounds to teach in minority communities.

GYO’s mission has hit some rough times in recent years. I spoke with Kate Van Winkle, the director of GYO, to try and understand some of the trouble the organization has been facing. As of 2015, the organization no longer receives state funding, which led to the closing of all the other offices save for the Chicago office. However, this is not the only problem that the organization has faced. Among those, students have trouble passing the Test of Academic Proficiency, which is needed to be approved to teach. Only 30 percent of students pass the test, of which Van Winkle told me that the students reported either the content of the test was highly irrelevant to their studies or that they had general troubles with their test taking skills and strategies. Other problems include the kind of student GYO needs to empower. Previously, GYO focused on training adults that have already been in the workforce and had interest in becoming teachers. There is a bias to recruit younger students out of high school and in college rather than adults that have already begun their education or have been out of college for years. As such, GYO has needed to restructure and re-prioritize the kinds of students they empower.

The organization has taken steps to start reorganizing. Currently, it is experimenting with a program with Waukegan High School to offer credits for high school students that are interested in a career in education. GYO is also continuing to search for new ways to secure funding for its graduates.




Given the scope of the project and the need to revitalize the effort to bring empathetic education to students, Chicago Rises invites readers who are passionate about education to help out GYO. First off, any donations made are welcome. Second, any individuals passionate about educating and want to apply to GYO’s program, there is still time to apply; the deadline is in September. It is important to keep these programs alive for the sake of empowering not just the youth, but our workforce.

GYO’s site:

For Donations:

For Applications:

Heartland Alliance: Ending Poverty in Chicago for 128 Years

Heartland Alliance: Ending Poverty in Chicago for 128 Years

In the heart of Ravenswood, between an art center and a furniture store, sits a nondescript building with a small sign out front that reads “Heartland Alliance Human Care.” While the sign may be small, the impact this organization has on Chicago is something much, much bigger.

The mission of Heartland Alliance is simple: to end poverty.  Through housing, jobs, and justice, Heartland aims to better the lives of endangered populations, particularly the poor, isolated, and displaced.  According to their mission statement, they aim to provide “comprehensive and respectful services and the promotion of permanent solutions leading to a more just global society.”  Heartland Alliance itself is nationwide and even has programs abroad, but this Ravenswood branch is essential to Chicago in its own way.

Alyssa Wilson is the Volunteer Coordinator for the office of RICS (Refugee and Immigrant Community Services) at Heartland Alliance Human Care.  It’s her job to recruit, train, and work with all of the many volunteers that spend time working at Heartland and giving back to their community. Wilson said that “people think the refugee crisis is happening across the world, and it is, but there are so many opportunities to help refugees here locally in your own city.”

While she noted there are many steps before a participant ends up in Chicago under the care of Heartland, once they do, they have case managers, an employment team, VELT (Vocational English Language Training), and YFS (Youth and Family Services) all working to help make Chicago a home for them. The end goal is to help families acclimate to life in the United States in all facets of society.

Heartland’s volunteers do anything from teaching English language classes to helping grocery shop to putting apartments together for arriving families so that “when these families are coming from twenty hours of travel, we, as an agency pick them up from the airport and bring them to their new apartment,” in what Wilson said is a way to make families feel more comfortable. Everything from traveling on the CTA to scheduling a doctor’s appointment is an unfamiliar process when they first arrive, and Heartland and its volunteers are there to help families feel welcomed, safe, and supported.

“It is so wonderful to be able to connect our participants with people who are from America or are immigrants themselves or just people from Chicago because it’s really given them a different resource in a different capacity,” Wilson said. These relationships are not one-sided, either. She said her favorite part of her job is what she called the “first match meeting,” where volunteers meet the participants they will be working with in “a hopefully life-changing experience for both.”

Volunteers are a driving force at Heartland, and Wilson emphasized the constant need for their help.  “Our volunteers are so amazing,” Wilson said. “They are amazing people that just care so much and make such a difference in our participants’ lives.”

This nondescript building in the heart of Ravenswood touches the lives of people all around the city of Chicago and all around the world. It may be small, but it is truly mighty.


Volunteer with Heartland! Contact Alyssa Wilson at Heartland Alliance Human Care in Ravenswood at to learn more and get started.

Below are some of the amazing opportunities available to volunteers:

  • Youth Mentoring Program: Work with newly arrived refugee youth, ages 6-18 in anything from homework to learning English to simply adapting to life in the United States.
  • Tutor Refugee Children in English (Pilot Program): Work with children on summer English classes in classroom assistance to help them with basic reading, writing, and speaking skills.
  • Tutor Refugee Adults in English: Work with adult refugees on English language skills in their VELT (Vocational English Language Training) program.
  • Family Mentoring Program: Help families in the refugee resettlement process in regards welcoming them (apartment preparation, greeting the family at the airport, visiting with the family), transportation (help navigating the CTA and getting to appointments as needed), and education/mentoring/community orientation (providing academic support with school-aged refugee youth, helping navigate life from going grocery shopping to setting up a bank account).
  • After School Program: Work with youth participants on homework and English skills in an after-school setting.
  • Women’s Empowerment Program: Women volunteers pair up with refugee to help her acclimate to her community and navigate her place in US society.
  • Early Childhood Education Program: Work alongside Heartland staff to provide care for 2-3-year-old refugee children while their parents attend English classes at Heartland.
  • Housing and Donations Volunteer: Help prepare a family’s first apartment in Chicago by loading up household good, shopping for furniture with agency funds, and setting up the apartment for families to come home to.
Authentic Community Engagement in Schools: How to Hear What is Not Being Said

Authentic Community Engagement in Schools: How to Hear What is Not Being Said

In the fall of 2016, Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts reopened as an open – enrollment, arts high school.  Now a level one high school located in the heart of Washington Park, Dyett High School of the Arts was born out of both struggle and compromise, as community stakeholders raised their voices and District leadership responded to their call to ensure that area students could receive a high quality education in a school that is nestled in the heart of the community.  Today, as the principal of this school, I am inspired by the level of authentic engagement and commitment to excellence the community exhibits daily. Both Bronzeville and Washington Park residents hold us accountable, provide support, and challenge us to provide the best education possible to our students.

Having said that, many have asked, both parents and educators alike, how our team managed to effectively engage community stakeholders.  And while the work, for me, was an extremely intuitive process, grounded in love for my community and passion for children, I can say that the following guiding principles were crucial to our attempts to gain authentic community engagement in and hear what was not being said.

1. Define and communicate your “North Star” clearly and consistently.

For all intents and purposes, “North Star” is the goal, mission, or vision that drives anyone’s work.  In this case, I am and always have been committed to ensuring that students have access to high – quality education, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or zip code.  It was my job, as the incoming principal, to reiterate that vision at every community meeting, every town hall, and every breakfast I attended.  Not only that.  It was also our team’s job to design a curricular scope and sequence that reflected these principles.  That is why we offer AP classes at the freshman level, early college courses, and much more.  You see – the truth is that I have never met community members who wanted anything less than good schools for their children, and when I identified that as my “North Star,” the path to collaboration became less difficult.

2. Focus on what binds us, not what divides us.

During my year of planning, I attended several meetings – meetings in which some people supported the concept of a new school and others did not.  But during those times, I kept one thing in mind – that was that in a crowded room of people who voiced opinions on one side or the other, everyone ultimately wanted one thing – that was to prepare our children for the future by equipping them with the skills necessary to compete in a global economy.  So, at every meeting, I took the opportunity to remind each adult in the room that we had similar goals.  We all wanted students to have robust science programs.  We all wanted students to have robust math programs, and allowing students to pursue their passion in the arts made them more likely to engage.  So, we focused.  We focused not on the nuances that separated us, but instead, the similarities that were interwoven throughout each elevated voice.  By doing so, little by little, bit by bit, we were able to build bridges where craters of separation had otherwise existed.

3. Identify what people fear, and speak directly to that.

Several months prior to opening the new school, I conducted listening tours.  During those tours, people expressed a wide range of emotions.  In some spaces, people questioned my authenticity.  They questioned my motives.  They questioned whether or not I truly cared about the community’s students and parents.  And while I listened to what parents said, I also heard what they did not say.  I listened, intently, to identify their fears.  When people yelled, “Where were you when we had to comfort students?” I heard, “Will you abandon us?  Will you betray us?”  When people yelled, “Our students are already talented artists!  They need science and math!”  I heard, “Our students need to be able to compete for jobs!  Can you guarantee that your team’s curriculum will do so?!”  Instead of focusing on the noise, we made a conscious decision to focus on nuanced mission and vision.

Even with the aforementioned suggestions, the truth is that obtaining authentic community engagement is not a perfect process.  It is oftentimes messy and unpredictable.  But if all of the adults involved galvanize around a common mission and vision, ensuring students’ success, it can serve as the oil in the engine of change and academic excellence.