The CPSchools’ Professionals Series is a collection of experiences lived and relayed by teachers and education professionals who work in Chicago public schools. Here, teachers, guidance counselors, specialists, coaches, administration, and other professionals in CPS are given the space to speak to their perspective on schooling in Chicago, and how their experiences have informed their outlook on education.
We are now giving these often-undervalued professionals the necessary platform to share their stories, challenges, and triumphs while supporting students in CPS. This series will serve to inform and encourage everyday Chicagoans and policy makers to take action in representation of the students they aim to support.
Stay tuned for CPSchools’ Professionals Series stories coming soon!
Being a mentor can be incredibly rewarding on both ends, but as many professionals know, time is a valuable commodity. Spark, a career exploration and self-discovery program that brings middle-schoolers to local companies and organizations, has found a way to combat this. Students are paired up with a mentor to receive direct guidance and to work on projects related to their interests in the company’s local office. Originally launched in the San Francisco Bay Area, Spark expanded to Chicago in 2011 and worked with 68 students that year. Now in neighborhoods like North Lawndale, Back of the Yards, McKinley Park, Englewood, and Near Southside, 11 schools and 400+ students are paired up with Chicago companies to provide mentor relationships between middle-schoolers and professionals.
Spark students at Vibes: Mobile Marketing Solutions
Lindsay Horwood, who works at Chicago-based mobile marketing and technology company Vibes, began volunteering for Spark at her previous employer and brought the connection over to Vibes. Since 2012, Vibes and Spark have impacted the young minds of many, providing career exploration and self-discovery opportunities for these middle schoolers. Sahrish Saleem, Senior Manager of Corporate Partnerships at Spark, says the program helps students “understand, experience, and pursue what’s possible for their future.” This year in Chicago, students are working in orthodontics, constructing remote control cars, creating websites, and even rewriting Macbeth to make it more modern and student-friendly.
Since their partnership, Vibes has consistently been recruiting new volunteers for Spark, one of which is Jennifer DeCilles. Horwood and DeCilles say they enjoy watching their mentees grow throughout the program. DeCilles says Vibe’s connection with Spark has given her an “understanding that in being a mentor, you can just be a positive presence or an ear for someone to talk to.”
In the Fall, students work in Spark Labs, where they visit a variety of companies and get to see what each one does on a day-to-day basis. Come Spring, Spark matches mentors and mentees based on skills used in the workplace and interests of the students. They work on a project that they present on “Share Your Spark,” a culminating showcase held in Daley Plaza that Saleem says is like “a carnival meets a science fair.” Students, mentors, and anyone interested in viewing the projects the students have created celebrate together the accomplishments of the students.
Spark works with students who might not have been exposed to an office environment otherwise. “Sometimes they are less than a mile from the office, but they live in very different worlds,” Horwood said, highlighting the exposure the students get to the corporate environment but also the insight she now has to Chicago Public Schools. Both Horwood and DeCilles have found themselves more engaged in CPS and the education system at large because they work with individuals who are directly affected by it.
Spark students at work in the Vibes office
For 14 years nationally and 7 years in Chicago, Spark has impacted the lives of many young individuals. To continue doing this, they rely on donations to help support the program. This month is the Mentoring Matters Campaign, a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign that allows mentors to share their mentoring stories within their personal networks. This year, the goal is to raise $40,000. Funds help support transportation for students, background checks for mentors, and general program supplies and maintenance.
Spark and Vibes are making a very real difference in the lives of these young individuals in Chicago. Students are gaining real-life experience in the workplace, building social-emotional skills, and working on team-building, all while uniting diverse communities of students, parents, and professionals. And in the end, DeCilles says, it’s just about “being a friend to these middle-schoolers.”
CALL TO ACTION
- May is Spark’s designated month to fundraise for its Chicago partnerships, and they have a goal to raise $40,000. Donate here!
- Interested in partnering your business with Spark? They’d love that! Find out more information here.
- Check out the program in action! Attend this year’s (free!) “Share Your Spark” Day on June 1st from 3 to 5 PM in Daley Plaza and support the students in the program.
Between its beaches, museums, restaurants, and malls, there’s no shortage of attractions that Chicago has to offer college students. But what can these students offer Chicago?
The People’s Lobby is a grassroots movement focused on fighting structural inequalities by implementing specific policies and electing officials that support those policies to put the interests of the community before big corporations, according to its website. The People’s Lobby addresses issues from wage policy to environmental justice to mass incarceration and more.
What does this have to do with students? Chicago Student Action is a branch of the People’s Lobby that serves as a way of building bases of students on college campuses around the Chicagoland area. From there, students organize on their campuses for issues that affect those campuses directly, as well as coming together as a whole to fight jointly on policies that affect them as Chicago students.
Chicago Student Action members chained themselves up and blocked the intersection in front of the Art Institute to hold a protest and press conference advocating for free higher education.
According to Dominic Marlow, a senior and student organizer at University of Illinois at Chicago, what separates students from other activists is their optimism. “Young people in general are a lot more willing to question the status quo. They have the belief that things can get better a lot more than older people generally do.”
Having grown up during the 2007-2009 U.S. recession and seeing the toll it took on much of his family, Marlow got involved as an activist when he came to college, where he learned “[the recession] was totally avoidable. That was really big for me in realizing the public sector is run by people who are not representing our needs.” He also explained that his exposure to Chciago’s diverse community made him realize “we have been intentionally divided in order to keep us from building anything sustainable to make a government that works for people.”
Chicago Student Action members on their final day of the March to Springfield. Members marched 200 miles from Chicago to Springfield for the People and Planet First Budget.
Unlike many non-profit organizations, which rely on donations of labor, money, and time from their volunteers, Marlow explained that Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby emphasize investing in their members as people to help them develop as leaders. “Our vision is for real powerful communities that can actually advocate for themselves.” Members of Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby strive for “an intersectional movement that is diverse and representative of the people we’re actually fighting for.”
Marlow described some of the accomplishments he has seen during his time with Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby.
- March to Springfield: In May of 2017, Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby members led a 200-mile march from Chicago to Springfield to fight for the People and Planet First Budget which began with a kickoff rally in downtown Chicago. Once in Springfield, members took part in a sit-in in front of the Governor’s office and held the building for 10 hours before being arrested and moved. That year, the state legislature passed $100 million in revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes.
- Cook County $13 Minimum Wage: Members of Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby disrupted Cook County budget hearings and organized for electoral work to reclaim some of the commissioners districts. Eventually, they garnered the nine votes needed to pass the $13 minimum wage.
- Election of Theresa Mah: Theresa Mah is the first Asian-American Woman elected to the Illinois General Assembly.
- Election of Kim Foxx: Kim Foxx, now the Cook County State’s Attorney, has helped reduce the Cook County jail population by over 1,000 inmates.
Call to Action
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 B2SI.org 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.
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.
CALL TO ACTION
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.