Community Involvement in Chicago

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November 3rd 2015
Published: November 3rd 2015
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Good heavens,

I was going through old cover letters looking for inspiration for a wide range of jobs I am applying to right now (real world… here I come), and I came across this old one in my files. It was saved on January 14, 2014- not long after I had moved out of my beloved Chicago- with memories and experiences still fresh and deeply embedded in my mind. Even though some time has passed since and the adventures have continued onward, this cover letter is a snapshot of how I felt during my time there. It has profoundly influenced who I am today in almost everything I do, how I see the world through a new lens of compassion, and how I continue to want to serve in the public sphere. Those formative years in the Southside were the only time I have ever felt at home over the past seven years.

The career statement is inserted below.

July 15, 2012

277: A number that could mean anything. But it means so much for this day. 277, the number of murders in the City of Chicago thus far in July since New Year’s Day of 2012. It is the highest of recent memory, a thirty eight percent spike since July of 2011. We are garnering unwanted attention: local media, regional media, the New York Times… finally becomes the front page story of the Sunday Telegraph in London, along side with articles of Afghanistan. The number would eventually top 500 by the end of the year in a city populated with less than three million people.

I had been working in the Southside of Chicago for three years up until that point, part time during the academic year as I studied full time for my undergraduate degree. I grew up in a quiet bubbly suburb in Southern California, a childhood spent with almost no exposure to the “realities” of an urban environment: evenings were quiet, muggings were unheard of, and local law enforcement occupied their time with petty property crime. My community was considered the ideal environment to raise a family, alluding to the classic American suburb with near perfect weather year round, lavish upper middle class neighbors, and stellar public schools. Nearly everyone graduates high school, and most pursue undergraduate degrees. Occasionally a local leaves the comfort of home and ventures to attend college elsewhere… in September of 2009, I traded in my Southern California home for a new home in the Southside of Chicago.

September was the first time I had really visited Chicago. Almost immediately upon moving there I received a job at a local elementary school neighboring the University of Chicago as an after school program assistant. Initially I thought it was a job that consisted primarily with helping children with their homework… but after a few months it became increasingly clear that I was taking on a role as a mentor for these children. Moreover, they were changing me and I was learning from them almost as much (probably more so) as they were learning from me. My own childhood and their childhoods seemed to be stemming from two completely different planets- I could not believe that we had grown up in the same American society. The stories that these children had, what they had seen, experienced, and understood to be the order of the world are stories that should never be silenced, stories that should never be forgotten. To this day their stories still echo in my mind and ring in my heart. Inner city America, I discovered, is world in itself that seems to have been forgotten.

After one year at Reavis Elementary, my employer at the public service office under the university’s community service umbrella transferred me to a different neighborhood about three miles southwest of campus. By this point I was learning more about Chicago politick, so three miles in a city where every block is contested gang territory can be like traveling to a different country. Three times a week I left the University of Chicago- the other bubble I moved to from California- and headed south. It was there that the students at my university should have seen in order to understand the true heart of the Southside.

I worked for an Alderman (city council woman) who served some of the poorest and most segregated communities in Chicago- Roseland, Chatham, Englewood, and Greater Grand Crossing. These neighborhoods were once economically mixed with working and middle class professionals and held a strong sense of community; but over time suburban flight, economic crises, vacated properties, and the influx of government subsidized tenants after the demolition of Chicago’s high rise housing projects created new challenges for these communities. These neighborhoods became an environment of contested territory of gang warfare which brought high levels of street crime, newfound violence, and disrupted the social fabric of the area. My supervisor (and beloved mentor) assured me that the Chatham she grew up in and the Chatham that I saw were two completely different environments. And the community remained at a loss of what to do.

About one academic year into my position at the Chatham office, I was transferred again in May 2011 to a new public service office on Sixty Fourth Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, about ten blocks away from my apartment. We served Woodlawn, Washington Park (the two neighborhoods that border the University of Chicago), parts of Englewood and Greater Grand Crossing, and Back of the Yards. It was a job where I had befriended the community members I worked for and where my fellow coworkers became family. I also had an unbelievable boss who helped me grow beyond my years and helped me achieve my dream of entering law school. I was so happy in my newfound home that I would have stayed in Chicago permanently had I not accepted Washington College of Law’s offer and subsequently moved to the east coast.

Through my time working in the Southside of Chicago, I have received an education that extends far beyond the walls of a classroom, one that cannot be taught through theory or literature. Everything I learned from those four years changed me in a way I never expected. College is usually seen as a time for personal growth, a moment in life to bask in newfound freedoms. But I grew through (and with) the communities I served. My identity tied in with the Southside in a way it never did in California. What I learned is that the parents, teachers, pastors, social workers, and committeemen that work tirelessly to expel the poison of street violence from these children’s souls are the unsung heroes of Hyde Park, Englewood, Woodlawn, Washington Park, and Chatham. In my time in Chicago, I witnessed and experienced an unbelievable sense of community, people who worked together day after day to fight unbeatable odds. Odds that would cripple any other suburb like the one I was raised. My heart and respect for these neighborhoods grew immensely, and compassion became part of my character. I saw and experienced acceptance and love during times of heartache, pain, and violence. That was the draw of the community that pulled me back to work week after week, and during the hours that extended far beyond my timecard.

August 2013 again marked a new chapter in my life, and I am finally pursuing my dream in law. This is life I envisioned myself years before I even moved to Chicago; but I cannot forget the education I learned there and I cannot let go of my new-found roots. As I continue forward studying law, I am, and always will be, defined and shaped by my Southside home.


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