When Sue (all the names have been changed) joined the SWOP Parent Mentor program she had no idea it would end up having her stand next to the Governor of the State of Illinois as he signed a law giving her, and many others in her situation, the right to have a driver’s license. Like many mothers in her situation, she had been devoted to her kids and family, but always stayed in the shadows. Not because she was shy, but because she was undocumented.
Though the Parent Mentor Program, Sue connected to the community organizing work of the Southwest Organizing Project. Besides learning how to help out in a classroom at (Talman Elementary School), she learned how to find her voice as a leader; meeting with other parents and running meetings in the community. She built courage and confidence in herself through the successes she attained. This work helped her make the transition from a private to a public life.
For Karen, the Parent Mentor Program and community organizing helped her better connect with her children’s education. She begin to think more about what they were learning and what they could do in the future. She helped her children get in to selective enrollment high schools and plan for college; something she didn’t think about before her involvement with SWOP.
The leadership development work of SWOP taps into people’s talents and helps them become the backbone of the community. It brings them into relationship not only with people in similar situations, but also with other community leaders from different religions, ethnicities, races, and languages to form the backbone of the organization working to improve the community. They figure out what they have in common and connect around their mutual self-interests. In doing this, they bring their institutions – churches, schools, social service agencies – along with themselves into public life.
What seems to be missing from the latest conversations about immigration is the fact that these leaders play an important role in revitalizing Chicago Southwest and similar communities around the country. Their spirit and energy is needed to help communities identify, plan for, and implement strategies that will bring change to places that need it. As SWOP organizer Imelda Salazar says “they really give me the energy to do my job every day.”