Elevating youth voices: “We are part of the solution”

Back of the Yards youth, Citlali Sandoval and Xitlali Lopez. Photo by Demareo Jones.

Back of the Yards youth, Citlali Sandoval and Xitlali Lopez. Photo by Demareo Jones.

When we were assigned to work the DACA project through the One Summer Chicago jobs program, we weren’t sure what to expect. Citlali Sandoval, 18, and myself (Xitlali Lopez, 18) grew up in Back of the Yards but were brought here from Mexico by our parents as children.

Throughout our lives, we were raised to respect and follow the existing immigration system. It wasn’t until senior year of high school that doors closed everywhere for us and we were hit with the reality that being undocumented cut us off from access to scholarships and federal money to pursue our education.

Today, we are fortunate to be DACA recipients and this summer, we have had the opportunity to work with other neighborhood youth to spread the word about DACA. At the beginning of the One Summer jobs program, we watched “Documented,” a documentary based on immigration and DACA recipients working together to have their voices heard. This empowered us to motivate youth in Back of the Yards and neighboring communities to tell their stories, sharing their thoughts on what their community means to them. We believe it’s time to change that. We are young adults with aspirations and goals who are old enough to understand our neighborhoods and their needs. This is why we decided to write this story: to show people that we are aware of the challenges in our neighborhoods and that we are a part of the solution. We want the community to know our names and our stories.

Back of the Yards resident Dayanara Padilla, 18. Photo by Dayanara Padilla.

Back of the Yards resident Dayanara Padilla, 18. Photo by Dayanara Padilla.

Back of the Yards resident Dayanara Padilla, 18, is a Whitney Young H.S. graduate. Padilla will be attending Northwestern University in the fall. We met in class at Whitney Young and eventually started taking the Ashland bus home together from school.

When asked what she would change about her neighborhood, Padilla said she “would want more people to be educated when it came to college readiness or thinking about their future.”

She said many people don’t even consider college because they think it is too expensive, but what they don’t realize is that there are all types of scholarships and financial aid that can help and a variety of steps they can take to get into college and eventually find a good job. “If people did more research or there were more resources available or workshops that would teach students and their parents how to fill out the FAFSA or to apply for scholarships, it would be beneficial for the community.”

Back of the Yards resident Antonio Zapata, 18. Photo courtesy of Antonio Zapata.

Back of the Yards resident Antonio Zapata, 18. Photo courtesy of Antonio Zapata.

Back of the Yards resident Antonio Zapata, 18, is a Lane Tech High School graduate. He is college bound, but not yet sure where he’ll be going to school.

Zapata said growing up in Back of the Yards has taught him resilience.

“I feel like Back of the Yards helps you grow as a person,” he said. “It’s not like other neighborhoods where all you see is people walking their dogs. Here you see real world problems and you learn how to cope with [them]. Back of the Yards is special for the mental toughness [it] gives you with the bad things that you see. It makes you take responsibility for your own actions.”

He also highlighted the fact that the mainstream media mainly focuses on neighborhood violence, but has done little to show how most Back of the Yards residents are “actually really friendly” and how anyone “can easily start a conversation with anybody and everything is going to be okay.”

Back of the Yards resident Bethany O’Grady, 17. Photo by Isela Silvera.

Back of the Yards resident Bethany O’Grady, 17. Photo by Isela Silvera.

Back of the Yards resident Bethany O’Grady, 17, is a Jones College Prep graduate.

O’Grady will be attending the University of Illinois at Chicago in the fall. Like Zapata, she too agreed that when Back of the Yards is in the news, it’s usually about the gang violence. She said people should seek out individual stories of the lives of residents who have overcome obstacles, because those stories are more interesting.

“The majority of the people here are good people trying to learn or are trying to succeed in life,” she said.

O’Grady added that if she could change one thing about Back of the Yards, it would be to clean up the neighborhood and address all the burned down, boarded up homes that make parts of the neighborhood “look shady.”

Little Village resident Lesly Ramos is a graduate of Octavio Paz Uno Charter High School. Ramos will be attending St. Olaf College in Minnesota in the fall.

Citlali Sandoval met Ramos at Rauner College Prep High School. Ramos said her community (and others like Little Village) would benefit greatly from more school programs and workshops held daily throughout the summer and school year. She said only then will the negative perception of her community change- when residents have access to the resources they need to succeed.

“It’s hard to change the point of view of our community when it’s been rooted in for so long,” she said. “I think that it’s going to take a long time to change the view of my community, and it’s going to take someone big to spread light into it.”

Englewood resident Makai Collins, 18, is a Richards Daley Career High School graduate. Collins will be attending Robert Morris College in the fall. He also works with Sandoval and myself on the DACA project.

Collins said in order to break the cycle of violence, people should engage in more activities that educate and raise awareness.

Englewood resident, Makai Collins, 18. Photo by Citlali Sandoval.

Englewood resident, Makai Collins, 18. Photo by Citlali Sandoval.

“Action here only happens when something tragic happens, and doesn’t even last long,” he said. “For example, someone gets shot and then everyone is trying to join the fight. The fight lasts like two days, and then it cools off and everyone continues with their daily lives. People get stuck in their routines. They continue to be themselves and live their lives as if nothing is wrong, and we need to jump off that mindset. People get used to drugs and thugs and bad things, so they become regular parts of life. That is when the cycle continues.”

Collins had a powerful message for young people facing similar challenges in their communities:

“You can be anything you want to be. Remember that the only limitations you have are the ones you put upon yourself. Don’t let other people decide who you are and what you do, because at the end of the day you’re you, not them. Go out there and work especially hard in school, get your education and help in the community. Share your knowledge and success, because it’s going to take multiple [community residents] to succeed.”

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