It takes time, collaboration, and work on many levels to bring real change.

But Darlene Gramigna and Jesus Palafox know that the complexity of the work ahead doesn’t mean it’s not worth struggling for a better way.

In three decades on different fronts of the city’s struggle for social justice, Darlene has learned that Chicago is a place where “people will fight right back” against oppression.

She arrived there in 1980 as a social worker from Connecticut via Colorado, and that year she started an internship with the American Friends Service Committee. Since then she’s worked on a spectrum of issues: In the ‘80s, organizing people against a nuclear waste storage facility and the war in Central America and more recently, toughening policies against military recruitment in high schools.

Her assistant, Jesus, was a college student when he met Darlene; she was in the audience at a workshop on scholarships for undocumented students when he stepped in to help the presenter. She was impressed, and saw a place for him with AFSC.

Jesus is an outspoken advocate for equal opportunity. He attended Northeastern Illinois University, a state institution, but was ineligible for financial aid. The time he spent working his way through college—to pay for a political science degree—underscored the extra burdens he’s encountered since coming to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 11.

He brings to his work the urgency of someone who has seen firsthand that the American dream is a myth for millions of people.

To improve the immigrant experience in Chicago, Jesus says there must be legal and cultural change; groups that don’t normally speak to each other must find their common ground and fight for reform—like a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses, or lobbying the city to put more resources into public schools.

Learning to advocate

Jesus and Darlene work with some of the most underserved high school students in Chicago. Many are refugees or undocumented immigrants facing uncertain futures; others are African-American youth with statistics stacked against them.

A group of Darlene’s students produced this video when
NATO held its 2012 summit in Chicago. The host committee
ran a video contest for public school students to welcome
delegates and explain why Chicago is a unique and special
city. Instead, these students wanted to highlight the city’s
need to reexamine priorities.

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With the chain of interconnected problems spanning from dilapidated school buildings and ambiguous immigration paperwork to discrimination from new neighbors and from the educational system, there is no quick fix that will change their lives.

By opening young people’s eyes to the policies and prejudices working against them, Darlene and Jesus are building the next generation of community leaders in Chicago, showing them the way to stand up for themselves—and that they have a right to expect better.

This year, they will organize students to push for the state-wide implementation of Illinois’ DREAM act. In theory, starting this fall the state will offer a scholarship fund for undocumented students heading to college. But activists have low expectations for its implementation.

Creating opportunity on an individual level

Darlene and Jesus match advocacy for better educational and neighborhood resources with one-on-one work in schools.

Partnering with passionate teachers and five dedicated apprentices and interns, they find and build on the positive things happening in the lives of the young people AFSC serves.

Making mosaics

Valentin (left) talks to a teacher about the mosaic letter
he’s making in an afterschool club at this school.

Getting to know each one, they create activities through which students can identify paths to higher education or ways to make a living. The long-term vision is to develop social enterprise opportunities in Chicago modeled on the Grameen Bank, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning microfinance organization in Bangladesh.

Students are also learning how to get these resources themselves. Through a mosaic-making club at a few schools, they learn a new skill that today helps them raise money for a scholarship fund, and that tomorrow may be the foundation of a crafting career.

“It shows that students can do it on their own,” says Darlene.