UChicago helps resurrect leadership program for city’s youth

This summer, 30 rising high school seniors spent a day immersed in Chicago’s efforts to fight crime and violence. The University of Chicago Crime Lab, which has informed the city on effective ways to prevent crime with evidence-based interventions, kicked off the first day with a workshop on its research.

The students then visited the Cook County Criminal courthouse where they observed a judge delivering a 70-year sentence for murder; took a tour of the city’s Office of Emergency Management to observe the intricate camera system that covers Chicago’s streets; and visited the 911 Call Center.

These experiences were part of the newly resurrected Future Leaders of Chicago program, or floChicago, which offered the students a week to explore leadership in the context of challenging urban issues. UChicago’s support of floChicago is one component of its broader efforts to foster and strengthen leadership across the Chicago area with such initiatives as the Civic Leadership Academy, the Community Programs Accelerator, and the Chicago Urban League’s IMPACT program at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

When the students’ whirlwind day of tours ended, they returned to the UChicago campus for a rich discussion about how the city’s leaders address crime and its impact.

"There was a time when we were talking about the criminal justice system, and we talked about how it is difficult for people to get jobs when they get released from prison. We disagreed a lot," said Christina Gutierrez, from Thornton Township High School in south suburban Harvey, Ill. “We all had a different perspective."

Learning from diverse opinions

FloChicago originally operated from 1996 to 2001. A free program that created a small-scale melting pot of young Chicagoans, it brought together future leaders across races, classes and neighborhoods. A former participant in that program, Matthew Brewer, recently revived it with the help of the University’s Office of Civic Engagement and the Chicago Community Trust.

“The University is committed to developing strong leaders at all ages,” said Derek Douglas, vice president for Civic Engagement at UChicago. “The new floChicago fits well into our spectrum of enrichment and development programs, which serve a diverse community of students, as well as rising nonprofit and government leaders, business leaders, and local nonprofit organizations.”

The students, representing 21 different high schools, were chosen from 100 applicants for the ways they demonstrated leadership in their schools and communities. Some had led student organizations and sports teams, while others overcame disabilities and challenging life and family circumstances.

"On Day 1, they didn't know anyone else. By day three, you would have thought they had known each other for years," said Brewer, 34. "By the last day, you would think the group comprised childhood friends."

KeVeon White, from the UChicago Charter Schools - Woodlawn Campus, agrees. "All stereotypes go out the window after being exposed to diversity such as the floChicago class," he said.

"When you listen to other people from different places, you realize we are really the same," said Mohammad Awad, from Taft High School, located in Chicago’s Norwood Park community on the Northwest Side. "I learned that no matter where you come from, you can always relate to people. Applying (to floChicago) was one of the best decisions of my life."

Future possibilities

The young participants also got a taste of college life. They discussed the college application process and lived in UChicago’s Renee Granville Grossman Residential Commons for the weeklong program.

Every night, they debated topics from poverty to gentrification to the state of public education. Students bounced around ideas with Brandi Snodgrass, associate director of the Neighborhood Schools Program; Kristin Collier, English teacher at Chicago Bulls College Prep; and fourth-year students Charlie Bullock and Jaime Arana-Rochel as sounding boards.

“Partnering with floChicago advances the University’s commitment to expanding educational opportunities and fostering leadership, while providing an opportunity to expose more high school students to the college environment,” said Sonya Malunda, senior associate vice president for Civic Engagement.

Brewer said that as a member of the original program, access to people and places outside of his neighborhood changed his perspective about his potential. "At that age, my view of the world was largely limited to the pocket I lived in, so my notion of what kinds of careers would make sense or were even accessible to me were limited as well," he said.

When Brewer learned in 2011 that the program had been discontinued, he began to brainstorm about how to revive it and bring meaningful experiences to future participants. Now, with a carefully assembled founding team of educators, community leaders and professionals, the program had its first success this summer. That positive outcome has prompted a desire to expand floChicago into more neighborhoods to reach more students in different schools.