We have 50 aldermen in Chicago. It’s almost impossible to know what each of them are doing all the time. But, it was worth sitting down with 36th Ward Alderman Gilbert Villegas and learning about his impact on education in the city. While supporting the schools in his ward, he has also been part of efforts to support strong Chicago students make their way through college without taking on too much debt.
The Latino Caucus Launches Scholarships
So in his first year as alderman, Villegas and other elected officials that makeup the Chicago Latino Caucus decided to do something to address the issue of insufficient funding sources for Latino kids who wanted to go to college. And from there, the Latino Caucus Scholarship Foundation was born.
Their first year didn’t meet their expectations at all–they only raised enough money to give away one scholarship. But, they were at least able to put themselves on the map.
From there, Villegas took the reins of leadership and really focused on putting a lot of time and energy into fundraising. They put themselves on a budget to make sure at the end of fundraising and the actual event, the foundation had revenue available.
As a result of challenging themselves to really step their game up, the foundation was able to raise and award $110,000 in scholarships. Each of the 11 aldermen in the caucus were given $10,000 to divide between two students in their ward to attend either two or four year colleges.
To date, they’ve been able to give out $330,000 to 34 students who, in some instances, were just not eligible for any type of financial assistance–including DACA recipients.
Giving Students More Than Just Money
The Latino Caucus Scholarship Foundation doesn’t just hand out money and send the students on their merry way. They’ve put a number of service and support components in place to make sure the winners have continued success in college and beyond.
First, winners must volunteer 30 hours in the alderman’s office. The goals are threefold. First, the experience teaches the students the importance of community service and giving back. It shows them the ebbs and flows of an aldermanic office. Finally, Villegas and his colleagues also hope to inspire students to pursue careers in public service.
They also use their scholarship alumni as mentors for newer recipients. With some students being first-generation college students, having alums who can advise them is an invaluable resource.
The organization ultimately hopes to grow the initiative to support more students. In 2018, they received over 400 applications from students in 40 out of the 50 wards. Alderman Villegas said, “There’s absolutely a need–but unfortunately, we have limitations. So we’ve been encouraging other elected officials to start their own scholarship funds. But we want to grow so we can do more.”
Working with All Schools in a Ward
Alderman Villegas’ commitment to education doesn’t stop at the Latino Caucus Scholarship Foundation. He’s been a champion for high quality and diverse education opportunities in his ward.
With 14 schools under his purview – traditional public, public charter, and magnet – Villegas has worked to ensure they meet his community’s needs. The alderman said:
“We work with all of our schools because at the end of the day, parents are just concerned with their child being in a good school. So my philosophy is parents, students, teachers–and I support all of them. I want to make sure the parents are heard, the students are in a safe environment where they’re learning, and the teachers are well compensated and treated fairly because they’re nurturing our future.”
We [Chicago] want to have that next generation of leaders be well educated and have access to options.
Villegas has also heavily invested in trades education as a pathway to careers and community stability.
He pushed to bring a Career and Technical Education component to Prosser Career Academy – one of his ward’s high schools – that’s modeled after Dunbar Vocational Career Academy’s program. His advocacy secures $12 million dollars to build out trades skills courses and a solar panel training program.
And in supporting pathways to higher education, he fostered a relationship with Robert Morris University in which they offer a dual credit program at Steinmetz College Prep and introduced STEAM education at the school.
For Villegas, It’s All About Service
Gil Villegas is someone most of us can relate to. He grew up in the Lathrop Homes which were low-income housing projects on Diversey and Damen. He and his family moved to Humboldt Park but were eventually forced to move further northwest due to gentrification. From there, he went to the marines, came back, went to college and began his career in public service.
Alderman Villegas said, “Growing up in the projects, we were all poor. Black, White Latino, it didn’t matter–that was our common denominator. But, we had a sense of community and we didn’t let the projects or our socioeconomic status define us.”
If I could take anything away from this interview, it would be Alderman Villegas’ statement about humble beginnings. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from–anyone can be successful with hard work and if given the opportunity.
Shout-out to Alderman Gilbert Villegas and the Latino Caucus Scholarship Foundation for giving our kids those opportunities.
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