Community Leadership From Every Angle

Bridging the Information Gap:
Info 312

For families in need of support, the presence of food banks in a community may not be enough. That’s what Ala Tineh, Kenny Nguyen, Jon Schultz, and Katie Weber learned while canvassing in their community as part of the Community Leadership Corps. Long wait times, a lack of child care, and a lack of feeling unsafe prevented parents with small children from visiting food banks — and inspired the group of community designers to step in.

We caught up with two members of Info 312, to talk about their project and the progress they’ve made towards tackling food insecurity. Check out their interview below:

Q: This year’s class of  Community Leadership Corps members comes from all over Chicago. Can you tell us a little about where you’re from, what you do,  and how you became involved with the Community Leadership Corps?

Ala: My name is Ala Tineh. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, mostly on the Southwest side, and I went to college at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, where I became interested in social justice and activism work on campus. After college, I joined a consulting firm, where I do a lot of work for healthcare providers.

Kenny: My name is Kenny Nguyen. I grew up in California and went to school at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. I’ve lived in Chicago for four years now, and work at a candy manufacturer. In college, I started being more involved with Champaign-Urbana, since it’s really tight knit. I did Design for America, which teaches students how to use design thinking as a tool for social change, similar to what Tania Anaissie taught us, but without her extra steps that makes her design work so special! You always design for the end user in mind. When I learned that we would be doing this in Chicago it was kind of eye opening, because there are people out there that are equally passionate and driven, and want to make a difference. I actually stumbled upon the Community Leadership Corps looking at an Instagram ad, so I got really lucky.

Ala: I also found out about the program through Instagram, although I found out afterwards that a lot of my classmates had also done the program, or are doing it this year as well! Similar to Kenny and other members on my team, I wanted an opportunity to get involved in my community and meet more people. My parents are both immigrants. They weren’t fairly educated. So, going to college and graduating was a really big opportunity for not only myself, but also my family. I wanted to learn how intergenerational mobility impacts people today and also five, ten years from now…where do those people’s descendants end up.

 Our team is very diverse in background, but we were all sort of at the same place in our lives. We all recently graduated from college or are just starting our professional careers. Our day-to-day doesn’t really involve directly interacting with the community. So, from my perspective, this was a really great opportunity to figure out how that could be a part of my day-to-day without it being my job, which has been a really great experience.

Q: One thing that is special about this program is that it recognizes that different cities have different needs and expectations. How would you describe Chicago? What makes it vibrant? What challenges do you think the city faces?

Kenny: When I think of Chicago, I think of how it’s split into 70 plus neighborhoods and they each have their own characteristics. They also have their own downfalls like segregation and keeping tight knit communities. I think what really makes Chicago stand out is being able to bridge that divide and talk to people that you don’t usually talk to, and interacting with them, learning about the differences and growing with each other. You can choose to be in your own microcosm, but you can also choose to venture out. And I think this program really helps you venture out and talk to people that you wouldn’t normally interact with on a day-to-day basis.

Ala: Yeah, I think Chicago is a really great mix between a small-town neighborhood and a big city. I feel like wherever you go, like Kenny suggested, are these tight knit communities that all have their own culture and their own identity. In many ways, they are very much influenced by the history, whether that’s a positive or negative experience. I guess my first real exposure to Chicago in general was mostly in college since I grew up in the suburbs. The Chicago suburbs that I grew up in were pretty homogeneous. But I think in particular, going to school at the University of Chicago was a very jarring experience where you see extreme poverty on one side of the street and this elitist, almost sort of example of the history of America, on the other.

I would say that this experience ignited a fire in me wanting to do more.”

—Kenny Nguyen, Community Leadership Corps Member

Q: How did you choose the project that you landed on? We know that you guys were matched together because you had similar interests, but how did you decide food insecurity specifically?

Ala: We had a really hard time narrowing it down to a particular issue because we all had a wide variety of experiences and we were all interested in a number of different things. We wanted to better understand how people connected to resources when they needed it or when you need help, how do you get that help?

And what we found through our one-on-ones was that there was this issue where families with small children had trouble going to food pantries. It is not as easy to access food pantries as one might expect. For example, there are long wait times. If you take your child to a food pantry, there is really nothing much for them to do except wait around. If you wanted to access some of the other resources, like a social worker who can help you with other programs or other parts of your life, you have to figure out what you’re going to do with your child or sort of just manage them during that process. And so that was just one thing I think that stuck out to us from our one-on-ones that we had done. Although we had a few other ideas that we were also interested in, we just felt like we were better equipped to address this issue with families and children.

Kenny: When we talked to nonprofits during our one-on-ones, they kept reminding us not to reinvent the wheel. I think that really stuck with me and how can we help day-to-day people. A lot of it was through word of mouth. From talking to the local food pantries, we learned about families and how most people who utilize food pantries are single households. Coming to that realization made us realize how we were going to divide and conquer and address it head on instead of working around it. 

Ala: And I think on a more personal level, food is just a really interesting concept because of the way it binds people together. We really resonated with the idea of working with children and food insecurity and the fact that if you’re hungry, you just can’t do anything else. So, we tried to go back to root causes and root issues and, for us, food insecurity was a big part of that.

Q: Were there any challenges that you faced while working together or had to overcome?

Kenny: I think the hardest part was that we’re all working professionals with different schedules week to week. We’re all busy just doing our own lives and then trying to meet in person was kind of a challenge. And so, we found that Google Hangouts was a perfect way to get together.

Ala: Yeah, I think one thing that our team struggled with at the beginning was just narrowing down exactly what the problem is. We initially wanted to tackle the information gap. It’s the idea that the families in the community only have access to out-of-date resource books, or even unreliable access to mental health resources. But we realized at some point that these are all really important issues. So, whichever one we went with would be fine. Indecisiveness would have been an issue early on for us, but I think we’ve been able to do better organizational techniques and just making sure to touch base more often.

Kenny: Yeah, I’d say one problem was that we’re all so passionate that we couldn’t really narrow it down really in terms of trying to help everything instead of narrowing it down to one thing.

Ala: Yeah, something that Tania taught us was, you should fall in love with the problem before making a solution, and I think we definitely really took that to heart. Especially when we were trying to get to the prototyping phase, we really wanted to understand what’s happening and make sure that we’re utilizing the information we’ve been given in a way that’s reflective of what our community actually needs, which I think was a really great learning experience.

Q: The prototyping phase. Can you tell us what that is and what your concept was?

Ala: The prototyping phase included brainstorming and pressure-testing different solutions we had to the original problem we outlined. Our prototype was supposed to be a community dinner that was family friendly and introduced people to a local food pantry or local food resources in a non-explicit way. The idea is that we would invite families for a dinner in which we would have programming for young kids. Meanwhile, parents could learn more about a local food pantry and even pick up a bag of food to take home. 

We had some issues planning that logistically. We had a space, but we couldn’t find the resources that we needed to have the actual dinner and have all these programming pieces.

As Kenny mentioned, it was hard to get people to respond to us, so we had difficulty finding a food pantry partner within the timeframe that we were thinking. 

We worked around it though! Instead, we found a community market that happens at The Hatchery, and we set up a booth a few Thursdays ago. There were activities for kids, like pumpkin decorating, and make your own trail mix, as well as some informational cards and resources for people about cooking healthy foods and where they can go if they need help getting food for their families. We also have some information about how someone can get discounted prices from Imperfect Foods, which is a grocery retailer where you can get produce for discounted rates. 

Q: What would you say you learned from this experience?

Kenny: I would say that this experience ignited a fire in me wanting to do more. For example, during my one-on-ones I interviewed one of the program managers at La Casa Norte, which is a homeless shelter in Humboldt Park, where I learned that they have a young professionals board. I applied, interviewed, and was accepted. I’m excited to continue my community leadership journey after the CLC program with a new opportunity that will allow me to engage with the community more consistently throughout the coming years.

Ala: I think something that I learned was that what you do doesn’t need to be on such a large scale. What I’ve been really pleasantly surprised with, particularly through my one-on-ones, is learning how even individuals have been able to make a real impact. One of my one-on-ones was a woman who founded this program called Heart Women and Girls, which does sex education for Muslim women and children. She was a one-woman show, and she now has a few other people with her.

Change takes all these little pieces. I realized that you can’t expect everything to just fall into place, and even small change is meaningful and should be valued. What I’ve learned is to value even the small things that I do on a day to day.

Q: Do you have any advice for future participants of the CLC program?

Kenny: I would say never give up hope. Honestly, there are many times where I’m like, “Oh, I’m getting nowhere. All my leads are drying up. I’m knocking on every door. I’m calling everyone I know to see who can help us.” But the people that do want to help you and join your network and are equally passionate is your drive to keep going. So, don’t let a few slammed doors get in your way. That just means that there is another one right around the corner.

Ala: I definitely feel like there was a point where we weren’t very kind to ourselves. So I think that’s what I would tell people—you really only have six months to do this. And half that time you’re spending just identifying a problem. I think that’s equally, if not more important, than the actual end results or project that you implement. I would suggest being a little bit more forgiving and having more realistic expectations. It will help you have a better experience.

You can learn more about the Obama Foundation Community Leadership Corps here.


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