Meet an Obama Alum who is helping young Chicagoans reach their dreams
Earlier this month, President Obama and Mrs. Obama traveled to Chicago, where they sat down for a roundtable with Chicago community leaders moderated by José Rico, Executive Director for Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Greater Chicago.
In addition to being a Chicago community partner of the Obama Foundation, José is an alumni of the Obama Administration, where he served as Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.
José is one of several Obama alumni who continue to play a role in the mission of the Foundation in Chicago. We were excited to talk with José about Chicago, his time in Washington, and how he’s carrying forward the work he did in government.
Q: To start, can you tell me about growing up and starting your career in Chicago?
A: My parents came here from Mexico to work and provide their family with a better life. My dad worked at the railroad and my mom worked at a factory out on the west side — my brother and I crossed the border as unaccompanied minors to join my parents and sister. We grew up in Pilsen and Little Village.
Soon after returning from college, I wanted to make a difference in my community. And that’s when I came across this organization called Public Allies, a leadership program that helped facilitate young people learning about themselves, work at a social service organization but also learning about how collective power can make changes in their communities.
When I first went to interview for Public Allies, one of my three interviewers was Michelle Obama. It was a tough interview. One of the last questions she asked was “What is it that you want to do five years from now?” And my answer was, “I want to start a school.” As a student, I had a terrible schooling experience, so I always wanted to create a school that supported my learning and affirmed my identity.
Mrs. Obama right away asked, “Okay, so how do you go and start a school? What’s the first thing that you need to do?”
I’d never thought about it beyond that point. I was like, “I don’t know.”
I was hired and got to work with her. It was really the beginning of being serious about taking my vision, my dreams and my aspirations, and having a plan of how to actually make them happen. Mrs. Obama was the leader of that organization, and she provided a great model for me personally on supporting your colleagues, how to do community work and lead with integrity.
There was a movement in my community, Little Village, to open a high school. That movement was A few years later, there was a movement in my community, Little Village, to open a high school. That movement was started by moms who went on a hunger strike because Chicago Public Schools had used the money allocated for a Little Village high school to instead open up two schools on the North Side.
That meant that thousands of families in Little Village who had worked for years for quality education for their children were left without any money and they just had an empty lot. I got involved in that fight due to the courage of moms who put their lives on the line and won the creation of Little Village/Lawndale HIgh School. For two years, I helped design the school and worked tirelessly with parents, students, teachers, community based organizations, and then in 2004, I was selected as the principal of the Multicultural Arts High School. I was 33 years old.
Q: How did you end up joining the Obama Administration and what was your role?
A: I had an opportunity to meet with President-Elect Obama in December 2008. He told me he wanted to take people to D.C. with on the ground experience and that he wanted to take a community organizing approach to governing. Meaning that he wanted to listen to educators and community members, but also continue to push for policies that were going to change the lives of students and families.
I was grateful he asked me to serve but at the time I didn’t want to leave my responsibility as a high school principal. It was the hardest job I ever had, and also the most fulfilling job I ever had. But I wanted to go to DC to help increase opportunities for Latino students and not only help President Obama, but help improve the conditions of the Latino community across our country.
Q: Is there a moment that stands out to you from that experience looking back?
A: One of the most powerful things that I was involved in was what we would call the White House Hispanic Community Action Summits, where we would bring around 30 high-ranking administration officials to cities across the country. One of the largest meetings we had was in Durham, North Carolina, where hundreds of Latinos from the Carolinas and Georgia drove hundreds of miles to speak with administration officials. The day before we had that meeting one of the community organizers said, ” I really would like for you all to meet with a group beforehand.” It was a group of 20 “DREAMer” students.
Many of them were students enrolled at the local universities whose families were of mixed immigration status. We sat there and listened to their stories. Several of us, including myself, immediately made a strong connection with them because I also lived undocumented. The next day, they showed up, they participated fully in the summit, and gave us a challenge to go back to DC and make sure that we took those stories back with them.
A little over a year later, myself and others who were in the Rose Garden remember that moment when President Obama signed the DACA executive order and we were able to invite a couple of those individuals to witness that ceremony.
For me, that was one of those examples of how peoples’ lives could be transformed by the work that we were doing in DC. It took a lot of hard work, by a lot of people and the president was able to make a substantial change to their lives, their family’s lives, and the community they’d been a part of.
Q: How have you carried your work forward since leaving the Obama Administration?
A: I wanted to come back to Chicago and practiced what I learned, that by bringing in community organizations, government, and businesses, we could improve the lives of Chicagoans. Unfortunately, where you live in Chicago still determines how long you’re going to live. It’s going to determine how much money you’re going to make. It’s going to determine whether you’re going to be able to go to a good school or your school’s going to close down. It’s going to determine whether you’re going to have access to certain jobs, whether you’re going to have access to city services.
So many of our neighborhoods here in Chicago have been intentionally isolated and one of the things that I had to confront when I came back and returned to my family was the issue of violence. It was something that, unfortunately, I experienced with my son getting shot at. Fortunately he didn’t get hit. But we experienced the trauma of him being in a shootout. And then I experienced the lack of mental health services for him that causes people who experience violence to never resolve that trauma. This is another form of violence, denying critical services to those in need.
So when I came back, I started working at United Way to really put forward the place based neighborhood approach to increase funding and strengthen community based organizations so they can reconnect the civic fabric that violence tears apart. And then very soon I realized that to really address the issue of violence and gross inequity in our city, we need to confront institutional racism.
Racism is so prevalent in our city, it’s in the air that we breathe. It’s everywhere. But we have to create the spaces where we can imagine a world where it does not exist. And so being part of truth, racial healing, and transformation really provided me with the tools to create those spaces and do the people work but also, give people the opportunities to identify and change those policies and practices that drive inequality.
Q: To close, can you tell me about the event you moderated with President Obama and the Obama Foundation earlier this month?
A: Sure. Two weeks ago I was privileged to create the space for ten incredible leaders who have been working day in and day out in our neighborhoods, particularly in the South and West Sides, who are really confronting the issue of street violence.
We started by sharing our healing journey—when they realize that their personal healing is connected to the healing of their community. We were able to make connections that the trauma that we experienced has been caused by systems that do not care about us and want to harm us. So we must come together to repair the damage! We had an incredible conversation. Many tears were shed. President Obama was really moved by the stories that he heard from individuals that demonstrated if you’re a Chicagoan, your life has been impacted by the inequity in Chicago in a very real way.
President Obama then asked them, “What is it that you need from us at the Obama Presidential Center?” I thought they had some great ideas. They really see the Center as an incredible convener of leaders and efforts throughout the city. They made a request to create healing centers throughout the city of Chicago, where individuals could get mental health services, where they could provide cultural spaces, where people could gather during the day or during the evening to have racial healing circles.
So we talked about our shared values to make sure that we’re able to have those courageous conversations, but that we also want it to be explicitly centered on the dreams and the aspirations of community members of Chicagoans on the South, Southwest and West Sides.
President Obama ended the conversation with a very clear message that the center wasn’t just the Obama Presidential Center, but a collective project: “Don’t expect us to do all the work. This is something that we have to do together.”