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10 Chicagoans Making a Difference

By MerylWilliams 11/19/2014

Chicago News

We talked to 10 people giving their time and energy in an effort to better the communities and neighborhoods around them. Whether its finding housing for the homeless or encouraging Chicagoans to tell their stories, these activists are working each day to improve our city.

Lauren Swihart, Women’s Empowerment Coordinator for Heartland Human Care Services: Refugee and Immigrant Community Services (RICS)

Lauren works for RICS, a resettlement agency for refugee individuals and families. Up until two weeks ago, she was a volunteer intern working with the Adjustment team, assisting refugees with any needs that may arise as they adjust to life in the United States. Now she works for the agency full-time, doing work ranging from securing public assistance to being an advocate to acting as the Women’s Empowerment Coordinator. In the latter role she pairs isolated or high-need refugee women with American mentors. 

“I am excited to now be employed by RICS as an Adjustment Case Manager where I will continue being an advocate focusing on refugees who have serious medical issues or critical needs,” said Swihart. 

Jamal Julien and Olatunji Oboi Reed, Founders of Slow Roll Chicago

Image Via Slow Roll Facebook Page

Jamal (left) and Oboi (right) founded Slow Roll Chicago, a community-based organization utilizing the activity of bicycling to connect a diverse group of people and improve the condition of communities. They do this by organizing community bicycle rides and other bicycling-related programs throughout the greater Chicago area. 

Slow Roll Chicago works to achieve equity in bicycle access, bicycle usage, bicycle infrastructure, bicycle safety, bicycle culture, and other community-related and bicycle-related resources in Chicago with particular focus on communities on the Southside and Westside, making our communities healthier, more empowered, more economically viable, more socially cohesive, more bikeable, and ultimately more livable. 

Steve Niketopoulos, Community Activist in Ukrainian Village

Image Via Steve Niketopoulos Facebook Page 

Steve designed an information network of discussion forums and neighborhood coalitions focused on having stronger neighborhood communication and community building efforts. It now includes over 10,000 neighbors. “It was so hard to meet neighbors, and not everyone could make neighborhood meetings, so many people didn't know what was happening in the community,” said Steve. “We have new neighbors joining in every day, sharing what they learn and experience while learning from other neighbors about the area.” 

The network reaches 19 communities across West Town, Logan Square, Lincoln Park and the Near North. Common topics are crime, safety, development, festivals, schools, local business, home maintenance, block clubs, infrastructure repairs, and everyday advice questions. To find out if there are forums for your community, email Steve.

Daniel Pogorzelski, Community Activist in Avondale

L to r: Daniel Pogorzelski, Tony Passero, and Jerry Rogowski volunteer to paint the "Whoot" mural by Tony Passero at Belmont and Kedzie. 

Dan is the former Executive Director of the Greater Avondale Chamber of Commerce, and he is still active with the organization. Chicago's Polish Village, which occupies the Milwaukee Avenue Corridor across Avondale was his first home, and he feels a strong connection to ensuring that the neighborhood continues to thrive. As a result he’s been involved with a number of community projects that served to revitalize or draw attention to the neighborhood including tours of Avondale, arts initiatives, and even the co-authoring of a history book have all been tools that have served to build community and foster economic development. 

“The biggest payday in all of this has been the goodwill and friendships that I've gained through volunteering in these ventures,” said Dan. 

Kristen Pratt, Chicago Conservation Corps (C3) Program Coordinator for The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

Kristen (seen at left) leads the Chicago Conservation Corps (C3), a program of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. C3 supports volunteers who lead sustainability service projects in their neighborhoods and their volunteer base has been ever-growing since 2006. Today they have 600 independent adult volunteers and 70 school-based sustainability clubs in every ward city-wide. “These incredible volunteers are giving their time to catalyze action in their communities on important issues like climate change, water conservation, energy efficiency, food access, waste management, green space preservation, and more,” said Kristen. 

Volunteers design projects to meet the needs in their communities. “I provide our volunteers with project materials, troubleshooting assistance, and abundant hugs, high fives, and baked goods.” C3 is creating a community of activists in Chicago who bring their enthusiasm and expertise to neighborhoods throughout the city. “We are truly making a difference in Chicago,” said Kristen. 

Laura Eberly, Community Organizer at Mercy Housing Lakefront

Laura (second from left) works with formerly homeless people in Chicago to improve their communities, build leadership skills, and change the conversation about affordable housing. “People from all walks of life have important skills and ideas to contribute to our communities, but people with disabilities, histories of homelessness, or low income are often left out of the conversations and decisions that shape our city,” Laura said. 

Tenant Leadership at Mercy Housing Lakefront comes together to shift that balance. Over the years, the organization has worked to increase civic participation, build relationships with our elected officials, and fight for creative solutions for public safety, transit accessibility, healthy food resources, employment opportunities, and affordable housing.

Lily Be, Storyteller for Community Outreach

Lily encourages Chicagoans to share stories to paint a fuller picture of various Chicago neighborhoods. “The work I am doing for my neighborhood involves storytelling,” said Lily. “In fact, I'm doing for EVERY neighborhood in the city.” Lily’s storytelling show, The Stoop, travels to a different one of Chicago’s 200 neighborhoods each month, to connect people in the community with each other. 

“I want the new and old residents to hear how their communities have influenced and shaped them,” she said. “It is important for me to preserve the authenticity and ‘flavor’ of these communities through story. I believe that by understanding why residents are so connected to their neighborhoods, that communities can then strive to help each other live harmoniously in these neighborhoods.” The show kicked off last month, in Pilsen. 

Benjamin Singer, Social Justice Leader and Campaign Director of Common Cause Illinois

Ben is currently working on a project with Common Cause Illinois called “Fair Elections Illinois.” It will be on the Chicago ballot on February 24. He currently serves as Campaign Director of Common Cause Illinois, building support for a better democracy at the local, state, and federal levels. He managed the grassroots campaign that made Illinois the 14th state to officially call for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United v. FEC with strong bipartisan support. Benjamin joined Common Cause after working as a fundraising consultant for U.S. Senate races. 

He saw how many candidates, donors, and voters disagree with, but must participate in, a broken and corrupt campaign finance system that is not working for everyday Americans. Benjamin studied Radio/TV/Film and Political Science at Northwestern University, where he started a faith-based sustainability organization and directed an award-winning film. 

He has been an active social justice leader in Chicagoland since co-founding the Jewish environmental organization at Northwestern University. 

Robin Cline, Director of Community Engagement for Opera-Matic, Assistant director at Neighbor-Space

Robin serves communities through two important roles: First, through Opera-Matic, which activates public spaces for community engagement through people-powered sound, story and interaction; Then, through Neighbor-Space, the only nonprofit urban land trust in Chicago that preserves and sustains gardens on behalf of dedicated community groups. 

“[I love] knowing your neighborhood down on the ground, looking for shared experiences of safety, loss, desperation, fatigue- and during all this, wild-eyed joy and work,” said Robin. “That's what's going to make us all get up in the morning and try harder.” Robin constantly seeks out opportunities to partner with others who share her vision and connect communities. “That's what I want to make easier- the practice of being together in public,” she said. 

Bea Tersch, Community Activist in Lincoln Square/Ravenswood Gardens

Tersch is the last remaining charter member of the Greater Rockwell Organization, a community group committed to improving a small 14-block area, bordered by Wilson (south), Lawrence (north), Western (east), and the Chicago River (west). Tersch and neighbors founded GRO in 1979 to combat gang influence and the over-development taking place at the time. 

The area is much different today, at least partially thanks for community leaders like Tersch. She has lived in the neighborhood since 1976. Today GRO is devoted to the beautification and improvement of the neighborhood.