Chicago’s Latino Caucus Foundation builds leadership pipeline

When Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, was shoring up his leadership skills in 2013 in a training session with Leadership Greater Chicago, a civic leadership development organization, he looked around to find only a handful of people of color in a cohort of 35.

“They were talking about city issues, issues around social justice and us not being at the table and our communities being impacted … it was something I thought was lacking,” he said.

Although there were other organizations offering similar training, none were focused specifically on the Latino community. So he studied other leadership programs already in existence and chose the curriculum that best helped with developing Latino leaders and then created the Leadership Academy for the Chicago Latino Caucus Foundation in 2018 with a cohort of 24 Latino fellows.

“We needed to build a pipeline so that we could put forward folks as opportunities came up, whether it was within city government, state government, county government, corporate boards, commissions that both the city and state have where citizens can serve,” Villegas said.

Since then, 120 fellows have graduated from the program, said Ald. Michael Rodriguez, 22nd, a lifelong resident of Little Village and a steward of the program as chair of the Chicago Latino Caucus Foundation. And of those 120 alumni, a dozen have run for public office, including two elected aldermen, three elected Cook County associate judges and one suburban assessor.

“We know that there’s a dearth of leadership in corporate, executive and nonprofit boards,” he said. “It’s very important for us to close that gap. The Latino community is growing plurality in the city of Chicago, and the future of our city is dependent upon how well we are able to work to make sure that the Latino community is growing at the significant rate, not just in population but in leadership.”

Newly elected Ald. Ruth Cruz, 30th, and Ald. Jeylú Gutiérrez, 14th, were part of the 2022 Leadership Academy cohort. Cruz and Gutiérrez said the lessons learned within the program helped them secure their current positions. Cruz, a Belmont Cragin resident, was an assistant admissions director at Roosevelt University and Gutiérrez, a Brighton Park resident, was a district director for Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya.

Newly elected 14th Ward Ald. Jeylú Gutiérrez, left, participates in a public discussion on June 1, 2023, about temporarily sheltering migrants at Daley College on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

Leadership Academy participants attend daylong classes once a month for six months, learning things like management fundamentals, traditional and digital media training, how to run for office, campaign strategies, and public policy and legislation processes. Participants also get assistance in strategic life planning and one-on-one sessions of executive coaching.

According to Micaela Vargas, executive director of the Chicago Latino Caucus Foundation, the hyperlocal individualized approach is a unique part of the academy programming. A personality assessment tells participants what kind of leadership style they have. An executive coach and a separate life coach work with them to develop a strategic life plan.

“Our approach really isn’t just about career, because you are not just what you do. You are a holistic individual. It’s who you are at home that permeates through to who you are to your community and then who you are to your job,” Vargas said. “The life coach helps to develop what it is that you really want to do — deep diving into what your interests are, where you want to go to come up with benchmarks that a participant can hit over five to seven years.”

The annual fundraising efforts that the foundation conducts support the Leadership Academy’s programming, facilitators and scholarships for Latino college students. Vargas is looking for grants for a trip where participants can learn more about resources and on-the-ground organizing initiatives happening at the U.S.-Texas border or in D.C. and can bring back the knowledge to Chicago.

Villegas said the program now gets more than 150 applications every year. The program has been further diversified and has allowed non-Latinos to apply since 2021. Villegas hopes the program continues to grow as the pipeline grows. He’s keen on being able to put their first fellow onto a corporate board.

“They are midlevel professionals who have gone where their gut has led them so far, but most of our cohorts don’t have the confidence to really claim what they want,” Vargas said. “Jeylú always knew she wanted to run for office, but she never thought she could. Then walking out of the cohort, she said, ‘Why not? I have a network behind me. I have supporters. Why can’t I?’ Same thing with Ruth. As a nonprofit, we support our fellows by making sure that they have the alumni network supporting them.”

Gutiérrez said the skills she learned in the Leadership Academy helped her throughout her campaign. “Time management, how to address interviews with the press … I’ve never had any other time to learn that. It was my first time,” she said. “Without it, I could have pursued the position, but I’m so glad and blessed that I had this opportunity, because it shaped me and gave me more tools for my campaign and for the work that I’m now doing as an elected official.”

Ald. Ruth Cruz, 30th, is seen in in the 5700 block of West Belmont Avenue in Chicago on June 2, 2023. One of Cruz’s top priorities, she said, is to get more businesses in now-vacant storefronts.

Cruz agrees. Having joined several committees on Chicago’s City Council, she is looking forward to getting a library and a youth center built in the Avondale neighborhood. She wants to create avenues for more community involvement within her ward — including creating a community zoning committee and a youth committee.

“That’s one of the reasons I ran,” Cruz said. “I want to make sure that we build a progressive ward office that is transparent but accessible to all of our residents. What we learned throughout the Leadership Academy is how to be intentional, how to use our leadership skills to be able to bring people together and make sure that everyone has an opportunity to express their voice and to be heard.”

Cruz said the academy was “one of the most rewarding experiences” that she’s ever been part of and considers her fellow cohort participants to be family. Gutiérrez appreciates the connections she’s made with cohort fellows and said she is blessed to advocate for her communities.

“I would definitely encourage people to apply because we need more seats at the table and more Latinos to be involved in all these different positions,” Gutiérrez said. “I need to prove myself, but I’m confident that I have the knowledge and willingness to do better in our ward.”

Villegas said the intent “is to get folks engaged and spark that leadership that we all have in us and train folks on it.”

“It’s been humbling to see how far we’ve come and to have two people that are now my colleagues,” the alderman said. “It’s pretty cool.”

The Chicago Latino Caucus Foundation’s Leadership Academy applications open in August. The next cohort begins in October.

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