Pilsen is a southwest-side neighborhood in the city of Chicago that historically has been a port of entry to incoming immigrants. This summer Pilsen is an entry to urban education for Illinois State University (ISU) students participating in STEP-UP (Summer Teacher Education Partnership for Urban Preparation). STEP-UP is a 4-week teaching and community internship program for pre-service teachers from ISU. Fellows assist in Chicago Public School (CPS) summer session classrooms, serve as interns for a community-based organization, and live with host families.

The initiative has a strong focus on the role a community plays in education. The fellows placed in Pilsen receive a unique experience living with residents who have strong ties to the neighborhood. This year in Pilsen there are three families hosting five fellows. They have been placed with families who have lived in the area for a span of 18 years or more. It is no surprise that these families have shown an interest in housing ISU fellows. Over their time living in Pilsen they have seen everything from gang infestation to displacement, and they are dedicated to reinvesting in the district.

Margarita Navez has lived in Casa Guerrero, a Resurrection Project property, for over 18 years. The Resurrection Project is a community-based organization that offers quality, safe, and affordable housing in Pilsen. Casa Guerrero is one of many apartment buildings that the Resurrection Project owns.  It is because of its affordability that the Navez family remains in Pilsen and continues to work towards strengthening the community. The Navez family has seen the transformation Pilsen has undergone from being full of empty lots to the thriving neighborhood it is now. They have seen how investments in the people of Pilsen directly cause positive outcomes, such as the building of new clinics.

ISU seniors, Cristian Larios and Travis Volmer are getting a dose of history everyday living with the Navez family, all while making life-lasting memories. “One of my favorite experience so far has to be Mr. Navez’s birthday. We were sitting in the living room with the rest of the Navez family when we were asked to play guitar and sing. We played a couple of songs and I realized we connected with them on a different level. We were able to connect with them on a musical level and on a level we hadn’t before. It’s a memory I’ll treasure,” says Volmer.

STEP-UP fellows Nicole Tromotola and Taylor Knowles live with the Gonzalez family. The Gonzalez family started El Valor, a community-based organization that strives to enrich and empower people with disabilities, the disenfranchised, and the underserved. Anna Gonzalez’s grandmother lived in Pilsen and saw the need for an organization for children with disabilities. Greg Gonzalez, Anna’s father, helped start Fiesta del Sol in 1972, an annual festival that began as a celebration to commemorate Pilsen Neighbors Community Council’s role in securing the city’s commitment in building a high school in the area. Today, Fiesta del Sol draws over 1 million visitors during the four-day event.

Interactions with Anna and her family have yielded lessons about the family’s experiences working with residents of Pilsen and how to organize people for a just cause. Knowles says, “My favorite part has been learning about the community history of Pilsen; my host family’s history is that of community organizing and [they] have shared Pilsen’s history with us”.

ISU senior Gabriella Jacques is also receiving an array of ideas from her host family, Hector Duarte and Linda Lutton. Duarte is a muralist from Pilsen whose work can be seen at the National Museum of Mexican Art as well as inside the Pilsen high school, Benito Juarez Leadership Academy. Both Duarte and Lutton are involved in the change Pilsen is witnessing and experiencing. Jacque’s dinner conversations include topics of gentrification, family displacement, and the importance of residents coming together to act.

Mural by Pilsen artist, Hector Duarte.

All STEP-UP fellows in the program are creating essential experiences in each neighborhood. Fellows will have informed backgrounds at the end of the program that will allow them to strengthen their ability to connect with peers, the community, parents, and future students.