Interview by Julia Thiel
Photos by Andrea Bauer
Salgado is president and CEO of the Instituto del Progreso Latino, an organization that works to provide education, training, and employment opportunities for Latinos in Chicago. The 46-year-old has received numerous awards for his work, including, most recently, the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
I grew up as John, not as Juan. All the Latino kids were registered with English names in school—it was what the school recommended. So my cousin Jorge is George, my friend Enrique is Henry. My brothers and sisters called me John or Johnny, my parents and grandparents called me Juan.
I grew up in Calumet Park, at 125th and Ashland Avenue. It was actually a white community that is now a black community, and that transition happened when I was growing up. I remember statements by the white kids about leaving because blacks were coming in. Kids are honest.
It was a very small Latino community, mostly white and African-American. There were Latinos that had been there since 1918, when my grandfather got there, along with the new immigrants. My mother would do classes in Spanish after school. I was one of six kids, and I was the one who totally didn’t want to do Spanish classes.
Moraine Valley Community College offered a free ride for students who scored high, and I qualified for that. Community college was the right option for me. Nobody ever talked to me about college. Isn’t that something? I didn’t apply to a single college. I think there were a lot of missed opportunities.
I was a two-plus-two-plus-two person. I did two years of community college, two years at Illinois Wesleyan University, and two years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I studied urban planning. I was really interested, and still am today, in economic opportunity for people in lower-income communities, largely Latino and African-American communities.
When I was in urban planning school, I had a chance to work with some churches in East Saint Louis, an African-American community, and was really inspired by the people pushing to make the community better, the tremendous amount of hope that people had for turning around a situation that was very, very difficult. I got a chance to be part of the planning department for the community development group that was forming.
When I came back, I was unfamiliar with Chicago, pretty much unfamiliar with Latino communities. I didn’t really grow up in one. My Spanish wasn’t very good. But I really cared about community development. I did community organizing for the Resurrection Project, a faith-based organization in Pilsen. You run into people who have significant challenges and pain in their lives: women who’ve lost children to violence, pastors who want to help the kid in front of them, and you’re trying to do community organizing on policy changes, things that are maybe not so immediate. It’s hard to not be able to respond with something tangible. Community organizing got very frustrating.
I spent about five years at Resurrection, then I was hired as executive director here at Instituto del Progreso Latino. I was 31. I was scared to death because you have this thing that’s entrusted to you and you’re charged to lead it and make something that honors the vision of the people who founded it. But I really welcomed the opportunity to be at a place where I could construct things that immediately respond to people’s needs.
Communities like ours are only as strong as the human capital they can retain and attract. If people here can get access to better economic opportunities, if they can increase their earnings while staying in their communities, then we have healthy and livable communities. We have places where families can raise their kids.
We’ve been laser focused on figuring out: where are the job opportunities in our overall economy? They’re not all in our neighborhood. We export talent, and that talent brings income back into the community. We’ve been doing what some people call developmental education, or remedial education, or adult education. Taking that person with a desire to get a better opportunity and putting them in a position to do so. Working with the employer community in manufacturing and in health care—those are the two primary sectors that we focus on—and making those folks more attractive for the employers at the entry level.
“Communities like ours are only as strong as the human capital they can retain and attract.”
We said, “Why is it that 25 percent of the population in this city is Latino, and only 1 percent of the nurses are Latina?” Every time we talk to the hospitals, they’re dying for bilingual folks. The system wasn’t producing them. We discovered that there were a bunch of barriers and created programs to eliminate every one of those barriers.
That was about eight years ago. Today, you’ve got 500 people out there making 24 bucks an hour or more. Some have gone on to be RNs and bachelor’s degree nurses—people who wouldn’t have been making that otherwise and who mostly continue to live in the neighborhood. What manufacturing and health care have in common is that if you gain the employer’s trust and respect, they’ll pay for your further education. So all you have to do is get into that first one, and you can keep going up.
We run two charter schools, one focused on health care [the Health Sciences Career Academy]. Hospitals in the area said, “You’re doing a good job with nurses; we need doctors and surgeons.” They’re having to bring in talent from all over the world in order to meet their needs. Why can’t our kids achieve that?
A big part of the reason is they have to start thinking about it from seventh and eighth grade. Their parents are like mine—they’re factory workers, restaurant workers. They have to have course work that gets them ahead, because they’re going to have to compete for spots in nursing school or med school. So we created a school focused on incorporating a bunch of health-care courses, so that the kids that graduate really understand the human body.
We run another school focused on kids who have dropped out—our Justice and Leadership Academy. We take an approach that speaks to every one of those kids as being college material, career material. A lot of those kinds of schools are focused on, let’s just get the kid the diploma and get them out. That’s really terrible. Because these kids didn’t have a great experience in their first high school, and if you don’t take the opportunity to really build skills, you’ve just graduated a kid—to what? To a menial job? That makes no sense. Why not try to build the competencies while you can?
It’s tough work because the kid wants to graduate. They don’t want to be here. You’ve got the pull of the system, which is oriented towards “get ’em out,” and you’ve gotta make the case that they’re better off in a competency-based system. That’s what we are. It’s not just about the numbers, it’s about your engagement in your community. That’s what makes us different.
Everything is done in the context of our community. Nothing’s in isolation. We do an annual student-led symposium around community projects that they’ve come up with. We’re members of [the Latino advocacy organization] the National Council of La Raza, we take a delegation of 20 students every year to the National Council Conference. We’re part of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. There’s this connectedness to the world outside that’s pretty phenomenal. Kids intern at Rush, Lurie, Baxter International—anything we’re connected to, our students are connected to.
We were founded in Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards, Brighton Park, where all these communities come together. But if you want to get into a health-care program that has a 90 percent rate of success—that’s our record—you’re going to come here. We’re getting kids from all over the city, but concentrated on the southwest side.
In our schools, they’ve gotta apply to five colleges and universities in order to graduate. Nobody’s going to get missed. The work we’re doing, the people we have—there’s no limit to their dream. There’s no “You should take this path because it’s the easiest path, or the most economical path.” Anything’s available to anybody. v