Interview by Amy Braverman Puma, courtesy of The University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Dan Dry
Ricardo Estrada, AM’93, and his family moved from Mexico to Chicago when Estrada was 7. After attending seminary high school, he studied for the priesthood at Loyola University Chicago, where he earned a psychology degree. Although he left the seminary, he stayed with nonprofit work.
Today he’s executive director of Erie Neighborhood House, a West Side agency that offers early-childhood and adult education, technology courses, emergency assistance, and, through partner organizations, health care and affordable housing.
Under Estrada’s leadership—he’s the third School of Social Service Administration alumnus to head the agency—Erie House opened its first charter school and expanded into his old neighborhood, Little Village.
Epiphany in Bolivia: An inspirational priest, Ray Cowell, would take us to mountain villages, and he’d offer all the sacraments. We got to one place where his Jeep couldn’t go; it was too hilly. So I ran ahead, and I got there before the rest of the guys. There was a little kid pulling on a nun’s habit and saying, “Madre, what time is the priest coming so I can do my first communion?” And she said, “The seminarian is here, so he can’t be far behind.” Then he says to her, “Why don’t you do it?” At that moment I thought, yeah, why not? Sacraments are administered by males, priests. I couldn’t reconcile that. That was one reason I left. Also I was too young. I wasn’t ready for it.
Addicted to information: At SSA, I remember how informed the other students seemed to be and how uninformed I thought I was. While I’m listening to music, these folks are listening to National Public Radio. One of the first lessons about being at SSA was learning how to be more informed about what’s going on. So I started listening to WBEZ. Now I’m a junkie.
How to get Hizzoner’s attention: Five years ago I was invited by then-new Alderman Manny Flores to his First Ward meeting. Mayor Daley was there, speaking about his desire to have new schools. I just threw it out there and said, “Hello, Mayor Daley. I’m Ric Estrada from Erie Neighborhood House. We’re considering a K-to-3 school because third-grade scores are the single leading indicator of future economic success and educational attainment, and in some states like California, they use third-grade scores to project how many prison cells they’re going to build.” Within days, I had a phone call asking me to come in. I presented my four-point agenda. He said, “I want to talk about No. 2,” which was the charter school. By the time I got back, his staff had called.
Originally published on May 11, 2009.