Megan E. Doherty

When you listen to other people from different places, you realize we are really the same. I learned that no matter where you come from, you can always relate to people. Applying was one of the best d”
—Mohammad Awad
Taft High School student and program attendee

At the beginning of August, 30 rising high school seniors descended on the University of Chicago campus for an immersive week exploring how to be a leader in the context of tricky urban issues. They were the first class of the newly relaunched Future Leaders of Chicago (floChicago).

FloChicago originally ran from 1996-2001. A free program that created a small-scale melting pot of young Chicagoans, it brought together future leaders across races, classes, and neighborhoods. A former participant in that program, Matthew Brewer, recently resurrected it with the help of the UChicago Office of Civic Engagement and The Chicago Community Trust.

“The University is committed to developing strong leaders at all ages,” said Derek Douglas, UChicago’s Vice President for Civic Engagement. “The new floChicago fits well into our spectrum of enrichment and development programs, which serve a diverse community of students, as well as rising nonprofit and government leaders, business leaders, and local nonprofit organizations.”

The students, representing 26 Chicago neighborhoods and 21 different high schools, were chosen from 100 applicants for how they demonstrated leadership in their schools and communities in their own unique ways. Some lead student organizations, others are captains of their sports teams, while some have overcome disabilities and challenging life and family circumstances.

"On day one, they didn't know anyone else. By day three, you would have thought they had known each other for years," said Brewer, 34. "By the last day, you would think the group was comprised of childhood friends."

KeVeon White, from the UChicago Charter Schools - Woodlawn Campus, agrees. "All stereotypes go out the window after being exposed to diversity such as the floChicago class," he said.

Disappointed to learn the program that had been so impactful for him as a young man was no more, Brewer began to brainstorm how to resurrect it in 2011. Having access to spheres of the city that seemed off-limits to him changed what he saw as possible for himself. "At that age, my view of the world was largely limited to the pocket I lived in, so my notion of what kinds of careers would make sense or were even accessible to me were limited as well," he said.

Now, he has carefully assembled educators, community leaders, and professionals to comprise the founding team of the revamped program. In addition to the world-expanding trips to parts of the city they'd normally never set foot in, Brewer expects the next generation of floChicago students to benefit from being exposed to a diverse group of peers. This both promotes tolerance and respect, as well as increases the ability to work collaboratively with others often quite different from yourself.

From August 3-7, the students got their first taste of their soon-to-be college lives:  they lived on the University of Chicago campus in the Granville Grossman Residential Commons, and dined in the Cathey Dining Hall.

The young leaders toured Little Village and Humboldt Park. They took field trips to City Hall, The Chicago Community Trust, the criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue, and a 911-call center. They participated in workshops offered by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, and discussed the college application process.

And every night, they debated: from poverty to gentrification to the state of public education, students bounced around ideas with Brandi Snodgrass, who works with the Office of Civic Engagement’s Neighborhood Schools Program, and fourth years Charlie Bullock and Jaime Arana-Rochel as sounding boards.

"There was a time when we were talking about the criminal justice system, and we talked about how it is difficult for people to get jobs when they get released from prison. We disagreed a lot," admitted Christina Gutierrez, from Thornton Township High School in South Suburban Harvey, Ill. "And that made it fun. We all had a different perspective."

Evenings after dinner, they divided into six groups, each tackling a different area of focus. They worked on 15-minute presentations of their reflections, which they shared at the end of the week. In one titled "Poverty - American Me," the youth integrated their personal and floChicago experiences into a stage performance with an accompanying multimedia presentation.

"We have created something truly special that is already starting to impact students, and we have enormous potential to increase the impact," said Brewer. "We are looking to expand our reach into more neighborhoods and high schools for potential applicants."

Although designed only as a one-week summer program, the students clamored for more. Brewer and his team are currently planning to meet with them one Saturday every month during their senior year of high school. They will continue touring neighborhoods, meeting with local leaders, and engaging in community service projects, as well as benefit from college application and scholarship workshops.

"When you listen to other people from different places, you realize we are really the same," said Mohammad Awad, from Taft High School, located in Chicago’s Norwood Park community on the Northwest Side. "I learned that no matter where you come from, you can always relate to people. Applying was one of the best decisions of my life."

Originally published on September 28, 2015.