Fellows of the class of ’23 presented their capstone projects at Michelle Clark High School on April 1 | Courtesy of Community Leadership Fellows

On the walls of a classroom at Michele Clark High School, on April 1, a savvy group of West Side leaders and mentors, saw the projection of the words “The Future Is You!” 

To the side, stood six fellows of the 2023 class of the Community Leadership Fellows (CLF), who enthusiastically presented their capstone group project, a junior leadership retreat titled “The Future is You!” 

Each of the fellows brings unique expertise and knowledge of West Side communities, backed by solutions they have implemented and people they have impacted through their work, which often blends professional and personal experiences.  

Garfield Park fellow Mercedes Pickett, founder and CEO of local nonprofit Earth Remedies, said the fellowship has helped her connect with other leaders in the area and strategize as a collective. 

“Whatever your interests are, your skill sets, you’re connected to field experts that will strengthen those abilities and connect you to like-minded individuals,” Pickett said. “I think that is so powerful in a space where we are competing, rather than collaborating.” 

Not every fellow knew they were a leader, but now they have learned the value of their skills and passion to improve their neighborhood. 

Patty Carrillo, president of the 1000 and 1100 block clubs on Monticello Avenue, said in Spanish that the fellowship has helped her discover she is a leader. Five years ago, the increased gang activity on the street she lives on prompted her to organize her neighbors and form a block club. Since then, residents run two block clubs that have created a communal garden, improved streets infrastructure, organized events and worked with the Chicago Police Department CAPS office to find solutions that improve safety for her and her neighbors. 

In her interactions with the local CAPS office, she met Lt. Jermaine Harris, who also serves as chairperson of the advisory council for Community Leadership Fellows. Carrillo said Harris invited her to join the fellowship program, but she hesitated because she was concerned language could be a barrier. Now, she is happy she joined this “beautiful experience.” 

Co-founder Alexandra Auguste said the fellowship invests in homegrown talent – particularly Black and Brown talent – from six West Side communities: Austin, East and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale, West Humboldt Park and Little Village. Fellows participate in workshops, coaching, mentoring and network opportunities designed to help them advance their leadership. The program seeks applicants who developed their leadership as residents of the West Side and who work or volunteer in a West Side nonprofit, public agency or advocacy group. 

“In order to create systemic change, we have to work together,” Auguste said. “We’re trying to tap into all the sectors that make the communities run and those who run the community.” 

Building meaningful and powerful relationships is at the core of fellowship, by creating the space for fellows to learn together and start to create change together. In the fellowship, they meet some of the most influential groups in the Chicagoland area, such as United Way, the Boys and Girls Club, the Obama Foundation, Thresholds Chicago and University of Illinois Chicago Neighborhood Centers. 

This was evident in the capstone projects’ presentation where every team pitched compelling, evidence-based and comprehensive projects that could easily garner the support of donors, nonprofits and government officials. One team will promote wellness and unite Black and Brown communities in Lawndale while another will uplift the rich history in Chicago’s West Side through a documentary created by community members. All teams receive a $5,000 grant from CLF to implement their projects.

Potential leaders for the 2024 cohort can apply until April 30 by submitting a video or written application. For more information visit the Community Leadership Fellows (CLF) website. The program is free and fellows receive a $2,000 participation stipend. 

“They’re already creating magic, but we’re creating a space for them to learn and grow,” Auguste said.