Summer Links Builds Cohort of Civic-Minded Students to Effect Social Change in Chicago

June 27, 2014

By Michelle Lee
June 3, 2014
Originally published at UCSC: University Community Service Center

Summer Links is an immersive 10-week training and internship program that educates students about social justice issues—teaching methods for catalyzing social change through direct service, community organizing, advocacy and activism, public policy, and research and evaluation. Students work at an off-campus internship Monday through Thursday, and they participate in Wednesday evening and all-day Friday trainings that include reflection, site visits, community explorations, guest interviews, and more.

This year’s cohort of 30 College students was selected from a pool of 112 and came from diverse backgrounds, representing 22 different majors and minors, 17 different states, 4 different countries, and an array of RSO, extracurricular, and international experiences.

“The reason I was drawn to the Summer Links program is because it provides the unique opportunity to be able to work in the grassroots, nonprofit sector, along with a cohort of like-minded individuals who are also passionate about social justice and community-based issues,” said first-year student Kenzo Esquivel.

Students were matched to internships through a process where each student interviewed at 5 of 48 different organizations. The 48 partner organizations, 32 of which are new to Summer Links this year, are located in 11 different Chicago communities, spanning the region from the South Shore to Rogers Park. The organizations are focused on a variety of social justice issues, including healthcare, education reform, housing, unemployment, and immigrant rights.

As part of Summer Links, Esquivel will be interning at Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Theaster Gates on the 6900 block of South Dorchester that redevelops neighborhoods and abandoned spaces through arts and culture-driven initiatives. He will support Rebuild’s community garden initiative. In addition, he will coordinate their bimonthly film screenings and facilitate discussions of films by and about people of the African diaspora so neighborhood youth can make their own films and tell their own stories.

“I am very interested in the intersection of the arts and community-building. I think that the arts are a great way to build the confidence and passion of young people and are also an effective means of bringing people together,” said Esquivel, adding that he was “drawn to Rebuild because of the uniqueness of their community space for creativity and the arts.”

For Helen Gao, a third-year student who will be interning at United Way—a nonprofit that focuses on improving income, education, and health outcomes—Summer Links is an opportunity to “explore different aspects of the broader nonprofit world,” particularly in the public health sector.

“United Way's core idea is that income, education, and health all intertwine for overall success. This idea resonates with me since the same basic principle informs the work I do with Health Leads,” Gao said. “United Way tries to address similar concerns [as Health Leads] through a totally different mechanism—it is a huge nonprofit that distributes large donations from foundations and for-profit companies to local, smaller nonprofit programs. I really want to see what a big-picture approach to addressing the issues I already work with would look like.”

She added, “I'm also really excited for the discussions we'll have over the course of the program and for the opportunity to have my views both challenged and strengthened.”

For the 30 matched internship host sites, Summer Links is a way to expand their organizational capacity and add “strength, energy and vision to [their] efforts,” said Jay Readey, Executive Director of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which works to end discrimination. The host sites offer students the opportunity to grow and develop their skills and to effect social change within a variety of contexts and workplaces, including the non-profit, government, or business corporate social responsibility sectors.

Suzanne Hanney, Editor-in-Chief of StreetWise—a dual purpose magazine and social service organization in Uptown that provides workforce training and job placement to people who might otherwise have a hard time getting a start in the marketplace—remarked that Summer Links interns play a crucial active role in the organization. Being an intern means being her “right hand, someone who is engaged, resourceful, and will research stories and also monitor social media.”

“Last year's intern, Cindy Ji, connected us to another program going on with all the interns at the school about a poetry slam, which made an excellent story. She also added greatly to a feature on Chicago music, and after her internship, connected us to the recent Studs Terkel event,” she said. “So overall, her awareness was an asset, as was her background.”

Readey said that Summer Links provides a means to “engage young people in the mission of reinvesting in areas of concentrated disadvantage.” “It is through the leadership of today’s young people that we will see transformation in Chicago’s (and America’s) hardest-hit neighborhoods,” he said. “Our hope is that the Summer Links intern gains an understanding both of the operations of a modern civil rights organization and the perspective of community leaders on the ground in Chicago’s neighborhoods.” 

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