Our History

Since 1997, one question has driven everything we do — what is best for students? This remains at the core of who Umoja is, what we do and how we do it.

1997: The Beginning

In August 1997, Lila Leff walked through the doors of Manley Career Academy High School for the first time with an innovative idea. She wanted to start an organization that would be housed in Manley and would create family-school-community partnerships to effect real, positive change in the lives of Manley students. The school’s Principal, Dr. Katherine Flanagan, was receptive to the idea and Umoja was born. While the organization was originally called MOCA (Manley Office of Community Affairs), the name was changed to Umoja Student Development Corporation. At that time, fewer than 10% of Manley graduates were going on to college.

1997: The Polk House Rehab

A group of students from the Construction Program at Manley identified the need to create affordable housing options for their families. With the support of the Steans Family Foundation and The Enterprise Companies, Umoja began the full gut rehab of the “Polk House.” More than 70 students worked on the home which was sold to a long-time community resident whose children and grandchildren graduated from Manley.

1998: College Trips

When Umoja offered our first college trip, Lila struggled to recruit students to board the plane. Since then a college culture has grown and Umoja continues to see the college tour experience as a critical opportunity to make the world bigger for students, and every trip has a waiting list!

1999: Business Partnerships

Umoja introduces Training-to-Transitions (T3), a unique career event to help students think about their future by bringing in business partners to help make connections.

2001: Community Builders

Umoja launches Community Builders, its cornerstone summer program for students.

2003: New School Partnerships

Umoja was invited to replicate our best practice model in other Chicago high schools and began facilitating Student Development seminars with more than 1,000 students at Gage Park High School.

2006: Alumni

With greater numbers of Manley graduates enrolling in college, Umoja officially launches its Alumni Network and hires an Alumni Coordinator to support Manley graduates as they work toward their college degrees.

2008: Umoja University (UU)

Umoja launches Umoja University as the knowledge-sharing arm for scaling Umoja’s impact to new school partners throughout the district and beyond.

2010: Growth across Chicago

Through Umoja University, Umoja expands beyond the West side to include schools on the far North and South sides of Chicago. This extends Umoja’s reach from serving exclusively African-American and Latino students to working with a diverse population of students, speaking dozens of languages.

2011: Strategic Planning

Umoja, with extensive input from internal and external stakeholders, realigns our model to reflect our core competencies in the areas of College & Career Readiness, Social & Emotional Learning and Restorative Justice.

2012: Expansion

Umoja replicates our Restorative Justice Peace Room model to Foreman High School.


Umoja pilots our comprehensive 500+ lesson curriculum in for-credit grade-level Seminars at 5 high schools and translates our Restorative Justice Peace Room model to South Shore International College Preparatory High School and Sullivan High School.