Who We Are

Umoja centers students in our mission,
adults in our practice. 

GROWTH AT A GLANCE

  • Founded by Lila Leff in 1997, Umoja has supported Chicago Public Schools for 21 years. Time has revealed that more equitable education for students could only be achieved by equipping adults with new skills to meet students more holistically. 
  • Through direct student service-provision, Umoja staff were able to impact the lives of hundreds of students across the city of Chicago through SEL programming. 
  • By investing in sustainable adult learning, practices, and mindsets, we equip a community of educators to exponentially expand the impact of Umoja's best-practices in Chicago and across the nation.  

 

Voices from Umoja: 2021

March 26, 2021:
 
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It was spring of 1998.

 

The birds were chirping, but it was still frigid in Chicago. Gage Park High School students were out visiting local college campuses. Among them was a 17-year-old who wasn't sure of her plans after graduation.

 

While this girl had a college-bound GPA, she often was considered a "problem child." Her counselor never handed her a college application, but somehow she managed to enroll in a local community college.

 

She went on to graduate, earning two undergraduate degrees. Working at a regional nonprofit, she became fascinated by the intersectionality of education and community empowerment.

 

She worked at several college access organizations, traveling all over the country promoting educational equity. While she guided hundreds of students towards a college path, she noticed that many still struggled to attain a college degree.

 

When she heard about the work that Umoja was doing, she realized it was the missing piece. Students lacked problem-solving skills, social awareness, self-management, and self-awareness. They struggled to advocate for their needs, which took a toll on their ability to navigate college.

 

Umoja was working to do something about it.

 

With a fresh MBA, she set her sights on Umoja. Her vision of creating change, of supporting students like her, was ever more important. After her hire in 2017, she worked tirelessly to build out partner relations, becoming a trusted voice in the nonprofit education space. She builds up social enterprise systems, expands Umoja's reach, and champions its mission to this day.

 

And if you haven't already guessed, that young person is me, Rosa Zamora, Director of Impact Growth for Umoja.

 

I mention all this because our unique moment in history has me reflecting a lot. After a powerful and sobering year living through a pandemic and overdue racial uprisings, it seems many of us process the world differently now than we did just one year ago.

 

Many of our systems collapsed. Longstanding, outdated traditions in business and education were severed completely—and I can't help but feel like that's a great thing. Because these systems have often failed the students who need assistance the most.

 

As a young student, with little support outside of my family, I learned many things by trial and error. I didn't have a guide or roadmap to lead me in my path. For these reasons, I strongly believe that all students deserve access to information, resources, and people who can guide them on their journey. This passion only grew stronger when I became a mother of two children who I felt deserved the very best. 

 

I believe that now, more than ever, we need to seek out opportunities for empathy and human connection. While our systems start over and rebuild, we should ensure that the overlooked, silenced, and disregarded voices are a part of the foundation.

 

What ideas have we overlooked? Who are the young people that we have left behind? How can we ensure that every young person gets the nurturing and affirmation they need to live passionate, purposeful, and fruitful lives? That young people like me, with no roadmap, are given a fair shot?

 

This is just one of the many reason Umoja is implementing our Summer Learning + Action Institute (SLAI) for the first time this summer. This month long learning series will be an opportunity for our partners and new stakeholders to invest their time and engage their hearts in a powerful wellness journey.

 

This is my "why"—opening space for those who have none and those who were pushed out. Shifting systems and challenging stale traditions so that the world can reflect a more equitable vision. This is what unity looks like. This is what Umoja represents, and it's a cause I'll continue to fight for.

 

This year, and especially this month, as we celebrate women globally, I hope we all find new ways to stir up hope. May we all be a "problem" to oppressive institutions. And may this still-young year bring you inspiration, connection, radical love, and a renewed commitment to the work. Our work.

 

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