Story 1 of 20: The Beginning
by Lila Leff
Let’s start at the very beginning with the story of how it all began. We asked Umoja’s founder, Lila Leff, to share the story of how Umoja came to be and how that early vision informed the organization that Umoja has become…
“I’d like to say that 20 years ago I had a perfectly crafted master plan detailing what Umoja would become. But the truth is, Umoja invented me as much as I invented it. I wasn’t looking to start an organization; I was looking to work with young people in the way I believed would have the highest impact. I found a lot of great organizations in my work in Chicago but, much like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I was in search of a perfect fit. I guess you could say that I started Umoja so I could work at a place with people who believed what I did: That young people aren’t a problem to be solved, or a code to be cracked.That young people are assets and must be the architects of their own future; That an effective adult ally is part champion, part mirror and witness, a resource provider, a hand up and sometimes a kick in the butt. That with opportunity, exposure and resources nestled deeply in positive, supportive and challenging connections with peers and adults, young people have what they need to be successful, in high school and beyond.
When I started Umoja I believed then, as I do now, that schools can and should be thriving centers of their community. Schools are most effective when they are anchor institutions that ground and develop young people (and their families) as they become self-sufficient citizens and deep contributors to their neighborhoods and the larger world around them. If I had to boil it down to one thing (something I have not ever done particularly well, as anyone at Umoja can attest) I believe that in the end all transformation - personal, political, social and institutional - begins with and is anchored in relationships.
While Umoja’s journey has been an evolution more than a neat and linear map, there is something satisfying now in looking back at the (mostly) organic logic of the path. It began with lunch time programming in the dusty math supply room that doubled as our inaugural office at Manley High School. The path traveled from there to our construction rehab/community development projects, learning valuable lessons about the power of hands on learning opportunities as young people addressed problems that mattered to them and their families. The road continued to wind as we formalized an advisory model and afterschool and summer leadership programming, college trips across the country, and refined our theory of change by partnering with additional high schools. This expansion helped us capture and evaluate our special sauce and ultimately grow into our next iteration. Over time, Umoja became the capacity builder it is today - supporting effective restorative justice, social emotional learning, and college and career readiness work across Chicago schools.
Umoja’s work has certainly evolved over the years, but one thing is for sure. Success for us has never been about finding a simple, single-lever solution and asking people to adopt it. Complicated problems require complex solutions! Umoja is, and always has been, about building the bridges that allow individuals and institutions to grow their own solutions deeply rooted in their values and best practices. Being an adolescent is really complicated and hard; the compounding factors of community violence, poverty and lack of economic opportunity create a context NONE OF US could navigate without the right supports. Umoja has been committed to calling out this truth and mobilizing around it for twenty years now. I think gratefully about the many people who helped birth, care for and carry Umoja’s work, who have loved the special, amazing young people we serve alongside us.
Happy Anniversary to us all!”