Story 8 of 20: A Door of Opportunity by DeQuan Drane and Lila Leff

For our eighth story in our series of 20 stories over the past 20 years, we’re honored to share with you the story of DeQuan Drane. To help us share DeQuan’s story, we enlisted the help of Umoja’s founder, Lila Leff, who has seen DeQuan’s full transformation over the past two decades. In fact, Lila traveled to the East Coast just last month to celebrate DeQuan’s wedding. Here is his story…

Umoja was in its earliest days when DeQuan Drane came ambling into the office one day. Not quite at his full height of 6’6 yet, DeQuan was known throughout Manley High School as a smart, joyful young man in search of a positive future. “He was all elbows, energy, hope, and intelligence,” Lila Leff, Umoja’s founder, fondly remembers. “He wanted a different life than the one he felt was waiting for him, one that was filled with poverty and lack of economic and educational options he’d been watching around him his whole life. His drive for success was palpable, even back then.”  Whether it was a trip to Michigan to visit a social justice summer camp or a formal business event downtown, DeQuan was always up for an Umoja experience that would make the world bigger for him and others. He volunteered and took on part-time jobs with Umoja, including serving as a mentor and counselor in Umoja’s Summer of Service Program for several years.


DeQuan describes Umoja as a door of opportunity. “With so many other ‘doors’ in Chicago against the youth, it’s important to give the youth in Chicago hope and opportunity to become more and rise above their circumstances,” he shared. 

“This is the very essence of what Umoja brings to Chicago’s high school students.” 

Umoja is a door of opportunity that DeQuan was ready to open. 

“It can be a door that can lead to many other doors of opportunity. It was important for me to be connected with everything going on with Umoja, as it afforded me with opportunities and empowered me to reach my full potential.” 

He recalls, “Many lessons and opportunities Umoja afforded that helped progress my character and thinking as a young man.” He goes on to add that he remembers spending significant time with Umoja’s leaders, specifically Lila Leff, building lifelong habits because of Umoja’s encouragement and guidance. 

“Making the decision to attend college was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. It took me from a place with little hope to a place where I believed the sky is the limit. College raised my standards in everything I did.”

DeQuan_and_Lila.jpegDeQuan is a Senior Industrial Engineer for Pratt &Whitney (UTC) aerospace. He received his Bachelor of Science from Alcorn State University and his Master’s in Industrial Engineering Technology from the University of Southern Mississippi. He enjoys coaching basketball and mentoring young people and continues to carry the message of opportunity he learned from Umoja to them.

“I would advise high school students to try not to stress over things going on around them and to focus and lock in on their goals, as time in high school is only for a moment, and they have a promising life ahead of them.”

Looks like DeQuan opened the right door.