August 13, 2015 | by Ilana Zafran Walden

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Ilana Zafran Walden first learned about Umoja as an AmeriCorps volunteer through the Avodah Program. She knew she wanted to work with young people and her placement at Umoja confirmed and strengthened her committment to Chicago youth. Nine years later, she steps into the role of Umoja Chief Operating Officer.

Learn about Ilana's journey...

1. How long have you worked for Umoja and what roles have you held?

I’ve been working with Umoja for 9 years. As a result, I don't want to list every position that I’ve had, so I’ll give you a general summary.  I started off with leadership programming and then I started to do restorative justice (RJ) work at Manley Career Academy High School. Restorative justice was all about how do we help students use their voices to lead to restoration. After success at Manley I began to oversee the expansion of restorative justice work at other schools. I became program director of RJ where I supervised the staff of restorative justice teams at different high schools. Now I am chief operating officer (COO) of Umoja. As COO, I oversee operations and make sure the staff of Umoja have what they need in order to do their work well.

2. How has Umoja evolved over the years?

Before we talk about how Umoja has evolved I want to talk about how Umoja has stayed the same. Umoja is still committed to all students and what they need to graduate from high school. However, Umoja has evolved in the way(s) that it strives for student success. We’ve shifted our focus from solely working with students to building the capacity of adults in schools. Umoja prepares adults (teachers, security guards, deans, and principals) to work with students to enable student success. 

3. What do you love most about working at Umoja? What has kept you with Umoja for so long?

I love working at Umoja because I believe in the work that we do. Umoja staff recognize complexity and go into spaces that other people aren't willing to go. We meet both students and staff where they are and create a safe space that challenges them to grow. No demands are made, but it’s more of walking with the schools as they grow. Now to answer the second question, it's the people, the people who work here, that keep me coming back. The staff of Umoja are a great team of talented and dedicated people who work hard.

4. What are one or two of your favorite Umoja moments?

I have two favorite moments. The first was when I attended the Southern Junior college trip in the Spring of 2008. I loved walking with students during the Selma to Montgomery Memory March. Both students and staff were able to see the country’s history and reflect on how this history has impacted us and who we want to impact. My second favorite moment is Spring Fling. Spring Fling is an event dedicated to honoring principles. I believe Umoja works with the most talented people, but often times we don't get to acknowledge them. Spring Fling is a rare moment where nothing else matters except for them and their efforts. Being able to see these people be honored was such a powerful and transformative experience. It was a moment to just celebrate commitment. 

5. Describe your role in 4 or 5 adjectives?

Dynamic, interesting, constantly learning, and deeply committed.