We’re connecting with alumni of our American Express NGen Fellowship program to learn a little about where they are now, and what they’ve taken back to their communities across the country as they’ve grown as leaders. This week, we caught up with Alicia Gonzalez, founder and executive director at Chicago Run and a 2013-14 participant in our NGen Fellowship program.
Our interview with Alicia Gonzalez comes at a busy time for her and her team. They have had two weeks to recharge from hosting their annual Little Steps, Big Stars fundraiser. In a few days, they will be off to the races once again with their 2017 Spring Fun Run. More than 4,500 students, teachers, and parents will participate this year, marking the culmination of the organization’s Chicago Runners program in 44 elementary schools citywide.
Underlying the now 10-year-old organization’s mission is a conviction that play has been choked out of many urban communities.
“It is truly a sight to see children and families from 44 schools across the city join hands and partake in a positive and healthy event, especially as you juxtapose it to all the negative press Chicago has received over the last couple of years,” Alicia said.
Alicia is herself a Chicago native and the daughter of activists. “My mom was an academic activist fighting for equal rights for women and minorities in education,” she said. “My dad was an artist in the Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen and continuously fought for equal arts programming and facilities for his Latino community.”
Fighting for social justice is in Alicia’s DNA and she admits her parents’ influence in her choice to focus on improving the lives of children and families. Since founding Chicago Run in 2008, she’s led the organization to its current capacity, serving over 17,000 students, ages pre-kindergarten to high school. “The majority of whom are from low-income neighborhoods that are plagued with violence, inactivity, and a lack of resources,” she said.
Alicia also cites the inherent challenges of having a multi-ethnic, multi-national background (her mom is Irish and her father is Mexican) as a major source of motivation for wanting to build community. “[Growing up] wasn’t always easy,” she said. “I often felt like I wasn’t fully accepted on either side of my family or in my environment. However, it taught me how to be a connector and find commonalities rather than differences…Starting Chicago Run I wanted to be sure that we utilized running to build cross-community relationships.”
Although Alicia is deeply invested in her hometown, she has seized several opportunities to contribute and develop as an eminent young leader working at the intersection of health, wellness, and inclusion. Since the conclusion of her American Express NGen fellowship in 2014, she was part of the 2016 Aspen Institute Health Scholars program and has recently concluded a 2016-17 German Marshall Memorial Fellowship.
Alicia remembers the timing of her NGen fellowship well, as it took place during a critical time for Chicago Run. Fifty of Chicago’s public schools closed the summer before the 2013-14 school year. Twelve elementary schools that participated in Chicago Run programs were among the closures.
“Rather than replace them right away, I made the hard leadership decision to scale back and re-evaluate our programs with all the massive changes that had occurred in Chicago Public Schools” she said. “After we scaled back and revamped our programming, we grew exponentially again. It was extremely helpful to have my peers’ candid advice that was not tainted by any bias, as they were not close to the situation here in Chicago.”
Chicago Run’s preschool and high school programs (Little Strides and L.A.C.E. Up!, respectively) are the product of even more recent expansions and their next growth campaign, Chicago Run 2.0, is underway. This phase of growth will expand Chicago Run’s programming to both early childcare centers and community-based organizations, and includes plans to use activity and sports to promote peace and inclusion in Chicago’s refugee and immigrant communities.
Much like her home city and the communities Chicago Run works in, Alicia takes challenges in stride. “I have learned more from challenges and failures than I ever have from successes.”
More on Alicia and Chicago Run:
Jackie Brennan is the associate for social media and web at Independent Sector.