While giving back to their community, students connect to own identity


Katie Williams

COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS: Since age three, junior Katie Williams has participated in a Chicago chapter of Jack and Jill of America, where she has formed valuable connections within her community.

Audrey Matei, Arts Editor

While her friends all have plans to hang out together after school, Lusia Austen drives to her local synagogue, KAM Isaiah Israel, every Friday at 4 p.m. Walking into the place that hosted her bat mitzvah five years ago, she prepares to teach a group of students that she was a part of only a few years prior. The kids are full of energy on a Friday afternoon, and she works hard to make Hebrew school as engaging, relevant and fun as possible. 

Lusia is one of many students involved in activities that allow them to connect with their own identity and give back to their community.

Throughout the city, students participate in multiple organizations that specifically serve and target certain demographics. Among them is Jack and Jill of America, a group that advocates and serves Black children through service projects, fundraisers, educational materials and policy work. Multiple Lab students participate in one of the Chicago chapters, and junior Katie Williams is the vice president of hers. 

Katie said that her biggest takeaway from working with Jack and Jill of America has been the connections she’s formed within the group. 

“Since I’ve been a part of Jack and Jill since I was 3 years old, it’s been the lifelong friendships and bonds I’ve made with others and I appreciate how that started my web of connections with other people,” Katie said. 

Lusia shared a similar sentiment about forming connections. She said her favorite part of working at the synagogue is building relationships and a community. 

“A big part of it for me is connecting with the children,” she said. “It’s also building a community space, and the classroom is a really important part of that.”

Junior Yolotzin Martinez is involved in YolloCalli Arts Reach, an initiative hosted by the National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen neighborhood that offers culture programming for youth. She participated in their radio journalism offering and spent a month last summer working on a two-hour show that focused on the overturning of Roe v. Wade and its effects on specific communities.

As a Latina, Yolo said that it was important for her to share these stories to help inform the communities around her.

“The biggest thing I learned was the importance of staying informed,” she said. “History does repeat itself if it’s not talked about enough, and we’re kind of seeing it, even now aside from reproductive rights, in other issues for people of color as well.” 

The show shared resources for listeners, information from experts and overlooked impacts of its overturning that pertained to groups such as LGBTQ people. 

She said the work she did had a positive and intersectional impact on her own communities and others. 

“It had a very big positive impact for people that probably didn’t think that they have options,” she said. “Everything that Roe v. Wade included should be a fundamental right for every single person, no matter, like, their race, gender or whatever they identify as.”

Katie is involved in the Mayor’s Youth Commission, a cohort of young people who advise the mayor on policy issues that affect Chicago youth. As a commissioner, she acts as a representative for people in Chicago of similar experiences and advocates for initiatives like “My CHI My Future,” a program that connects Chicago youth with out-of-school activities. 

Katie said that being able to learn about the Chicago community from new viewpoints has been extremely rewarding.

“I’ve learned so much from my peers and their different perspectives,” she said. “Without this experience, I would have zero to limited knowledge about the different policies and actions the city is taking to help youth and having the perspectives of others has been extremely enlightening and life-changing.”

She also said her motivation for joining the Mayor’s Youth Commission was to help uplift her community during the pandemic.

“Over quarantine I gained a lot of awareness of the political structure and parties,” she said. “I just felt very suffocated as a youth, so to combat that I tried to involve myself in different things to uplift my community, so I can make change.”

Lusia said that above anything else, she appreciates the act of giving back to the community that has done so much for her.  

“One of the reasons I wanted to start working was because I had such a great experience there when I was a kid,” Lusia said, “and I want to give the same experience to the current kids.”