By: Kimberly Ng

Edited by: Tessa Brubaker


After a full day of classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago, freshman Veronica Rodriguez prepares to meet with a bunch of strangers. These meetings happen a couple times a month, and each time, a new configuration of strangers joins her. During these meetings, she plants seeds of change in their minds. While Rodriguez might never see the people again, she imparts to them a sense of unity and shared values in this small community, hoping that one day they will be able to plant a community garden together, where their voices can be heard loud and clear and people of color will no longer be marginalized.

This is what a day in the life of Rodriguez, a youth activist, looks like — attending meetings and hosting workshops for everyone, youths and adults alike.

An active member of both the Pilsen Alliance and Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), 18-year-old Rodriguez fights against big issues that affect the larger community of Chicago, such as gentrification and racism.

One of many activist groups in Chicago, the Pilsen Alliance is a social justice organization that aims to develop grassroots leadership in Pilsen and other immigrant communities in the Lower West Side of Chicago. The alliance mainly fights for quality public education, affordable housing, government accountability and healthy communities.

Similarly, BPNC is a community-based, nonprofit organization focusing on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Its mission includes protecting immigrant rights, improving the learning environment at public schools and promoting gender equality.

Because of her Mexican roots, Rodriguez says she was compelled to join both organizations and lend her voice in their fight for the rights of immigrants.

“I’ve reached the point in time where I am fearless,” Rodriguez says. “There’s a lot of things that I am willing to do to be an advocate, but also, besides for others, but also to myself.”

In October, Rodriguez and a few other youth organizers hosted a series of workshops by the BPNC, targeting different age groups and communities. One of these workshops was aimed at helping parents and members of other organizations fight against issues like racism in high schools. With three years of experience in activism, Rodriguez took charge of planning this workshop, and even developed a game that would help shed light on real-life racism-related examples happening in schools today.

Playing  in groups of eight, each participant take turns rolling the dice and reading a random card containing a real-life scenario that students face in public schools. They then move forward or backward on the board according to how positive or negative the scenario is. The goal of this game is to advance toward the center of the board, where participants will then “graduate.”

Rushing from classes at University of Illinois to Little Village on a Thursday night for the workshop, Rodriguez slips into the building quietly, dressed comfortably in clothes of a  black and grey color palette. She takes a seat next to fellow youth organizer Olivia Albrecht while each person introduces themselves and states their favorite food from home, most of which are deep-fried Mexican delicacies. Afterward, the other youth organizer explains the rules of the game in both English and Spanish, while Rodriguez silently observes. Later on, the people break up into smaller groups and play the game.

The space, no larger than a small classroom, fills with the voices of youth leaders and parents sharing stories and reading out the scenarios on the cards for the game. In her assigned group, Rodriguez remains unobtrusive, and only speaks up to explain certain aspects of the game, or to share statistics and real-life examples of racist encounters that students experience in schools on a daily basis.

This sight is a common one in BPNC’s workshops, where young people take the lead and engage in dynamic discussions with parents, regarding the issues that the organization is fighting for — in this case, about racism and inequality in public schools.

“If you don’t have people on the ground and the people who are most impacted by the policies involved in the change campaign, then you’ll never have as effective policies that you need to have,” says Patrick Brosnan, executive director of BPNC. “That’s the reason why we ensure that all of our campaigns are really driven by our parents and (youth) leaders.”

Outspoken and bubbly in her daily life, Rodriguez strikingly leads workshops with a quieter form of leadership, which is rather valuable in these clamorous times.

Photo by Kimberly Ng

“I think it’s important to always take a step back as a leader,” she says. “The way that I see it is that I facilitate, and I create a platform for people to speak more, but I do think that it’s important for some people to take a step back and interrupt only when it’s necessary or when it’s the only option.”

A 2018 alumna of Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, at 2111 W 47th St., Rodriguez got her start in activism after she co-founded the school’s Student Voice Committee with her then chemistry teacher, Natasha Singh, now 28, and a bunch of fellow classmates.

“It started off as a group of students that would just hang out with my teacher after school, and we would complain a lot — about everything that was wrong with our school, in terms of the community and the environment, and also rules and stuff like that,” Rodriguez says.

Born out of the members’ daily chats and rants, the committee became the push that Rodriguez needed to step up and fight for the things she believed in, as well as the  stepping-stone that connected her to BPNC and the Pilsen Alliance.

The committee’s main duty is to create a bridge between the principal and the students and provide a safe platform for them to discuss rules and policies that they felt were unfair, such as the rule where students were not allowed to bring their own lunch to school, no matter how late their breaks were in the day.

“She wasn’t the most outspoken person in the classroom, but then, junior year we started a student organizing group – the Student Voice Committee, and she very quickly became the leader of that group,” Singh recalls.

One of the main issues that Rodriguez fought against during her time in the committee was adultism in the school, the belief that youths are inferior to adults, and are hence not as deserving of respect. This is something that she experienced first-hand during her senior year in high school, which she painfully describes, while nervously picking at her fingernails, as a “very horrible” year.

After discussing the gentrification and whitewashing of her neighborhood, Pilsen, in a meeting one day, Rodriguez lashed out in a private Instagram post – a photo of a sticker saying, “Get your bougie shit out of Pilsen,” with the caption “If I see another white hipster walking down 18th Street, I will tell my dog to bite you.”

Rodriguez says this post was taken out of context by the white teachers in her school, who saw her post as a threat, and showed it to the school’s administrators.

“I got attacked by a teacher that I trusted, and he was saying that I sounded like Trump. He was saying that I was never going to be able to achieve justice or change in my community if I continue to talk like this,” Rodriguez recounts.

Because of the way the school treated her, Rodriguez made the decision to not walk at her senior graduation ceremony, as she felt like the ceremony wasn’t so much for her as it was for the teachers who attacked her.

“I had a hard time gaining my confidence in terms of my work ethic and wanting to participate in school,” Rodriguez says.

Because of the small but strong support system that Rodriguez had — namely from her friends at BPNC and the Pilsen Alliance, where she was already a member, and Singh and another teacher — Rodriguez has never given up on activism and was soon back on her feet again after talking through this traumatic process with the school and a counselor.

Despite her maturity, Rodriguez remains a regular teenager at heart.

“She’s not just serious, she has a very fun-loving, caring side, with silly names and Snapchat posts – she’s super silly, and has the corniest jokes,” Singh says, who has remained close friends with Rodriguez since she graduated. “She definitely does not take herself too seriously.”

“I like to explore,” says Rodriguez, whose adventurous spirit is also reflected in her major at the University of Illinois – Latin America and Latino studies – which is something that she never expected to study. However, after attending the Summer Youth Internship organized by the Pilsen Alliance and discovering just how much of her own culture and Latin America she never knew about, she found herself wanting to learn more.

As a first-generation college student in her family, Rodriguez remembers how her parents were taken aback when she told them about her decision to major in Latino studies.

“They were like, ‘You’re trying to learn more about yourself instead of trying to make a name for yourself?’ ” Rodriguez recalls, but as always, she stuck to her guns and gained the support of her parents anyway, which she is thankful for.

Rodriguez juggles so many commitments and responsibilities, but says she enjoys always having something on her plate. She counts herself blessed to be surrounded by a community that supports and appreciates her and her work, and makes her feel like what she’s doing matters. This encourages her to keep growing as a youth activist, and to keep striving for more changes, both within and outside of her community.

“I feel like I am a grown person. I feel like I should be heard,” Rodriguez says.