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Changing Lives, Inspiring the Future

Michael Rodriguez expects greatness from his "La Villita" -- Little Village community in Chicago -- because he has seen first-hand how far it has come and the wonderful resolve its people possess. Working to reform the violence that seeks to destroy the hope of bright futures, Michael uses his own life as a shining example of making it despite all odds.

Community violence is an extremely personal issue. While I grew up in a supportive environment, my family faced many of the same challenges as other families in the Little Village community of Chicago. As a young boy, two of my uncles died due to gang violence and drugs. I vividly remember my grandmother’s reaction to burying her two boys. I have attended too many funerals where mothers bury their children dubecuase of gang violence. The painful, piercing cry of each mother is seared into my memory; each cry is similar and signifies the unforgiving torture that no mother should have to go through.

I have dedicated my career to addressing gangs and violence amongst other issues confronted by Little Village residents. This community is comprised of almost 100,000 residents and is known as the Mexican-American Capital of the Midwest United States. The economic vitality of the community is the envy of the region. Most recently, Little Village’s main commercial strip, 26th Street, was recognized by Mayor Rahm Emaunel as the “second Magnificent Mile”, second to Chicago’s famed Michigan Avenue. Relatively strong home ownership and employment rates and community cohesion are offset by: challenges to our educational system, gang and drug violence and a lack of resources -- all apparent throughout the community.

Because of this, I have decided to live and work in the community that I grew up in. As the Director of Violence Prevention and then Executive Director of Enlace Chicago, formerly known as the Little Village Community Development Corporation, I have worked to create comprehensive strategies to address the issue of youth violence in Little Village. Enlace means “to bring together or connect.” Our goal at Enlace is to work to bring together cohesive efforts between community members and partners to positively impact the lives of Little Village residents. Enlace works to proactively change the conditions of our community through our four program areas: community education, community enrichment, economic development and violence prevention. Our strategies to mitigate youth violence include prevention and intervention programs, in addition to community organizing to address policy and systems change. Most importantly, we have worked to create partnerships with other community and faith-based agencies, elected officials and police to address the varying underlying factors of youth violence.

Over the last several years, we have created initiatives and brought resources to our community that have decreased incidences of violence. Our community watch program has seen violence rates drop in and around high schools, allowing safe passage to our students when our staff is present. Our mentorship programs have helped to increase young people’s grades and attendance, while also contributing to a decrease in behavioral issues at school for those youth most at-risk of being the victims or perpetrators of violence. Our street intervention programs have been influential in decreasing shooting and murder rates for our community. Shootings and murders are the driving force for our community's fleeting residents and investments. For our comprehensive violence prevention efforts in Little Village, Enlace recently received the 2011 LISC Chicago and Chicago Community Trust "Community Strategy of the Year" awards.

The immigrant drive and communal spirit of Little Village’s residents, however fragile, keeps the community resilient. The recent murder of a six year old girl in Little Village brought over 1,000 community members to protest the violence. The community came together to raise over $8,000 to pay for her funeral expenses. We are a community with a "can-do" attitude -- we are hard-working and will not stop until there are no murders in our beautiful "La Villita."

I am honored to be recognized as a White House Youth Violence Prevention Champion of Change, but this award should be given to the community of Little Village. As a representative of the community, I pray that I can uphold our true spirit and the values -- both keep this community from giving up on resolving its major issues and keeps us moving forward!

Michael D. Rodríguez currently serves as Executive Director of Enlace Chicago, a not-for-profit community based organization formerly known as the Little Village Community Development Corporation.