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PACT's Boards and Commissions applicants are introduced to Governor's Deputy, Julie Smith.

Young Adults in Chicago


by Amy Totsch



PACT in Chicago

For the past three years, I have worked as the organizer for Public Action for Change Today (PACT) in Chicago, Illinois. Our organization is unique; it is entirely led by young adults. We come from various walks of life and unite across the deep neighborhood, ethnic, class, race, and religious backgrounds that have divided Chicagoans for generations. PACT exists in order to build power to address the social issues that affect us as young people trying to live, work, and go to school.


In the last year, we recruited 46 young people to apply for state level boards and commissions in response to the culture of corruption in the state of Illinois. To date, three of our applicants have been appointed to boards—a state pension board and an economic recovery commission and minority drug policy review board.  The previous year, our leaders worked to include 300,000 young adults in the ranks of the insured, extending the age that young adults can remain on their parents’ health care plans. In the years before, we led regular trainings on the issue of school funding reform culminating in 400+ student led trips to the state capitol to share our stories with state legislators and call for equitable school funding. We built our own voting power, thus registering and turning out 13,764 young adults for the 2006 gubernatorial election.


As we look forward, we realize we are operating in a new reality. The local landscape, as it has in many places, deeply changed. Our state has not paid $5B of its bills for the current fiscal year and faces a $12B budget deficit for the year to come. As a result, schools, jobs, and social services face cuts. The University of Illinois educates over 75,000 students and recently announced the possibility of raising tuition by 20 percent in the coming year.


In Don Peck’s recent piece in the March issue of Atlantic Magazine:

“But in fact a whole generation of young adults is likely to see its life chances permanently diminished by this recession. Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale, has studied the impact of recessions on the lifetime earnings of young workers. In one recent study, she followed the career paths of white men who graduated from college between 1979 and 1989. She found that, all else equal, for every one-percentage-point increase in the national unemployment rate, the starting income of new graduates fell by as much as 7 percent; the unluckiest graduates of the decade, who emerged into the teeth of the 1981–82 recession, made roughly 25 percent less in their first year than graduates who stepped into boom times.”


This is a new set of challenges for young adults. In the next six months, leaders within PACT will focus on re-establishing our infrastructure. As a strong collective of young adult leaders, we have been effective in seeking change but have struggled to build depth –each leading a team in our universities, neighborhoods or congregations. Most of the institutions we are a part of, we pass through to receive our education or our spiritual guidance, but now more than ever, we need those teams.  We need grounding in institutions that are calling on us to interact with others, have relationships and work together to make something happen, or as David Brooks of the New York Times stated, we need to “use the country’s idle talent to address freshly exposed needs.”

When there is an opportunity within an institution to call on its people to act in a way that is meaningful and relevant to who they are and what they care about, when there is an institution that puts people in relationship to others, I have seen people thrive. In fact, I saw my own family thrive.


My story

In my line of work of broad-based citizen organizing, we work within mediating institutions.  These institutions are the foundation of the organized power, or as we say, organized people and organized money that unite to create positive change in real people’s lives. I came to understand the power of a mediating institution first through my own family’s experience and later through my work.


I was curious to understand what church was all about when I was younger because my family did not regularly attend. I loved going to church with my grandmother. I always admired her grace and I thought maybe this came from her rich spiritual life. It did.


It wasn’t until I was in middle school that my family started  regularly attending St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Park Ridge, two blocks from our house, when my mother began working there as the parish administrator. My family is different for having been part of this church, not necessarily in our religious beliefs—although, those were probably formed—but because of how we spent our time, particularly, my parents.


My mom was able to utilize and develop her talents as a musician and pianist. It began by accompanying the choir, then joining the choir, finding new and interesting music to be sung, and finally, her latest project: leading the church’s first gospel choir. She also put her interest in learning Spanish to use by cultivating real and meaningful relationships with the Chicago Episcopal Diocese and its partner Diocese in Southeast Mexico. Along with others, she is now establishing a foundation to financially support clean water and economic growth projects in small rural villages where many of the Mexican Anglican parishes are located.


My dad got more involved in the church’s local work, becoming a leader within United Power for Action and Justice. This was how I first learned about broad-based organizing by seeing it in action. 


My dad invited me to attend the United Power event held in response to September 11th where 4,000 people gathered at Navy Pier—Muslims and non-Muslims. At that action, I was introduced to the relational meeting with a young mother who recently emigrated from Syria and faced a new fear of living her life as Muslim by wearing her hijab. And I told her about my family facing a new fear as my brother served in the Navy at a time where our country was suddenly at war. I left that event feeling the power of unity across difference. That event sticks in my head when people use the phrase “standing for the whole.”


My parents did this work because the clergy or staff of our church called on my parents. They listened to them, sympathized with whom they were and asked them to act on the right passions inside of them. In my dad’s case, it was social justice. In my mom’s case, it was music.  And now that they have proven themselves as leaders, they are allowed and even trusted to create roles for themselves. My mom has created a gospel choir that is now so successful that the rest of the people in the church have asked that it be a larger part of the church’s worship. My dad runs the leadership team at the church, calling others to act on various issues that are relevant to social and civic concerns of their own and also with the broader group of religious and civic organizations they work with through United Power.


Our response

I learned from my family that when our interests, talents and values are shared in relationship to others, we should act together in ways that are meaningful. We can call on talents within each one of us to work together.  In the upcoming months, PACT leaders will spend time cultivating the interests, talents and values of young adults throughout our city to decide how we would like to act on the world around us in ways that are not only meaningful but also creative and necessary in a time of scarcity.




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