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Andrea Ortiz Believes In People Power

Written by on May 27, 2022

Community organizer Andrea Ortiz strengthens Chicago through collective action.

Andrea Ortiz is the director of organizing for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. The BPNC is a community organization dedicated to securing equal opportunity and resources to residents of Chicago’s Southwest side, which is home to predominantly Latinx and immigrant communities. The council organizes a variety of community programs and events, from sustainable community schools and food pantries to free eye checkups.

Andrea Ortiz stands outside one of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council’s spaces on a windy spring Chicago day.
Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo

“I love my city. I love my lake. I love my people and I have learned a lot about power. We’re able to build together. Politics in Chicago is very interesting. I feel like it’s given us, and it’s given me, like, thick skin to fight against people who think they know better than we do.”

– Andrea Ortiz

Ortiz grew up in Brighton Park and is all too familiar with many of the difficulties its inhabitants face. She began her work with the BPNC as a mentor during her college career, where she engaged with students about issues in their community. Community organizing with young people made her see the necessity for adult allies, and pushed her to continue working with the BPNC.

The pandemic posed a world of new challenges for people living in Brighton Park. 60% of residents lost their jobs and most available public health and safety info was only available in English, leaving non-English speakers in the dark. The BPNC devoted time and resources to make sure residents most affected by the pandemic were able to meet their basic needs. Ortiz knows the city’s issues extend beyond solely her neighborhood, and now works to build connections with community groups and organizers citywide.

For this installment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Andrea Ortiz talks about collective power and celebrates the young activists who are making a difference.

“The young people in the work and in the movement often don’t get enough credit for the work that they do… as adults, we have to do better in lifting them up and celebrating them.”

– Andrea Ortiz

What is the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council?

We provide direct services, free to communities. I think it’s like, we’ve been able to become, like, a network, like, a really beautiful community hub. So we have sustainable community schools where we offer after-school programming for young people, parent workshops. We also do immigration services. LIHEAP: heat, light, electricity, gas support. SNAP: support for benefits. So we do a lot of direct services and also, folks that are experiencing homelessness or close to being in that position, we offer counseling to them and help them find an apartment and clothing and furniture. And also are connected to a larger network of nonprofits and stakeholders on the Southwest side where we’re able to then refer people to those.

The BPNC provides resources free of charge to members of the community, with service in both English and Spanish.
Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo

Are you from Chicago?

I was born and raised in Brighton Park and people are like, “Where is Brighton Park?” And I was like, “Right next to Back of the Yards,” and they’re like, “I know where that is.”  I’m in Hyde Park currently. I have a little dog, so he is wild… the little I’ve been able to really explore of Hyde Park has been, like, when I’m able to, like, walk with him. I still work and have worked in the community for the past seven years. So I went to school in Brighton Park and stayed in Chicago for college and came back to Brighton Park to work. 

What stands out to you about the people of Brighton Park?

I’ve been really in awe by the parents and the young people I have been working with. ‘Cause I know, like, they’ve been carrying all the burden from this pandemic and just how energized they are every time I am with them. 

Actually, I was just talking to one of our parent organizers today and reviewing and reflecting on the year. And she started outlining to me all the mutual aid that the parents she’s been working with have, like what they’ve organized and, like, community resources that they’ve done.

Every Saturday, boxes and boxes of food dispensaries that they’re giving out to the community with like over 400 people that are going, and vaccination events and, like, whatever else they need. We recently had a checkup for, like, eye doctors, we brought eye doctors to the community and folks were able to get, like, free checkups. And there’s this elderly man who started crying. He’s like, “I never get my eyes checked, because all my money goes to making sure that, like, my wife or my kids have their eyes checked, and this is, like, the first time I have that opportunity.” So things like that, I’m like, wow. That’s been… like, things that have gone unnoticed and, like, community has really been holding each other these past couple of years, which I think has been really beautiful. And at the same time, adding pressure to our government and elected officials to step it up. 

Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo

How did you find your way to this work?

So when I was in college, I was working three jobs to pay for school and someone’s like, “Hey, BPNC, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, is hiring a college mentor. So I applied, I got the job. Started working as a college mentor at [Thomas] Kelly High School. And from there, was working with like 15 students, but was engaging them in conversations around, like, issues that we were seeing in the community. So like, violence had increased like 300% that summer, schools were being cut. We didn’t have a state budget for like two years under Governor Rauner.  And charter schools were opening up all over. And we’re feeling a lot of the side effects and impacts of the 50 school closings in Chicago and the closings of the mental health clinics. So a lot of violence, a lot of state, state-sanctioned violence, actually. I started organizing with young people and I was like, “Wow, this is cool. I want to continue to do this.” And like seeing how empowered they felt and wishing that I would have had that same access of, like, adult allies when I was a young person. And now I’m director of organizing for BPNC.

Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo.

Why organize? What does it mean to be an organizer?

We have a lot of power when we have people power and when we come together. When you have a pencil, and you could easily, like, break that one pencil. But when you have a pile of pencils and you try to break it, you can’t break it because there’s like, that collective force.

When it’s one person, it’s important that you’re raising your voice, but when it’s a lot of us, we’re a lot more powerful. And I think, as an organizer, really challenging, like, how we’re centering directly-impacted people and, like, those closest to the pain should be closest to the power, is what we like to say. We have to continue to work with community, listen to them, have those, like, difficult conversations with them as to, like, what they want to see, because they know the answers. Like, they’re the ones living through a lot of this. So really making sure that we’re following their lead and providing any support as an ally in any way possible.

I was an adult ally for the campaign to get police out of schools in Chicago. And I’m a part of, like, the nationwide campaign. I’ve learned so much from them. Just like, how innovative they are, how creative they are. In the beginning of the pandemic, we did, like, a needs assessment of, like, how… what were the initial impacts of the pandemic in Brighton Park?

And we saw that over 60% of people lost their jobs, and 40% of those didn’t qualify for any government assistance. So that means, like, 40% were undocumented and were out of a job. And we’re trying to figure out how they’re going to pay for rent, how they’re going to afford their housing or just, like, get access to things happening with the pandemic. Because all the information that was coming out in the beginning of the pandemic was in English and it was not translated in other languages. And people were, like, scared and were like, “What’s happening?”

What we’re seeing in Brighton Park isn’t, like, special. We’re seeing it replicated across the city in, like, low-income communities of color. Where our schools are being… budgets are being slashed, where housing is going up and people are being displaced. Where folks are still lining up on Saturdays to get food dispensaries. Like, what’s happening here is happening across the city. And like, we’ve been able to build bridges with other community organizations across the city, work with coalitions and as a collective to continue to fight together. Because we’re better with multiple pencils than one pencil.

How has Chicago shaped you?

I love my city. I love my lake. I love my people and I have learned a lot about power. We’re able to build together. Politics in Chicago is very interesting. I feel like it’s given us, and it’s given me, like, thick skin, to fight against people who think they know better than we do. I think there is really amazing, intergenerational organizing happening in the city. 

The young people in the work and in the movement often don’t get enough credit for the work that they do. And as adults, we have to do better in lifting them up and celebrating them.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview and transcription by Ari Mejia

Written introduction, photography and transcript edit for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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