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The Power of Grit: Creating Change Through Civic Engagement

Given the constant bombardment of political news and the persistent negativity in those stories, it takes quite a determined and optimistic mind to remain engaged with politics without becoming cynical and apathetic. Nicolas Robledo, a senior in the Honors College at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and a winner of the Newman Civic Fellowship, is one of the few people who manages to remain composed in the face of bureaucratic and political roadblocks and continues to pursue goals that better the lives of his community members. 

Robledo’s achievements in enacting positive change, both on campus and in his neighborhood, speak to the idea that no one gets anything done alone. Specifically, his work with the Roosevelt Institute, described by Robledo as “a progressive leaning think tank” that writes policies for local politics and college campuses, inspired him to draft a bill for the UIC Senate proposing a mental health fee for students. The $10 fee, similar to the sustainability fee which funds green efforts on campus, would have been used to increase accessibility to mental health care by hiring six new counselors. Currently, UIC has understaffed counseling services, with Robledo reporting the ratio of students to counselors as 2000:1. The mental health fee began to draw support from a myriad of sources; the student government passed the bill, and the UIC Senate passed the final draft with support from the executive committee. Robledo published a referendum that asked, “Would you support a $10 fee to increase the availability of mental health services on campus?” to which 65% of the respondents expressed their favor. 

The general success of his bill gave Robledo the opportunity to meet with the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, where he encountered a bureaucratic maze to be navigated to get his fee passed. Student Affairs acknowledged student support of the fee but had concerns regarding how the money was collected. Although the answer may seem straightforward, Robledo explained that these issues can get quite complicated because different offices and departments are involved with mental health on campus. Ultimately, although the fee has not yet been implemented and likely will not be anytime soon, he has not become discouraged.

Despite being an advocate for change on campus, Robledo doesn’t limit his ambition to the boundaries of UIC. Working again with the Roosevelt Institute, Robledo spent last year examining the Large Lots program, an initiative run by the city of Chicago that allows property owners to buy empty lots in their neighborhood in order to make the neighborhood more safe and beautiful. As Chicago underwent deindustrialization in the 1980s and, more recently, the subprime mortgage crisis in the late 2000s, many neighborhoods became riddled with empty and abandoned lots where homes and businesses used to stand. In an attempt to help beautify the worst afflicted neighborhoods, the Large Lots program allows a homeowner to purchase a parcel of land for $1, so long as they have documentation proving they own land on the block. 

Although the goals of this program are admirable, upon closer examination, Robledo identified crucial issues within the policy. Firstly, potential buyers only have to prove that they own land on the block, not that they actually live on the block. Fearing that this loophole could cause neighborhoods to undergo gentrification, Robledo wanted to rewrite the program requirements to mandate that a buyer must show they spend a majority of their time living in the neighborhood. Secondly, the program only allows homeowners to buy parcels, excluding those who rent their homes — which, according to Robledo, is more common than owning homes in the neighborhoods this program targets. To make this program more accessible and increase its positive effects, Robledo proposed the inclusion of renters within the program. 

In order to help change the program policies, Robledo and the team he worked with at the Roosevelt Institute reached out to Teamwork Englewood, the community group that founded the program. Teamwork Englewood proved to be extremely receptive to the proposed changes because the group had been forced to turn away many applicants that were renters. After this news put Robledo and his team in high spirits, technical and logistical concerns once again bogged down their efforts. The President of the Roosevelt Institute went to a community meeting in Englewood to gauge public opinion, and while there was support for the policy, questions of how insurance policies would be handled for those who rented their homes yet owned the land threw a wrench into the Roosevelt Institute’s and Robledo’s proposed policy changes. 

Although Robledo expressed slight disappointment at the delays, he explained that it is precisely due to such complications within real estate that he chose to study finance at UIC. He considered majoring in political science, but after realizing the impact that economic and real estate policies have on neighborhoods, he felt compelled to major in finance to help solve the root problems hampering development in Chicago’s poorer neighborhoods.

His interest in economically developing neighborhoods allowed Robledo to focus his efforts on Chicago’s Southeast Side, where he grew up. Along with his cousin and with mentorship from the Obama Foundation, Robledo founded the Southeast Youth Alliance (SYA), an organization dedicated to forging conversation and civic engagement among youth in Chicago’s Southeast Side. Having lived in the Southeast Side for most of his life, Robledo observed that many of the young people there are disengaged, and so one of his goals for SYA was to connect young people to each other. Robledo also aimed to create hope that the neighborhood could improve by hosting community discussions about art and culture, local economics, higher education, and the environment. By creating this space for organic dialogue to happen, Robledo hopes to increase the motivation of youth to get involved. 

After initial successes, such as organizing an event to clean a neighborhood park under the Skyway, Robledo fell into another lull as he and other leaders within SYA tried to determine what direction to take the organization in. To most, it would seem disheartening to continually face such obstacles, but Robledo firmly believes that the best solution to pulling an idea out of a slump is the recognition that, “you don’t have to have the perfect plan to get things done.” 

As he prepares to start his final semester of his college career, Robledo already has plans lined up for the future: he will be starting a job as an analyst at J.P. Morgan after graduation, working with real estate syndications. I asked him if he sees himself staying in the private sector for the foreseeable future, and he laughed as he said he has seriously considered an eventual career in policy writing. If he continues to carry his determination and optimism with him even as he enters the cold, cruel, and formidable “real world”, he’ll be guaranteed my vote.