A Conversation with Maureen Hellwig and Rebecca Estrada
September 15, 2014 | Chicago, IL
Erie House Marketing & Communications Coordinator Brian Paff sat down last month with outgoing Senior Director of Programs and Quality Assurance Maureen Hellwig and her successor, Rebecca Estrada, to talk all things Erie House—and then some. Following is a transcript of their delightful conversation.
Brian Paff: Well, Maureen and Rebecca, thank you for joining me and being willing to talk a little about Erie House and your experiences here and your hopes for Erie House moving forward. It seems appropriate to maybe begin by talking about women in leadership. Name a contemporary woman leader who inspires you and why she inspires you.
Maureen Hellwig: I would say Michelle Obama, not just because she's the First Lady but because I see her as a strong African American woman; she's from Chicago; from all I can see, I like the way she's raising her daughters; her commitment to healthy eating and having a White House garden where they actually do take some of the veggies and serve them (I understand when the African visitors were in town this last week they actually had items from the garden as part of the menu). I think she's a very upright woman of her generation and I think she's in some ways a great asset to President Obama. There are times where I've thought, "Hmm, too bad Michelle's not in charge." As much as I admire Barack, I think she's pretty outstanding.
Rebecca Estrada: For me it would be Dolores Huerta. She has always been a woman that has inspired me, her story and who she's about—you know, social justice, working for labor rights, her humble beginnings—is something that I definitely can relate to and someone that I have always looked up to.
MH: Yeah, I would certainly chime in on that one—she's something else. The other person I thought of, too, is Sonia Sotomayor, who is on the Supreme Court. She actually came here and visited Erie House a few years ago. Just another great person to meet and, with her very humble background, she made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
BP: Maureen, what are a couple books you hope to read as you enter into retirement and are there any particular books you would recommend to Rebecca to read?
MH: Well, one I already finished and would recommend is (Rep.) Luis Gutierrez's memoir. It gives you a really good history of what was going on in the neighborhoods around Erie House in the 60s and 70s when he was back in Chicago because at the age of 15, his parents decided to go back to Puerto Rico and he found himself in Puerto Rico speaking very poor Spanish and having to learn it from scratch. And ultimately his career was shaped by the fact that he ended up with a very good understanding of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and Puerto Ricans on the island. It's worth the read.
BP: Rebecca, at Maureen's retirement picnic you shared this story about watching President Obama's first inauguration with YOU participants and other Erie staff and just sharing how powerful that moment was. And I think you maybe stole a glance and saw Maureen and how it impacted her. I wonder if you could share a bit more about that experience and what it was like seeing the first African American president being inaugurated.
RE: It was very impactful, very emotional. We were all very excited to host the viewing downstairs in the YOU area. I think to see all the participants—YOU, staff—coming together to watch that on television—it was just an amazing feeling. You could feel the sentiment in the room with the participants, just feeling that sense of hope and being inspired by what was happening on TV and then, as I had shared, glancing over at Maureen and (former Executive Director) Rafa Ravelo and the leaders at Erie House and seeing how emotional it was—it was just overwhelming, and I was proud to be part of that, so proud to just witness and observe. And it really gives you a sense of why you work here at Erie and why the work that we do is so important. There is hope. We can make a difference. And sometimes we just take little baby steps but in the end it's all for the greater good. It was very powerful. It is one of my cherished moments at Erie House.
BP: What are some strengths that you would identify within Erie House participants?
MH: Well, I think it's the strength you see in immigrants in general. Imagine what they've gone through: the decision to leave their home country, and while often their economic situation there is not good—that's one of the main reasons why they leave—there are many other things about their country and culture that they love and that they're going to have to give up in order to make it possible for their family to have a better life.
And you know, to me, that is the key theme of American life; we don't often remember it, and sometimes we even get nasty about it. You know, one generation forgets—and the next generation—that their roots are as immigrants, too. Nobody was born here except maybe some Native Americans and the rest of us all came from somewhere else. I admire them for having the courage to make that decision and make that move. I think their commitment to wanting to do better, to learn what they needed to learn, to help their children have a better life and access to education—they're a very strong people. I've worked in the African American community, too, and there are certainly people there too who I just admire for what they've had to overcome to get where they are. When I look at our participants, I just think, 'I've had it easy.'
RE: I definitely see our participants as resilient. That would be one word I would describe them as: the resilience they show and display as they come in. Despite anything that might have happened in the past, they're still moving forward, they're still very positive, they have a great outlook on life. And that's what they want for their families and for their children. And they work very hard. So they seek our services and they're committed to our programs. We can make phone calls and they're ready to rally side by side with us for rights and they want to be active. It's very nice to see that in the community.
MH: Yeah, one of my favorite things is the last time we were involved in a voter registration campaign here at Erie, we had volunteers from among the undocumented who were not in line for citizenship or able to vote in the near future but they were committed to helping make sure that the Latino voice was heard because they really understood how they could benefit from that. That was their small way to participate in the country that was still holding them at arm's length.
BP: Now Rebecca, this is your chance to make Maureen blush. What have you learned from Maureen? Obviously she's been mentoring you for the last six weeks but the relationship dates back further than that. What is a lesson or two you've learned courtesy of Maureen?
RE: I have a tremendous amount of respect for Maureen, and, working with her previously, she supported me, she was always there to listen and to guide me. As a supervisor, it was great. You know, we had a very good relationship.
But coming back and really seeing Maureen in action has been amazing to witness. I knew she was great at what she does and how she does it, but actually walking with her and being at the table with her and just seeing how people respond to Maureen, too: When she's at a table and she speaks everyone is silent and listens because she has a wealth of information and everybody wants to get as much as they can from Maureen. So it has been a privilege to work with her. Every day I learn something new—a new way of looking at things, a new perspective. I'm so grateful to have had Maureen here for the past couple of weeks with me, just to help me, to ask questions: Did I say this right? Did I interpret this right? Or, what would you do in this situation? And, I was thinking about this...and so to have her perspective here has been amazing, it really has, and I'm going to miss her greatly. I think I'm still going to be calling her and keeping in touch.
The way she supports staff and her drive and compassion for all of the participants—that's what motivates her. I see it—I still see that fire in her eyes when she gets passionate about workforce development or adult programs, and yet she can flip the switch and she's talking about childcare and youth programs. And no matter what the topic or the program, Maureen has an opinion on it, and it's great to hear. She's steadfast—we have a great leader. It's been an honor.
BP: What are some ways you would like to see Erie House grow moving forward?
RE: I think we have a great opportunity right now to grow, to develop programs more, to expand into other communities. You know, I think the House here (in West Town) is almost like a hub where everything was started, and now we're moving: We're in Little Village, and Humboldt Park more, and our services and reach can be wherever we want it to be, really, because we have really good people working for us. Everyone has the same mission in mind, and I see us all working together, developing great programs in those communities and working with everyone on various issues, whether it's workforce development, adult programs, youth, childcare—I really see the organization growing.
MH: This opportunity right now of the "community as campus" which is a little bit to the west of us back to Humboldt Park, working with the Puerto Rican community that is really trying to turn Clemente High School around and make that a center for the community, not only for the youth and students that will attend it but for their parents—that's really right along with Erie's mission and, to the extent that we can contribute there, I think we need to do that. And it's been interesting for me to see Puerto Rican leaders that I knew back in the 70s—when Luis Gutierrez was figuring out what he wanted to do when he grew up—that they're still engaged, they have that long-term commitment as well. It's been good for me to reconnect. They are clearly feeling that Erie House is one of the institutions they want to partner with. There's many other choices out that way—not that they would want to disregard them in any way—but they just had a feeling that Erie House was going to be the best partner. So I think we need to step up to that. I plan to stay involved in that activity for a little while. Rebecca and I have talked about that as one of those things that I won't just walk away from as part of my retirement and see where it goes as long as I can be helpful. It's a very worthwhile effort.
BP: Great. Well, I think I speak on behalf of the entire Erie House staff when I say that you will be missed, Maureen, but that we're also very excited that you will continue to be connected to the Erie House community. I'm sure I speak on behalf of Rebecca when I say that. But thank you so much for your service to Erie House. And Rebecca, we're excited to have you return to Erie House in this new, exciting position, and wish you well in that endeavor.