Civic Scholars

Civic Scholar Gabriela Pantoja Reflects on Working In and With Community

For her Civic Summer, Gabriela Pantoja, class of 2020, returned to the neighborhood where she grew up, the East Side of Chicago. She spent the summer interviewing residents and compiling their stories as she learned about her own community in new ways. Gabriela collected 22 oral histories from neighbors from a variety of backgrounds, ages, and walks of life. Among those interviewed were a 71-year-old sculptor, an environmental activist, a graffiti artist, a retired steelworker, a veteran and Mexican ice cream shop owner, the local alderwoman’s chief of staff, a retired Chicago history teacher and local historian, and an immigrant workers’ rights advocate. Some were acquaintances and friends, some public figures, others strangers. Using the images and stories that she has collected, Gabriela plans to create a zine, an independently published, handmade booklet offering a view of the East Side as understood through these oral histories.

Civic Scholars choose a range of paths for their Civic Summers, from formal internships to self-directed experiences like Gabriela’s. In the interview below, Gabriela reflects on the benefits and barriers of taking on a self-directed project, the preconceived notions about her own community that were challenged, what it means to be a good neighbor, and her advice to others working with and in community.

What did you learn from the process of doing a self-directed project in partnership with community?

Doing a self-directed project helped me learn ​what structures are most conducive to my success. It was very difficult to do something on my own, even though I had set myself out for that. I imagined being independent but having the backing of a local organization who could keep me in check and hold me accountable to my goals. When that didn’t pan out, I was concerned that I was in a situation where I had no community partners – something that was emphasized so heavily while we were in class. It took me a while to realize that I was not actually partner-less; I had created an abundance of micro-level partnerships with my 22 oral history participants that were much more intimate, personable, and had the potential to be longer lasting because they were formed on the basis of getting to know my neighbors.

 What did you learn about your community from this experience?

I think the most important thing I learned is to dispel the stereotypes I held about my own community. Growing up in the East Side I was taught to be suspicious of my surroundings while in the neighborhood and to practice caution with others. I expected others to do the same. Before my project even started, I was worried that people wouldn’t be receptive of my ideas or that they would be suspicious of my intentions as someone who has been physically distant from the community for so long.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that absolutely no one I approached was disinterested in my project, and they all accepted my request for interviews. People welcomed me into their homes with open arms and hot cups of coffee and were vulnerable enough to tell me about their experiences. I learned that my members of my community are more than willing to help others succeed in their personal endeavors and that they are invested in helping them see those projects through. Just because you’re raised to be suspicious and cautious of the neighborhood you live in doesn’t mean you close yourself off to a community member who may need you.

What might you have done differently in retrospect?

If I could go back, I would definitely exercise more grace with myself. After not being able to stick even remotely close to my timeline, failing to have the structure I deemed necessary, and dealing with personal loss, I was extremely hard on myself for “messing up my civic summer.” However, all the time that I spent feeling defeated just took time away from me doing what I needed to do. Once I was able to garner the motivation necessary to continue my project, I felt that the days I spent catching up and scrambling were actually more fulfilling. Sure, there was a lot of uncertainty about whether or not I would meet my goal of 20 interviews, but the active pursuit of my goal on my new timeline gave me the momentum I needed. It’s always important to have grace with oneself, whether or not things end up working the way we expected.

How did the process of implementing this project impact you personally?

​From its inception, I knew that this project would be deeply personal to me since it was set in the place I have called home for 21 years. My project aimed to dispel narratives of negativity surrounding my neighborhood, and I myself was not innocent of harnessing these thoughts about the neighborhood. I had to work hard to unlearn the stereotypes about my neighborhood and have only done so recently in my life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a good neighbor since the start of my project. The first things that had come to mind were my neighbor Efren who mowed our front lawn while he was working on his, Domingo and Janey who would babysit when my parents were working, the parents who would peer out their windows while we played soccer in the alley to make sure we were okay, and buying homemade desserts from la Senora Estrella to support her side hustle. Being a good neighbor means showing up. All of these remain true and are conducive of what it means to be a good neighbor. Having been gone from home for the past couple of years while in school, I reevaluated and thought about how I could be a good neighbor while I’m away and when I go back home.

For me, being a good neighbor means holding my neighborhood in high regard when others won’t, telling people about our rich history as the first Mexican neighborhood in Chicago and a hub of the steel industry, and making my own personal assumption that I will always have more to learn. Interviewing folks I didn’t know and folks I knew but didn’t understand through the lens of my project helped me see the neighborhood in a different light. I can now say that being a good neighbor doesn’t always constitute a physical presence, but rather a conscious effort to represent the East Side in a positive way and get to know people on a personal level.

What advice would you give to others seeking to work in and with community?

Hold your neighbors and community members in the same high regard as you would formal community partners. They have just as much to contribute and if anything, can account for a more personable look into the place/people you’re working with.