Lifelong Learnings Lead to GreenLight

Apr 29, 2024


By Hermilo Hinojosa, GreenLight Chicago Executive Director

Growing up, I always knew I would be a broadcast journalist and fortunately, I was very wrong. 

I’m a lifelong Chicagoan. I grew up on the west side and had an opportunity as a teenager to make friends all across our city. I’m a proud product of Chicago Public Schools and went on to study at the University of Illinois. After getting to campus, I realized that I was one of the very few from my neighborhood that had the opportunity to continue school and get a good education. This included my friends who I grew up with, almost none of them were able to have the same experience. I understood that it was through the support of so many others that I was afforded that opportunity, and I made a commitment to repay the kindness and support given to me once I returned to Chicago. As a matter of fact, I left, 100% convinced I would be a broadcast journalist but returned 4 years later ready to start my career in education as a high school teacher.

I cut my teeth as a social studies teacher at Latino Youth, an alternative high school on the southwest side of the city, where we worked with young people, who for various reasons, weren’t in school anymore but wanted to go back to finish and earn a high school diploma. 

Early on while working there, I learned three key things that has informed my work ever since:

First, many of these students were truly exceptional, but for life circumstances and their zip code, they were stripped of the opportunity to reach their full potential. I learned that given the right combination of resources, support, and belief, these students could reach unimaginable heights. And indeed, many of them did go on to have wonderful careers and raise families where they were able to break the cycle of poverty. 

The second thing I learned was the best work is done in collaboration, including the participants themselves. We worked hard to wrap services around our students and created partnerships with community based organizations and parents to support them. But most importantly, we centered student voice in the solutions we were trying to create. The students themselves knew best what they needed and what would work for them but were never included in the process before. Once they had agency over their future, their confidence soared and their commitment to their own success took hold.

And lastly, this work was really hard and sometimes took a really long time but positive results were possible. We all believed in the work and put in the time and sacrifice that it took to achieve results. We created a vision and then went after it. In some cases, it took years, but we saw those visions come to life. It’s really how I have approached everything since.

I spent decades working with youth and their families all across Chicago. This certainly gave me the opportunity to meet people from many neighborhoods and try to build collaborations community by community, in painstaking fashion to see if we could make a difference in young people’s lives. 

So when the time came to decide what would be the next chapter in my career, I went on a very deliberate job search to find the perfect opportunity that would allow me to continue this type of work. I found the GreenLight Fund. With its forward thinking and unique model, I’m excited to bring solutions that are proven to work and can make a real difference in people’s lives. 

This is a city that has done so much for me and my family. Chicago welcomed my parents who arrived here as immigrants more than half a century ago. Chicago has taught many valuable lessons to my own kids about hard work, resilience, and diversity. Chicago has given me the opportunity to live a rich and meaningful life. So I’m committed to serve its people and make a profound lasting impact and to ignite positive change.

These three things I learned early on in my career are all principles that continue to drive me and that I’ve found embodied at GreenLight. 

  1. That given the right opportunity anyone can excel;
  2. That the most remarkable work is done in collaboration; and
  3. That the journey is seldom easy, but with determination we can make a lasting difference.

Greenlight works with communities to pull in proven organizations, providing collaborative support so they can quickly take root and deliver change, bringing the opportunities to people who need it most. All of our work is designed to remove barriers to inclusive prosperity all too often rooted in racial inequities. Just in the time I have been here at Greenlight, I have been surrounded by a network of support from my own team but coworkers across the nation, proving that we are founded in collaboration. Since 2004, we have launched 53 portfolio organizations across 12 sites, invested $37M, and attracted an additional $259M from other funding sources, reaching nearly 389,000 individuals and families in 2022 alone. That is what I would call a lasting difference. 

I know together we will create a brighter, more inclusive future for all of us who call this great city home and I cannot wait to see the kind of difference we can make together.