The Impossible Dream: Tamara Michel
“Coming face to face with the overwhelming needs of low-income and neglected communities of Chicago, as well as the extreme disparities in education offered in those communities, truly moved me to want to do something about it,” says Michel. “Yes, the issues are complex and multilayered; yes, the needs are great and overwhelming, but I feel strongly that I had to do something, even if that something was only a drop in the bucket in making things better.”
Her recent appointment as chief executive officer at Chicago’s Umoja Student Development Corporation is certainly a start. The goals of the nonprofit organization mirror Michel’s: to help underserved students in local public high schools graduate and achieve college and career success.
“Having grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a low-income community and being the product of the New York City public education,” she says, “I know firsthand the struggles students in these communities deal with every day, as well as the barriers to their success.”
Currently in nine public schools serving more than 8,000 students, Umoja provides support to at-risk teens before, during, and after school in the form of college and career counseling, advising, leadership programs, mentoring, and restorative justice programs. The services help students build the confidence and resourcefulness needed to achieve their college and career goals.
“When you have no role models for success, and you are the first one in your family to graduate from high school, success in college seems like an impossible dream,” says Michel.
Thanks to Umoja, though, Michel believes that the dream can be within reach. For instance, at Manley Career Academy — a neighborhood high school which hosts several Umoja services — the graduation rate has risen from 50 percent in 1988 to 75 percent in 2009. And incidents of serious disciplinary infractions have decreased by nearly 50 percent since Umoja’s implementation of a comprehensive restorative justice program.
Michel credits both the Umoja staff and the staffs at the schools in which they work for the high level of achievement. “Our partnerships and collaborations with public high schools — sharing best practices with them and contributing to the improvement of school culture — all make it possible for the students we serve to be successful,” she says.
Michel is enjoying her new position and plans to be at Umoja for the foreseeable future.
“There is a great deal of need for the work that we provide. As long as that need is there, I believe that I will continue to do what I do,” she says. “This truly does not feel like work. It is an inspiration.”