Rebeca Nieves Huffman served with City Year Chicago as a member of the Young Heroes Team (1998), and served as the Team Leader for the team serving at Piccolo (1999). She recently rejoined City Year Chicago as our Executive Director (her first day fell on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service)
Where did your passion for education start?
I think the initial seed was planted when I was a kindergartner, and seeing Ms. Lugo – she was my kindergarten teacher, she was amazing – I guess it’s because I lived in a predominantly Hispanic community in Logan Square, and not seeing many Hispanics in leadership roles. I remember that that’s when that initial seed was planted.
My mom told me that as a kindergartner, she would walk in [the classroom] and watch me line up all my stuffed animals and dolls with the chalkboard that they gave me, and the ruler, to educate and teach my stuffed animals. So the initial seed was there.
But I think where everything really grew for me in terms of my passion for education was my City Year experience, and leading a team in my community to serve 3rd grade students, who were repeating the 3rd grade for the first or second time.
How did you hear about City Year?
From my church mentor, Mary Santana. She told me about riding the Blue Line and seeing the Red Jackets, and engaging them in conversation; asking them what their organization was about – they gave her a flier to an information session, and the rest is history.
What about your 1st year experience inspired/compelled you to apply for a second year?
Well I came in as a mid-year, so, I felt like 5 months wasn’t enough. It was like getting the appetizer before the meal and saying ‘no, I want the steak!’ you know? I wanted the full experience.
It was also based, quite frankly, in need. I was the first in my family to go to college, and that AmeriCorps Grant was really important to me in bridging that financial gap.
Can you describe your pipeline from City Year to your career into the field of education reform?
So I finished my City Year in a really interesting time in the history of education in Chicago. Mayor Daley was the mayor, and he had just gotten approval from Springfield to have what’s called mayoral control over the school system. Usually, in the rest of the country, it’s an elected school board, and so the mayor came out with this huge, ambitious plan to start 100 new schools to create new opportunities for educators to start schools based on what they think the community and the students need, but then also respond to the need of parents, because when they would open up the selective-enrollment process, there’d be way too many applicants for available spots, so he could tell that there was a demand for high-quality schools.
I finished my City Year during this time, and it was a really fascinating time to observe, and it kind of felt like trial and error – ‘We’re going to give this a try. There’s really no research to back up that this strategy’s going to work. But things are so dire, that we’re going to give it a try.’
My first job after graduating from college and from City Year, was at KIPP – at the time, KIPP was just in the Bronx and in Houston, and I remember seeing a 60 minutes piece on them where they were sending kids that looked like me, and had similar backgrounds like me – they grew up in the hood, with a bunch of Latinos and African Americans, and didn't see a lot of leadership of color. But then they were going on to be the first in their families to go to college. I just remember seeing that and saying, ‘I want to be a part of that! I want to be a part of proving that, regardless of your zip code, where you live, your family situation, your income, that you can learn at the same levels as the people of affluence.
So, I just felt like I was latching onto something that was going to prove all those stereotypes that exist about Latinos and African Americans wrong. I started working at KIPP, recruiting teachers to become school leaders, and it was a fascinating time. It was awesome. I was a part of that initial team at KIPP – everyone else was a Teach for America alum and I was the only City Year alum, but I felt like I was a part of that AmeriCorps family.
After that, I went on to launch a Hispanic education advocacy group called Hispanic CREO (Council for Reform and Educational Options), and after that did some policy work at the state-level. It’s interesting, because from the time I was a corps member until now, I’ve been in and around that education infrastructure, whether it be starting new schools, the human capital leadership pipeline, policy and advocacy – passing legislation or advocating for a particular policy within a school system – I’ve been in or around it. I’ve seen pretty much all aspects of it, and I really love what I’m doing here at City Year because I feel it’s critically important work. Especially when you fast-forward the 18 years it’s been since I was a corps member until now, and that history in Chicago education, and what’s needed for our students right now in this environment where there’s a lot of public school choices, and a lot of movement within the district, of parents trying to find the best schools for their kids.
What are the most utilized skills forged during your City Year(s) that you still call back to today?
In my second year, I was in charge of Camp City Year (a.k.a 'Spring Break Camp' - the week-long programming that City Year offers during the week of Spring Break). We were in Pilsen, and it was amazing, because I felt like I gained some critical skills.
Bringing together key stakeholders – not just in City Year, but outside in the community – with the Park District and local schools, and just engaging them and convincing them why it’s important to support our week-long camp.I just remember my pitch to these stakeholders; ‘there are going to be Chicago Public School students that aren’t going to have a productive way to spend their time during that week of Spring Break. We need to engage them in productive activity.'
Another thing was just the organizational side; setting up a timeline - a Q2Q – from this time to this time, which answers ‘what are these students going to be engaged in?’
Figuring out diverse activities for various age groups, and how you engaged them, and who you chose to be in charge of those age groups. It was fascinating. So, just from that experience alone of running Camp City Year – it’s funny because that’s when I first learned how to use Excel (laughs), you know, back in that time when Excel was in its early stages. And even throughout my career, people would tell me ‘Man! You’re really good at Excel,’ and I’d tell them ‘You know, it all started at City Year, as a corps member.’ And, you know, those things matter. There are functions or skills that you have to bring into any work environment.
What does it mean to you, not just to return to City Year Chicago, but to also be our first Executive Director who is a product of our program?
Coming back to City Year is so meaningful to me, because it’s where it all started – my staff is probably sick and tired of hearing me say ‘It’s like coming full-circle!’ But it truly is! It’s coming home, and bringing it all full-circle.
I think that the message of an alum leading this site says a couple things to the Chicago area.
Number one, it says that we’ve been here, and we’re a key player in the education sector.
Number two is that there is a leadership legacy. If Rebeca is leading City Year, who knows how many other alums, in the last 22 years that City Year has been in Chicago, are going to impact the education space – because you don’t have to be working in K-12 education to have an impact within it.
So it means a lot to me to be able to, as an alum, lead this site. But also, when I’m speaking to the corps, just that point of them knowing ‘Hey, she walked in my boots. She knows the experience that I’m going through.’
And [on the other hand], being able to communicate that to donors is really powerful, because it provokes interesting conversations. The first question donors will ask is ‘how are things different now then when you were a corps member?’ And that just opens up the floodgates of conversation because City Year, the service model is phenomenal – it’s grown leaps and bounds. I always say, I wish I had a coach when I was a corps member – something our corps members have now. So, it’s very personal to me to lead this site as an alum, and I hope that’s something that sends a positive message to our alumni base of ‘we’ve been here, and our leaders are still doing great things in the space.’
How do you maintain a work-life balance?
Work-life balance is something that comes up a lot, and especially when you’re a woman, with children. Let’s just keep it real: women have a different reality of having family and maintaining work-life balance than the fathers do, so, it is what it is. I think that the power of saying no is great. Particularly when you’re Latina, or an African American woman in a position of authority. There aren’t many of us that are out there in those roles, so you get hit up left and right for your time, and your time is your most precious resource. It’s something that you don’t get back.
So one thing I do is, if [an engagement/opportunity] aligns with my priorities of what I’m doing, then great, I say ‘yes.’ But mostly, seven out of ten times I’m saying ‘no,’ and being protective of my time, with my family in particular. So I put boundaries up. My assistant knows, if I have to be at a dinner or work-related thing in the evenings, then she knows I’m going to be in the office later that morning so that I make sure that I have breakfast with my kids, that I take them to school, so that way, they at least see me that day. And that’s something that’s important to me. Every leader is different in how they approach work-life balance, but that’s the formula that’s worked for me; I have to make sure that I see my kids every day. So that’s the boundary that I’ve put forth for my time.
But, it’s interesting, because I think that I had a very different reality when I was climbing that ladder of professional development. Because there is a time in the beginning when you are making time sacrifices, and there is no such thing as ‘work-life’ balance.
I’ll never forget, when I worked at KIPP, there was one summer when it was high-recruitment season and I was travelling a lot, and in the month of June, I was only home overnight for one Saturday. That was it. I was on the road the rest of the month – and that was something that I was okay with, because I felt that, this is me ‘putting in the work.’ We were a startup organization at the time, so there was a certain level of understanding of the work that we had to do, but I think as you’re coming up in your career, there’s a different expectation of how you’re going to use your time, and you just have to be realistic about that. Once you have a family and you have children, you better hope that you put in that time in the beginning to be able to say no, so you have that option and not be put in a situation where you don’t really have a choice – you have to work that Saturday, or you have to work that evening.
It’s funny, because with my nephews, and my nieces, and my mentees, I always tell them ‘you’re single, you don’t have kids, I would juice this opportunity.’
Take advantage of the time that you have when you’re not responsible for other adults, whether that’s a spouse, a partner, or children. So that’s the advice I give to my nephews, nieces, and mentees; just juice this opportunity that you’re just responsible for yourself.
What is your favorite movie?
I love A League of Their Own. You got Madonna in there (laughs), but I love any movie that deals with trailblazers, pioneers… so of course those women that were in the original Women’s Baseball League were phenomenal. I love movies like Iron Jawed Angels – that’s an HBO film, and it talks about the women’s suffrage movement, and they were trailblazers in their own right. So any movie that deals with pioneers, particularly women, that’s something that inspires me, and I love.