The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

From and For the Community Michael D. Rodríguez leads Enlace Chicago in its comprehensive approach to improving his neighborhood

Michael D. Rodríguez, AM ’07, knows Little Village as well or better than anyone. A lifelong resident of the bustling, dense Mexican-American community on the Southwest Side of Chicago, he has spent most of his career serving the needs of the neighborhood and its residents. While earning his undergraduate degree, he worked with at-risk youth at local Piotrowski Park, and after graduation he was the neighborhood’s education liaison for Alderman Ricardo Muñoz (22nd) and then the director of the Little Village High School Initiative for the nonprofit Instituto del Progreso Latino.

For the last seven years, Rodríguez has been at Enlace Chicago, a community organization dedicated to improving Little Village, first as the violence prevention director and, since 2010, as its executive director. His office is on the same block as the home he lived in when he first moved to Little Village, one block from where he went to elementary school. Go a few blocks further west and you’ll be at the home where he lives today with his wife and daughter.

Rodríguez is a perfect fit for Enlace, which subscribes to the idea of comprehensive community development: using local engagement to address a neighborhood’s spectrum of interconnected needs. Enlace is deeply involved in a multitude of issues and initiatives in Little Village— education, mental health services, economic development, immigrant rights, green space and more—usually in partnership with other local groups.

“’Enlace’ is Spanish for ‘link’ or ‘connect,’ and we know in order for us to complete our mission, we have to collaborate and come together with others who care about Little Village to create plans, to implement them and to evaluate our results,” Rodríguez says. “We’ve listened to residents about what Little Village needs to be a better place to live, and we work to make those things happen.”

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For his work in Little Village, Rodríguez earned SSA’s 2014 Elizabeth Butler Award, given to a recent graduate who has shown exceptional promise in the field of social work. “Mike Rodríguez exemplifies the best values here at SSA in his community leadership and organizing skills and with the work he’s doing on the most important issues facing the city of Chicago today,” says Harold Pollack, SSA’s Helen Ross Professor, who, as co-director of the UChicago Crime Lab, has worked with Rodríguez around violence prevention in the community.

A graduate of DePaul University, Rodríguez applied to SSA’s extended evening program when he was the director of field operations for the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. “Going to SSA while working full-time wasn’t easy, but I think it made what I was learning at SSA very practical and immediate,” he says. “We’d learn about using data or a best practice and I’d take it to the workplace directly the next week.”

While at SSA, Rodríguez did his field placement at Erie House in Little Village, where he counseled immigrant youth and worked with them on college attainment and civic engagement. Awarded a McCormick Tribune Fellowship for outstanding leadership in community development at the School, he realized he wanted to get back to working in his community. “I really enjoyed working with people from across the country, but I also felt like I couldn’t put down the roots and create the relationships that I think are necessary to be an agent of real change,” he says. “I thought, to do community organizing and development, what better place than here?”

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When Rodríguez took the helm at Enlace’s violence prevention program, its core component was already in place: a collaborative of local groups—from local churches that provide mentorship to mental health clinics to a boxing gym—that work together to provide a continuum of services that help at-risk youth stay away from gangs and dangerous behavior.

“The violence prevention collaborative allowed Enlace to show its commitment to identifying, leveraging and utilizing all the assets of the community to address what has probably been Little Village’s most vexing problem—the involvement of young people in drugs and gangs,” says Enlace’s founder, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who hired Rodríguez and today is Cook County Commissioner for the 7th District. “What Mike did was make it flourish. The programmatic component really took off.”

Today, Enlace’s Youth Safety Network (YSN) is one of its best known programs. The collaborative has grown in size and mission, including serving as one of five “Testing the Model” programs through LISC Chicago, a nonprofit community development intermediary and longtime partner of Enlace, and funded by the MacArthur Foundation. With an emphasis on using data to inform and evaluate programs, Testing the Model has helped Rodríguez and his staff delve deeper into evidence-based practice, such as creating a shared survey and database on participants used by all the YSN partners. (For more on how Enlace is working with SSA Professor Deborah Gorman-Smith and her Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, see “It Takes a Village” in the Winter 2014 issue of SSA Magazine.)

“The field has proven that looking at evidence is important to achieve outcomes. We’re going to make sure we’re learning as best we can about how to improve programs and make our work more efficient,” Rodríguez says.

The violence prevention work in Little Village is showing impressive results. Homicides in the area have been dropping year-by-year, from 21 in 2003 to ten in 2013, and violent crimes like assault and battery are down as well. Part of the credit certainly goes to the local police in District 10, who are close partners with Enlace. The collaboration recently won a MetLife Award for Excellence in Gang Reduction and Youth Safety, one of just 11 community groups around the country to be so honored last year for their work with police.

Rodríguez sits on the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission and is a board member for the Juvenile Justice Initiative and the Instituto Justice Leadership Academy. He served on the transition team around public safety for both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle when they took office. And in 2012, he went to Washington D.C. as one of 12 people nationally named by President Barack Obama as a “Champion of Change” in Youth Violence Prevention.

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Keri Blackwell, deputy director of LISC Chicago, has worked with Rodríguez since he joined Enlace. The nonprofit serves as lead agency for Little Village in LISC’s New Communities Program, widely considered the template for the comprehensive community development model. She says that the group’s track record provides a great example of how the approach can work.

“Enlace brought together community residents to write a quality-of-life plan for Little Village, and they’ve used that as a guide to build programs around crucial issues in the neighborhood,” Blackwell says. “Mike has been committed to leveraging programs, projects and partnerships so that their work isn’t just a public safety program or a school program. They all are coordinated and connected for a greater impact.”

Enlace’s work in education includes running a network of eight community schools in Little Village, with up to 30 out-of-school programs available at each site, including tutoring, art, sports, health care and ESL classes for both students and adults. Enlace has also worked with Illinois State University in the design and implementation of its Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline, which connects student teachers with local groups so they can learn about the neighborhood as they teach in local schools. Many of the teachers even live with families in the neighborhood over the summer to get an immersive experience of community life.

Little Village has very little green space, and so Enlace has helped build a local skate park and is working to add new playgrounds on five school campuses in the neighborhood. Over the years it has fought to keep good-paying manufacturing jobs in the area and to help homeowners facing foreclosure. Other projects in the pipeline include bringing 148 units of affordable housing to 26th Street and Kostner Avenue and a proposed redevelopment for St. Anthony’s Hospital that would expand the medical facility and add more retail and park space.

Since becoming executive director, Rodríguez has helped Enlace increase its revenue by more than 40 percent and implemented best practices for nonprofit management, such as moving from a cash to an accrual accounting system. “I say I don’t run a nonprofit, I run a not-for-loss,” he says. “If we’re going to be effective, we have to get all we can out of our dollars.”

“Mike and the leadership of Enlace have just taken the organization to a higher level,” Garcia says. “I think Mike’s work exemplifies his response to a calling to be a public servant, to be innovative, to engage in a deep commitment to the community. He’s obviously a rising star.”

Rodríguez gives a lot of credit for his success to his time at SSA, especially around topics such as using data to improve programs and learning smart management techniques. He also points out that the advantages from attending the School have continued even after graduation—including having an opportunity to work closely with researchers like Pollack and Gorman-Smith.

“And I met people while in the community development program like Alderman Pat Dowell, AM ’80, Evelyn Diaz, AM ’98, [commissioner of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services], and Bill Koll, AM ’95, [director of the community programs] at the McCormick Foundation,” he says. “The leadership of the city of Chicago comes from SSA.”

-- Carl Vogel