News - Calling: Chicago's Lakefront and Protecting the People's Parks

Calling: Chicago's Lakefront and Protecting the People's Parks

by Rachel Heston-Davis Calling: Chicago's Lakefront and Protecting the People's Parks

Chicago native Juanita Irizarry works from a deep sense of God's calling to serve her neighbor. She has spent her adult life working to support community development and opportunities in the Chicago area, currently serving as executive director of Friends of the Parks.

A recent article in Modern Brown Girl spotlighted Irizarry's fight to keep Chicago's downtown waterfront property accessible to all citizens. She successfully fought against an attempt to build The George Lucas Museum on the lakefront, which would have eaten up outdoor space currently enjoyed by people of all income levels and backgrounds.

Although she operates in mostly secular work environments, she feels the certainty of God's calling on this work as strongly as a minister or missionary might.

The Early Seeds of Calling

The work began organically in her childhood. She watched her parents provide food to needy friends, pour time and love into neighborhood kids, visit prisons and hospitals. Soon Irizarry herself took on the task of helping others; she tutored and coached other students at school. "Our lives were ministry," Irizarry recalls, "though we would not have attached the words 'social action' to it at the time."

Her attention to systemic oppression—the dynamics in society that influence poverty and disadvantage—came later as an adult, built on the foundations of individual care for neighbors that she learned in childhood.

Undergrad years at GC brought reflection on cross-cultural relationships as Irizarry became president of the cross-cultural student group Rapport and tutored peers from other countries. "I was known for 'bridging the gap' among those who didn't necessarily feel as comfortable in the mainstream culture," she says.

The "Aha" Moment

Upon graduating and going home to Chicago, Irizarry began hosting Urban Plunge activities for Christian college groups around the Midwest. This familiarized her with local organizations engaged in affordable housing efforts, economic development, health clinics, racial reconciliation and more.

"It was during that time that I had what I call my big 'aha’ moment, where I found the language to more fully articulate the stirrings of my soul and a way to more fully integrate my faith and my concern for social justice," she says.

Irizarry pursued graduate studies in urban planning and policy at University of Illinois Chicago and launched her career in social action. She went on to earn an MPA in political advocacy and leadership from Harvard Univerity, John F. Kennedy School of Government

Irizarry doesn’t see her work as an extraordinary act, but as the natural outworking of an open heart responding to God. "In the family that I grew up in, it was a no-brainer that the reason for living is to follow one's calling in Christ, whatever that may be.”

Read more about GC student and alumni experiences in the realm of social justice and community development:

Calling: Forever Changed by the Wesleyan Commitment to Social Justice

Social Work Accreditation Opens Doors as Students Embrace the Future

Students Engage in Service Learning on Urban Plunge Excursion

Called to Love and Serve: GC Students Take Part in Urban Plunge

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This story was published on September 02, 2016

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