If there’s one trait shared by great leaders, it’s vision. The ability to see things that others don’t, to view the world from a different lens and see the path forward separates the top leaders.
They aren’t always the loudest voice in the room. Every great leader needs an opportunity to find their voice.
In Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, Diana Franco is doing just that - finding her voice.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants is coming into her own as a community leader, coordinating the administration for one of Chicago’s largest food distribution services at Pan de Vida on South Lawndale Avenue. She’s ingrained in her community and by connecting with her neighbors in need, she’s beginning to see that her actions do indeed speak louder than her words.
Little Village, La Villita to the locals, exemplifies the dichotomy of many Westside neighborhoods.
“Growing up, I loved going to 26th street. It was beautiful,” said Diana. “I would get upset when people would say it was run by gun violence. They didn’t see the beautiful thing that we had there. They only saw the darkness, the negativity.”
Stroll along 26th Street during a sunny Chicago afternoon and you’ll see a bustling boulevard with merchants in nearly every store front, a vibrant corridor that’s home to some of the best restaurants the city has to offer, street vendors, and artisan craftspeople. It’s also home to a murder rate nearly four times the national average, an assault rate twice the country average and robbery numbers that approach three times the national rates.
It’s that contrast that resonates with Diana.
“It’s beautiful growing up in a community where Mexican culture is brought to life,” Diana reflected. “The restaurants, the people, the colors, the music.” All intoxicating elements of a rich, community-based culture.
You’re not always able to point to an exact moment, an inflection point where you find what you’re meant to do. Some of us may never find it. Sometimes it finds you.
Diana sees herself as a force for good in La Villita. Born and raised in Little Village, she’s started her own family, continues to be active in the local sports scene through various girls empowerment programs, and has developed deep interpersonal relationships as a mentor in the Girls Empowering Meaningful Stories (GEMS).
As Diana tells it, one of those turning point moments for her came from a group of young people who pleaded for her to be their voice after receiving news that their local community center was scheduled to be closed and felt helpless.
“Your voice matters. Your voice means something,” Diana recalled them saying to her. It was one of the first moments she realized she could be the one who could help lead the changes she could see needed to happen.
“I’ve seen a lot of struggle in the community. I’ve seen people trying to find their voice and not being heard sometimes.”
“I’ve seen how other people promise things to get their vote, or to get someone’s attention - they promise things,” Diana said. “For me, I’m going to come back and not only make a promise, but accomplish that promise. Hear them out, see what they need.”
The broken promises to the residents of Little Village have piled up over the years and a new generation of leaders like Diana are learning the ropes and doing their part to provide for their people.
“I know what I love to do is help the people.”
As just 22 years old, it’s cliche to say that Diana is wise beyond her years, but as another saying goes, “if the shoe fits.”
There’s a certain maturity necessary to take an introspective view of yourself, to really critique your strengths and weaknesses, and then surround yourself with people who can make you a better you. It’s that selfless approach that has Diana in the position she’s meant to be.
“I think I still need to grow, I need experiences or situations to shape me in how to be a good neighbor to my community.”
You won’t find Diana self-promoting on social media - you’ll have to talk to those around her for just a moment to hear her praises - but you will find her laying the groundwork for something bigger.
She understands that sometimes you can’t see what you have to offer and that might be the greatest gift you can give.
“Having someone in a youth’s life who is consistent, who will be there for them and push them, and show them different environments is important.”
Making connections and listening to people is where it starts.
“When we give out food, it opens doors for us,” she noted, speaking about her work at Pan de Vida where she’s part of an operation that feeds more than 6,000 families per week.
It’s in that space, in that time, that Diana has learned the most valuable lesson.
“You can give to others even when you don’t have anything.”
Diana Franco CLF ‘23 is Operations Coordinator, New Life Centers. Hear more about her mission to feed all of Little Village.