We often think of leaders and leadership in bold terms: strong physical presence, charismatic, magnetic. We have an image of what we think a leader should look and sound like. Sometimes the best leaders among us aren’t the most vocal or the ones drawing attention to themselves.
Patty Carrillo never considered herself a leader. In fact, it took nearly two decades for her to step out of the shadows and begin to lead a revitalization in her neighborhood.
“I have been here for 20 years. But I was quiet,” she said. “I just went to work, came home and that was it.”
An immigrant from Michoacȧn, a mid-sized state with a stretch of coastline along the Pacific Ocean in southwest Mexico, Patty arrived in the United State at the age of 17, uncertain what her future would hold.
She didn’t speak the language, she was in an unfamiliar place.
“It was a big challenge. I came with dad to get a better life for our family,” recalled Patty. “I started working right away with my dad.”
From the time she arrived in the States, she worked. She worked to support herself and her family. Patty quickly secured a job as a commercial property cleaner in downtown Chicago and used the daily interactions with her co-workers to teach herself to speak English.
The Carrillos settled in West Humboldt Park, a neighborhood with a history of being a housing hub for various ethnic groups since the city’s inception.
“We have great diversity in our blocks. We have people from Belize, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico,” Patty noted. “The majority are Mexican, but we’re all in the same position.”
There’s a quote attributed to novelist James Lane Allen that reads, “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.”
A series of violent crimes, drug running and other “problems” in her neighborhood would pull back the curtain on Patty’s character. She had seen enough.
“I said to myself, ‘I have to do something.’”
Patty didn’t grab a megaphone and preach from a street corner. She didn’t place flyers in car windshields and she didn’t call the local news. Instead, she walked next door.
“I started knocking on doors. Getting to know my neighbors and asking them if they wanted to be a part of it (the Block Club) because we have to do something,” said Patty. “This is not right for our kids and our families.”
As it turned out, it was an easy sell. What it took was someone with the courage to stand up and unify the community around a common goal. It took a leader willing to lead.
Patty found an overwhelming majority of people on her block felt the same way. In fact, they had felt that way for a long time.
“Some of our neighbors have been here for 30-plus years. They tried to do the same thing that I’m doing now, but it didn’t work. So they were 100 percent in support.”
The formation of the Block Club on the 1100 block of North Monticello quickly became a beacon in West Humboldt Park. They had common interests, the will to make changes, the numbers to make it happen, and an authentic, collaborative leader to guide them.
Much like Patty did when she arrived in Chicago some 20 years ago, they put themselves to work right away.
“Every two weeks we do a (neighborhood) cleanup and every time there are more and more people.”
Tasks that other communities may take for granted - a street clear of trash, manicured lawns, graffiti-free buildings - began to transform the 1100 block into something new.
But it hasn’t simply been polishing around the edges. That’s not enough.
“Every month there is something to get the neighbors together in the community,” Patty commented about her efforts to build strong relationships amongst neighbors.
So apparent was the change in 1100 N. Monticello that the surrounding areas took notice. They wanted to know the formula. The neighboring 1000 block of N. Monticello became a natural extension and soon the community organizing had expanded to five neighboring blocks.
“We got so strong as a community that other blocks started seeing the change in our blocks and wanted to do the same thing,” noted Patty. “So we said, OK.”
The transformation happening on N. Monticello and throughout West Humboldt Park is seen by some as nothing short of miraculous, a case study in urban revitalization. Patty sees it in much simpler terms: it’s about the people.
“The most revolutionary thing you can do is to know your neighbors.”
Patty Carrillo is one of 18 up-and-coming Westside leaders selected to be a part of the inaugural cohort of Community Leadership Fellows. Community Leadership Fellows (CLF) is a leadership development experience that involves educational workshops, tactical training, collaborative learning, coaching, mentoring and networking. We believe that the investment in homegrown talent will lead to sustainable, vibrant communities.
Block Club President Patty Carrillo CLF ‘23 is changing Chicago one block at a time. Hear more about her mission to love thy neighbor on the latest episode of Community Leaders Podcast