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Ismalis Nunez: on using power and privilege to give voice to people in our community

"As I have gotten older I have come to realize that I have the choice to change my future, I don't have to be defined by my past."

Ismalis Nunez’s father came from Cuba to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to provide a better life for his family. Which he did.

But he also went to prison and has been incarcerated for most of Ismalis’ life, and it was in large part the combination of these things that led Ismalis to doing what she does today: she’s the head of Family and Community Engagement for District 65, where she builds community partnerships, creates programs, and brings services into the district’s schools.

DE: How did your dad’s life and choices affect yours?

IN: My father being in prison definitely had an impact on me. Although I had lost one of my biggest cheerleaders and my protector, it made me want to chase my dreams even harder.

The pressure has always been hard, because where I am from, not many people make it out. I had to be the difference. I had to show others that there was something else out there.

I was the first in my family to go to college. I knew that bad choices had consequences and that making bad choices would completely tear my family apart. We couldn't go through another traumatic experience.

As I got older it affected me emotionally, because I never talked about the absence of my father. I saw other kids with two parents and always felt ashamed to even tell them where my dad was. What would they think of me, if I told them the truth? I didn't want anyone to pity me or feel that I was less than.

I think that my life could have gone in a totally different direction, but one thing that I could count on was my community, my family, and my teachers to fill the void.

I was taken care of by my community, and my focus became more clear over time that there was a need to help children and families because there were people in my life that impacted me growing up. I wanted to give back.

DE: What about your mom?

IN: My mother is a strong woman. I idolize her. Growing up she modeled what it was to be a strong woman. She retired from the Health Department as Outreach Worker. She was a home visitor for families with infants and toddlers and focused on healthy child development and positive parenting.

I learned work ethic, saw what hard work was, and she was the epitome of grit. She cared, and she wanted a thriving community for everyone. I realize now that my mother did everything for her children so that they could have a better life.

Being the first to go to college was the best gift that I could have ever given my mother. I remember the day that she dropped me off and gave me the last little bit of money in her pocket. Her words were, "Make me proud and make something of yourself." I knew that I couldn't give up. She had given me all the tools I needed.

Growing up my mother taught us that life is always going to be hard, that systematically there are injustices, but we are never given more than we can handle.

My mother is my biggest supporter. She has walked me through my toughest times, pushed me when no one else has, she has told me when it wasn't going to be okay and she has loved me unconditionally. I aspire to be half the woman that she is.

As I have gotten older I have come to realize that I have the choice to change my future, I don't have to be defined by my past.

DE: Tell me about your work.

IN: Equity work is my focus. It’s new within the district. I’m easing the community into understanding equity mostly by facilitating Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED), which is a 10-month cohort of teachers, teaching assistants, and administrators who discuss issues of race, class, and discrimination, and encourage a lot of processing around these issues, such as journaling, figuring out how we approach staff, students and colleagues through the lens of equity.

My main goal is to help people realize that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ identity of people, and no magic cure for inequity.

Even though I’m a woman of color, and there are some challenges I face, in one of my identities, as a professional, I still have power and privilege and I always think, how can I use this power and privilege to give voices to people in the community?

DE: And how do you go about it?

A: One thing I do is I try to involve the community. So instead of just inviting them to events and activities, I make sure that they’re involved in planning them as well.

This past summer, I organized a literacy event at Robert Crown. I asked parents to collect books that were on District 65’s summer reading list and distribute them to students and families.

It’s so great to have kids and parents ask me, ‘Are you going to do it again?’ The parents’ faces are priceless, and all I did was make the calls and rally the troops!

Last January I became the co-chair of the community-engagement subcommittee for Evanston Cradle to Career. This is a committee of representatives from organizations and committed parents/family members who are working to bring about collective change and make a better Evanston.

I also work with the City of Evanston to create free adult classes, including a class about U.S. citizenship, teaching parents how to be educational partners, and ESL classes where participants learn English and how to navigate the U.S. school system.

At the heart of everything, I truly believe everyone wants the same thing for students and families in Evanston, and that’s equity… so how do we meet our families where they’re at? We need to help our families help their kids be successful.

DE: What’s rewarding about your job?

IN: I love connecting with people in person and making change. I love having the opportunity to communicate and connect with different people in Evanston, whether its community leaders or families, or new organizations, and integrating these connections.

DE: What are the challenges?

IN: Establishing equity is a slow journey and that there are cultural barriers to engagement for many people. I grew up in a single-parent household and my father has been incarcerated my whole life.

Does this mean my family is any less engaged? There shouldn’t be a set standard for community engagement. We need to build upon the strengths that everyone has to offer.

I also try to encourage our community to look beyond the numbers. Often, statistics create the set standard for success. Even if there’s a great turnout at an event, we need to ask: is the turnout diverse? Are we making progress on issues, and properly engaging communities of color, or other communities we want to serve so the event has a meaningful impact?

We don’t need another checklist. If we serve the same subset of people every time through community resources, we’ll have the same outcome.

You have to get uncomfortable to get work with equity done. It’s is about challenging yourself and feeling uncomfortable, because the heart of the work is making sure everyone feels included, whether you accept their perspectives or not.

DE: Can your work help reduce youth gun violence in Evanston?

IN: We want to make sure everyone’s needs are met financially and academically for success. The violence needs to stop. Our lives are precious and our futures are precious.

Addressing inequity is the first step to preventing gun violence in our community, and I hope my work helps people realize this with a sense of urgency.

I think Evanston has the energy and the tools to tackle inequity. The secret sauce is participating, listening to different perspectives, and digesting other people’s experiences so that you can work to address their needs. Hospitals, schools, they’re only as strong as their community makes them.

DE: What did you do before working at D65?

IN: I’ve worked for District 65 for the past several years, and worked as a social worker at Haven Middle School before that for five years. As an undergrad at Loyola University in 2002, I had a work-study job at Youth & Opportunity United.

DE: Will the recent presidential election will make a difference in our community?

IN: I think we have a chance to strengthen grass-roots movements and strengthen our community as well. People will be more motivated to participate and have honest conversations about community issues in this time of political unrest.

DE: What’s the purpose of all your work?

IN: I want to help create an environment where kids feel free to go to school and play on the playground together, and where parents feel safe letting their kids enjoy Evanston. They deserve that much.

[Photo by NU student Morgan Smith, who also contributed to this piece.]

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