Education | Interviews

Education as Liberation

An interview with Juan Salgado, community leader and newly minted MacArthur Fellow

Teddy Watler

On Monday, September 28, Juan Salgado, president and CEO of Instituto del Progreso Latino, received a phone call. He was informed that he had been named a MacArthur Fellow and would receive $625,000. The MacArthur Fellows Program, often referred to as the “Genius Grant,” awards no-strings-attached fellowships in an attempt to celebrate and inspire the creative potential of exceptional individuals. Salgado received this honor in light of his visionary work: under his leadership, Instituto del Progreso Latino has developed a wide range of pre-professional education programs, providing the language and technical skills necessary for members of low-income, immigrant Latino communities on the Southwest Side to have access to higher paying jobs. The Weekly spoke to Salgado about the present, past, and future of his work.

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What is the mission of Instituto, and how is it working to accomplish its goals?

Our mission is to contribute to the fullest development of Latino immigrants and their families. Through education and workforce development, training, [and] employment, we aim to foster full participation in our society while preserving cultural dignity and identity. We operate on the core belief that there is immense power in education. There’s a power to provide for your family and ensure a better quality of life. So everything we do is kind of geared towards bringing the power of education to people who haven’t had a real opportunity to experience it.

The mission statement of the Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy states, “The Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy (IJLA) is dedicated to the principle that education is liberation.” How did your own education inform your views about education as a form of liberation?

Well, the “education as liberation” theme is one that has permeated our organization for the last thirty-eight years, and I was drawn to this organization because of it.
From my personal vantage point, there are different layers of education. The first one is [what] you get from your parents, which are values that you live by. For me, preparing me for life, without that education in the home, I wouldn’t be prepared to make good life choices on my own. But the other vantage point is that the more you know, the more you are able to create the kind of world that you wish for yourself, for your family, for other families, for the community. And the more you are actually able to make an impact on it. So for me, “education as liberation” speaks to not only getting an education to advance yourself, but getting an education to advance a society. It’s not liberation for any individual; it’s about getting the kind of society that everyone feels free in and is able to contribute and able to grow in and be embraced by.

You mentioned, when you were first talking about Instituto, that you work to preserve cultural values. How is that involved in the work you do?

Well, there are different layers to culture. The most important layer is that of dignity. And you can’t get to dignity if you don’t have a good sense of who you are, no matter who you are.
We try to operate as an organization in such a way that anyone who works with us will give us the respect we deserve because we have done the things we need to as an organization. So for us, dignity comes in every interaction that a teacher has with a student, every way that I interact with an institution in my community or outside of my community. And it comes in embracing who we are, as leaders. So, we call our organization Instituto de Progreso Latino. We use the Spanish name to identify ourselves. And we hope to set ourselves apart from a kind of colorful symbolism of who we are as a community and our indigenous roots…because we want those to be valued just as much as our present day society, which has evolved its values.
We don’t necessarily want to go back to the past, because we’re future-oriented. We’ve got our eyes on getting people to a better place economically, but we are very much an organization that honors the past, because that is very much a part of cultural dignity and identity. Honoring our parents and our grandparents and their parents and their grandparents and on and on and on.

Instituto has been praised for its national influence. Do you hope to do more on that national scale, or do you like engaging in more local projects?

The way we refer to ourselves is that we are a laboratory of innovation. We take what’s not working in our city—we take these systems that are at place in our city, that are very much similar across the country. And if we can show a new way forward that actually works in our local geography, we can not only make our city and region a hell of a lot better, but we can be that proof point to spur on changes in other places.
So I’m not sure if you’re going to see Instituto actually servicing other people in the country as much as we are going to be the folks that identify the failures in our current ways of working that are holding people in our communities back, and we are going to show what can be done. We are going to address those failures and push on those systems—not just in our city, but in our state, and in other states and other cities. We are going to push on those systems to effectively meet the needs of our local community. And we are going to find partners in other cities that can pick up on what we’re doing and make that kind of reality happen for people in their local communities.

I’m sure you’ve got this question a lot lately, but where were you when you found out you received the MacArthur Genius grant, and what was your initial reaction?

I was on the street; I was actually walking in the neighborhood about a couple blocks away from one of our really strong churches in the community, which was a great thing, by the way. I prefer to be on the street with my community when I get that kind of phone call, rather than sitting in my office. I do very little sitting in my office.
I was kind of speechless, basically, and a little bewildered, because I didn’t realize this was even happening. So, it was like, wait a minute, how did this happen?

So, the MacArthur “Genius Grant.” No strings attached. You simply receive that $625,000. Some people use this money to take greater risks than they otherwise might or sustain themselves as they take on those greater risks. Has your vision for Instituto and perhaps other projects and the future of your own work changed at all?

You know, that’s a great question. I think the answer is, absolutely yes. And I’m not sure exactly yet what the actual manifestations of that will be. But it’s got my head spinning about a lot of things that have to do with how we better our communities. And I don’t just mean Latino communities. I mean, I’m a kid from the South Side of Chicago. I grew up in a very diverse community that was not a majority Latino community. So my personal interest is that the kind of work that we’re doing can have impacts across the kind of diverse community that Chicago represents and that our country represents.

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