(Photo: Obama Foundation)

‘Helping them see themselves’

A Chicago program introduces high school students to the pathways of community leaders

“Obviously, it’s about exposing them to different career paths, but it’s helping them see themselves in these leaders and seeing what they can become,” says Erica Hubbard, director of Chicago programs at the Obama Foundation.

Erica Hubbard, director of Chicago programs, Obama Foundation

Hubbard is referring to the organization’s Future Series, “What we’re doing with this program is exposing the high school students at Hyde Park [Academy High School] to a variety of different career paths. Anything from becoming the president of United States to running your own nonprofit. It’s been amazing. These children have had the most amazing, rare opportunities to sit down with leaders of so many organizations.”

The Future Series – started in February 2022 – typically runs once a month. Hubbard says student feedback is crucial, “We do post-surveys after each session. ‘What did you think about this session? What did you learn? Do you know more now than you did coming into the session?’ That’s very important to us.”

She notes it also introduces the young students to the importance of networking. “How many jobs are people getting these days without knowing someone? As these leaders are telling their stories, there’s always a person or two or three or four that’s been there to support them along the way – to speak their names at tables where they’re not there and that’s how they’ve been able to move forward.”

Hubbard continues, “Watching our students actually pick up that advice and say, ‘Erica, can you please connect me?’ – this is why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

‘A great opportunity for me to give back’

Hubbard says one alumnus of the Chicago Public Schools system was very generous with his time – welcoming students to his place of business. “Chef Reed welcomed us to his restaurant. We took about 30 students from Hyde Park to that session where we learned about his journey from Chicago Public Schools to taking advantage of opportunities that existed.”

Darnell Reed is owner and chef of Luella’s Southern Kitchen. During his last three years of high school at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, Reed studied culinary arts. “I still had the basic classes. When it came to culinary arts, I was going to school half the day at that point. That was everyone – whether you took auto body or anything. We went to school half the day, then we went to work the other half. We were graded by the chef,” he explains.

Darnell Reed, chef and owner, Luella’s Southern Kitchen

“I definitely had an interest in food and cooking since my early childhood. My mom actually said she always knew I was going to be a chef because when I was a kid, I used to watch the Cajun Chef Justin Wilson on channel 11. She knew a lot of kids weren’t interested in watching people cook on TV.”

Reed spent 18 years with various Hilton hotels before opening his own restaurant in 2015.

He says he received a lot of pleasure from hosting the students. “They saw me at my place of business and I was able to speak to them about their future and my career. I came up under similar circumstances because I grew up on the south side of Chicago just like most of them. I saw myself in them a lot. I also saw this as a great opportunity for me to give back.”

“Whenever they speak to someone in my field, it’s our responsibility to introduce them to what we do. It is one of the hardest industries to find people because it’s real work involved. This really is a labor of love.”

‘It felt like an honor’

Ameena Hubbard – no relation to Erica Hubbard – has attended a number of the Future Series speaker events, including the visit to Reed’s restaurant.

In her final year of high school, Hubbard says about her interest in the speaker series, “It felt like an honor that these opportunities were being given to Hyde Park students. I wanted to take part in it and get a fuller taste of different cultures, ethnicities, different art styles, different jobs. I wanted to learn more and expand my mind.”

Ameena Hubbard, senior, Hyde Park Academy High School

“[It was] a great experience networking with other people and make it more believable that I could do other jobs like all these other people are doing.”

Hubbard says her visit to Chef Reed’s restaurant went beyond having a great meal. “You could taste the love and the thought put into the food. I liked the fact that he had deep roots connected with his passion and with his job.”

She adds, “It made me feel deeper connected as a person of color. It made me feel deeper connected to soul food.”

According to Reed, the students ate fried chicken, gumbo, mac and cheese. And beignets – he took online classes and worked on his baking skills while business was slower during the pandemic.

Hubbard graduates from high school at the end of May and is in talks with a recruiter to join the Marines. She is also considering studying psychology at Roosevelt University.

These post-high school plans were already in place before Hubbard started participating in the Future Series, but she notes, “I was still very hesitant and trying to weigh my options because I was telling myself, ‘These are two hard jobs to get and to pursue.’”

“Talking to the people that the Future Series provided and hearing their stories and their backgrounds, made it seem more possible and easier than I was thinking.”

The Future Series Looking Forward

Hubbard of the Obama Foundation says, “At some point, I would love to see this replicated in other schools across Chicago because it’s a tremendous opportunity.”

“As we’re exposing these students to these different career paths, I can imagine that it’s also exposing their parents and guardians, as well, because they’re having these experiences and they’re meeting these different people. You never know where that goes.”

Regarding his own participation, Reed says, “I obviously think the Future Series should continue. I will definitely be open to speaking again.”

Featured image and video credit: Obama Foundation