After losing his mother to street violence in Chicago when he was a high school sophomore, Laureano Rivera struggled with paralyzing confusion and anger. But in the four years since, Laureano has channeled those emotions into a passion for addressing what he now sees as the root cause of his mother’s death: poverty.
“I always wondered why we had to move so much, and I witnessed the same problems in every neighborhood: gang violence, not enough programs after school and school not being challenging enough,” he says. “We lived in a lot of bad neighborhoods, and that’s what I saw everywhere: violence. There were no programs to involve kids except gangs.”
Lack of opportunity, he decided, was the primary problem, both for his mother and her attackers. With this in mind, Laureano joined the youth-led LIFE (Leaders Investing for Equality) Campaign in 2011, convinced that working for policy changes that encouraged employment for young people would be key to a better future.
“This was a very difficult time for me,” Laureano remembers. “I wanted justice so bad. But I realized I was on my own. I had to look for a job to sustain myself and help my grandmother, who became my caretaker.”
Frustrated with what he viewed as a sluggish response from the governor’s office regarding jobs, Laureano held a press conference to engage other young people and share testimony. Together, they publicly demanded that the governor fulfill a stated commitment to young people. Shortly thereafter, they released a report through LIFE: “Our Lives on the Line: Youth-Led Solutions to Violence in Chicago Neighborhoods.” The document included contributions from more than 300 young people across the city.
Suddenly, the shy, angry youth had become a spokesman for his peers. As a result of the LIFE report and press conference, a summer jobs program was created, offering employment to 2,500 youth – half of what Laureano had pushed for, but a first step, nonetheless. That step has spurred him to devise other solutions for youth unemployment.
He organized a youth town hall meeting where several hundred young people and adults from across Chicago gathered to share their struggles and contribute ideas toward the creation of the 2012 Equal Voice national family platform. That report, unveiled in July 2012, presents the policy priorities of 6,000 low-income families from Alabama to California.
Now a student at Northeastern Illinois University, Laureano continues to rally youth, recently organizing nearly 50 high school freshmen to point out that money raised through city-installed speed cameras could be used to support more youth jobs programs.
Laureano plans to major in criminal justice, perhaps en route to becoming a lawyer. All of his efforts are tied to a childhood in which his family moved from home to home, neighborhood to neighborhood, fleeing from violence and searching for opportunity.
“I became involved, not only because of my own struggles to find a job, but because I knew the problems of street violence and dropping out of school come, in part, from our city and state not providing enough resources in our communities,” Laureano says. “I want to help change that.”
From January through March, Equal Voice News is publishing a profile each Friday under the theme of “America’s Next Leaders.” Each story features a young person who contributes to his or her community. In 2012, these young people received a Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award. Each year, Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News, honors young people with this award. Leaders Investing for Equality Campaign nominated Rivera for the award.