Susana Salgado and Jesse Rojo: Fighting for Change in Chicago

June 22, 2022

Community Organizing and Family Issues, or COFI, builds parent power. COFI has trained and organized thousands of parents to push for positive change in policies, politics and systems. These grassroots parent leaders, who are mainly Black and Latina moms, are on a mission to improve communities and schools in Chicago, throughout Illinois and nationwide. They’ve worked with COFI to win the return of recess to Chicago Public Schools, ban suspensions for children younger than second-grade age, raise wages for early childhood teachers and recruit a more diverse early childhood workforce. COFI has also won support for a program in which parents go door to door in low-income communities to connect families with high-quality early education programs.

Susana Salgado does this as co-chair of COFI’s early learning campaign and as a COFI ambassador who recruits parent leaders in Northwest Chicago. “And we desperately need people like her to bring their voices and stories to the political process,” says Jesse Rojo, the early learning policy organizer for COFI. “The people who tend to be heard in the political process are not those who are most affected by social policies and programs. Sure, these policy experts and advocates mean well and certainly can do some good. But they often went to fancy colleges and live in affluent suburbs, so they haven’t had the real-life experience of being poor.”

Susana has, and she brings a personal sense of passion to her efforts to get parents more involved in the early learning system, boost funding for child care, increase early intervention and improve other programs that serve young children. As a mom of three, she knows that quality early learning changes lives. She also knows the challenges many families face in accessing it for their children. And she’s shared her story with lawmakers and business leaders to gain the support we need to provide every child with the early learning they deserve.

Susana managed to get child care, but not without a struggle, as she recalls. “My son was in an early childhood program, but I found that I couldn’t afford it. So, I was about to take him out of child care, which was a difficult decision for me. So, it’s a good thing I talked to the program’s director, who told me I could keep him in the program if I served there as a volunteer. I was lucky. But not everyone has a break like this and those who suffer most from not having early learning for their child are low-income parents of color. I’m one of them, and they’re my neighbors. I know the reality of their lives, and that’s why I’m working with COFI.”

Jesse shares her sense of commitment because he also grew up poor. “My parents were immigrants who lived next to a crack house, where addicts were openly doing drugs. And an experience like that traumatizes you in ways you don’t understand when you’re young. It can criminalize you at an early age, leading to a poverty cycle that affects generations, as I’ve seen for myself. Most of the people I grew up with are in jail, dead or in a deadbeat job at best. Yet getting an education can give children hope and help break the poverty cycle, as it did for me. I also want that for my children, along with all children. And I know how much we need better systems to support them and their parents.”

The child care system we have now often puts parents in a hard place, as Susana points out. “Access to early education should be equitable, but the cost is too high. So, many families who want to work can’t afford the child care they need to do so and must choose between holding a job or caring for their children. So, investing in our children is also an investment in their parents.”

The parents who have the most at stake are the best folks to lead the charge for change, and that’s the basis for COFI’s parent ambassador model, Jesse says. “The parents—not me—do the lion’s share of the recruitment for COFI. That’s because low-income parents tend to live near other low-income parents, so they know them, understand them and communicate with them better than I possibly could. So, people like Susana play an essential role in our program as they go door to door to get out the word about COFI and gain support for our programs. When Susana talks to the parents, they trust her in a way they wouldn’t when speaking with outsiders,” Jesse says.

“I invite them to come and learn how they can advocate for change in our system of early learning,” Susana explains. “And they start by taking an introductory training course called Self, Family & Team.” This virtual workshop consists of six half-day sessions for people who plan to incorporate the COFI Family Focused Organizing model, or parts of it, in their own community groups, schools and agencies. The course teaches them how to recruit parents, how to use COFI’s training curriculum for leadership development, provide in-depth exploration of the first year of COFI’s three-year organizing process and hands-on practice.

“This training also teaches parents that you have to focus first on yourself, then your family and then your team,” Susana says. “And it follows that order because moms, especially low-income moms, never focus on themselves. Instead, they focus on their children, and that’s a good, selfless thing. But having them focus on themselves and think about their own abilities, needs and goals makes them see how motivated and well equipped they are to serve as leaders.”

The moms may not realize it, Jesse explains, “but a single mother of five children is already a leader. She can handle a lot more than I can. I’ll admit that. And after we get that self-affirmative message across to the moms, we focus on family and team. When we do that, we show the parent leaders that the roadblocks they face each day don’t just occur at random. The hardships they endure are part of an overall system of racial and social injustice. When you live in a neighborhood that lacks jobs and offers few chances to advance, that has a lot to do with the inflated cost of child care. And when you get that point across to parents, you wind up with parent leaders like Susana. She and the many like her are keenly aware of these wider problems and willing to help their families and their communities by advocating for change.”

The parent leaders also talk to parents about the importance of early education, Susana explains. “Some of them don’t understand it at first because Latina moms tend to think it’s their job to take care of the kids and believe they can do it best. But the parents do need support and that’s the role of early childhood education. I reassure them that you as a parent are your child’s first teacher, but you shouldn’t be their only teacher. A school can teach them so much more than you can on your own, I explain. And I convince them by sharing my own story about the impact early learning made on my kids. That clicks with them, and they go from thinking they don’t need child care to wanting to know where they can find the nearest child care program and get the resources to afford it.”

Susana wishes she’d known some of these things when she was a young mom with her first daughter, who’s now an adult. And many parents share her feelings after she gets her point across. “They’ve told me they wish they’d seen the value of early learning because it would have made their lives so much easier,” Susana explains. She has succeeded in getting her message across to many parents during the 12 years she has served with COFI, and it’s made a difference for both the parents and for her. “I’ve learned so much, so I just want to keep learning and growing. The ambassador training that I received showed me how to build connections and learn how to speak to lawmakers—something I never imagined I would do. Yet here I am doing it. And it makes me happy as a person, mother and leader who’s making a difference for the community where I live.”

So, Susana’s future plans are to get more parents engaged in COFI’s campaigns and keep fighting to get more funding for early learning. It’s how she’s working to build the future, as she explains. “My kids are older now. But I’m thinking about my grandchildren and my neighbors’ children. Everyone needs access to quality early learning, regardless of race, immigration status or income.” And Jesse shares Susana’s sense of passion because he also wants that for his kids. “So, I’m going to continue fighting alongside Susana and parents like her,” he says. “They’re the ones who are really going to make a difference. Their real stories are going to define what COFI does as we strive for change in Chicago and beyond.”

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