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Behind the Scenes of Northwest Center

Q&A with Northwest Center Executive Director, James Rudyk

This Labor Day, we are highlighting the community organization who made it possible for Cara Connects to expand our reach to the northwest side of Chicago, our co-location partner, Northwest Center. Together, we help job seekers in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood get back to work and transform their lives.

How would you describe Northwest Center to people who never heard of it before?

Northwest Center (NWC) is an 18-year-old community-based organization. So really, all of our work stems from and is in service to the community. We serve the northwest side of Chicago, particularly focusing on Belmont Cragin. Our mission is to identify and respond to the needs of the community to help improve economic wellbeing and quality of life.

How did you personally find Northwest Center and what’s the journey been like as the organization’s Executive Director?

I’ve been with Northwest Center for nine going on ten years. I found the organization through a mutual colleague of mine who used to work here as the former Executive Director before me. When she left, she encouraged me to apply for the position, so I did.

How have you seen Northwest Center grow and change over time?

Our work has really deepened in terms of what we do in the community, and particularly the Belmont Cragin community. We were founded as a housing organization to provide housing counseling, but we moved from only looking at housing to really being more holistic in terms of working with youth, parents, and older adults; focusing on workforce development in partnership with Cara Connects; and partnering with organizations working on health issues within the community. So we really became a full service community-based organization, not just a housing organization.

How do you measure success at Northwest Center?

As an organization, we are going through the process of establishing what it looks like for us to better track the outcomes of our work more quantitatively. But in the interim, we really measure success qualitatively. We see the changes that happen in our community, particularly when community members get jobs, students in our youth program graduate high school, people buy and stay in their homes – anything that really stabilizes the community.

How did your partnership with Cara Connects begin and why are we a good match for you?

Cara Connects and NWC started meeting because we thought there might be ways for our organizations to collaborate. A lot of Cara participants needed access to housing services and a lot of our housing participants needed access to income and jobs. So as partners, we came together and really thought about our strengths and opportunities. We saw our values align and we were rooted in a mutual understanding of the work and how we serve the community.

What does our partnership and collaboration look like today?

Our organizations work hand in hand to provide comprehensive employment services as well as financial services to our mutual participants. We refer folks that come through our Financial Opportunity Center to Cara Connects for employment services. Participants that come through Northwest Center find holistic support including housing services and community connections.

How do both of our organizations complement each other and grow stronger together?

At Northwest Center, we don’t have a workforce development program, experience in job training, or relationships with employers like Cara Collective has, so that’s what they bring to the table for us. For them, we have access to a community that Cara Collective didn’t necessarily have access to and the deep relationships that come from it.

What kind of obstacles has the Belmont Cragin community had to navigate because of COVID-19?

We have a high percentage of undocumented immigrants in our community, and so a lot of people were left out of the initial pandemic relief. We really struggled with residents not getting that initial financial assistance that other families or individuals got. We fought to get inclusion, but it still wasn’t perfect. And then there were the high rates of COVID-19. At one point, we had our community testing 25% positive for COVID, which was the highest in the city and one of the highest in the state.

What keeps NWC persevering through the pandemic?

The devastation we felt over the last year and a half is not gone, and the recovery is going to take more than a year and a half because its impact was felt by a community already disproportionately impacted by poverty, violence, instability, and lack of housing options. At the end of the day, we prioritize the needs of our community first. That’s really what led us and continues to lead us in this work. It’s definitely not easy, but we keep persevering and pushing through.

What’s next for NWC?

We will continue all of our work while also taking this moment to do things differently. This next year is about rebuilding with equity through our services and programs like Adelante, our digital and financial literacy course in partnership with Cara Connects. We are dedicated to doing anything that keeps the Belmont Cragin community at the center and meets our mission.

Learn more stories of how Northwest Center and Cara Connects are helping job seekers in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood get back to work.