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The Bold and Uncomfortable Organizer Next Door

We have to be willing to be vulnerable, sometimes get hurt in the process, and willing to be grounded and focused in our intention. Sometimes we think we’re helping, and we are just trying to be a savior. None of us need a savior…There is no such thing. It’s going to take all of us.

-Delia Ramirez, on the Kin City podcast #15 Messy Love with Delia Ramirez, 2016

In the basement of Humboldt Park United Methodist Church, an eight year-old girl sat at a table surrounded by adults. The mostly male adults had lost everything, including their homes. They sought food and help from the church’s ministry, Humboldt Park Social Services. While her mom worked in the kitchen, the girl chatted with the adults about community, family, and what they wanted from life.

Occasionally a perplexed observer would ask the young Delia Ramirez what she was doing. But she learned to feel comfortable with the homeless adults. They’d tell her she reminded them of a sister, a daughter, or a loved one.

Over time Delia would wonder, “what’s it going to take so that you’re no longer hungry?”

Delia Ramirez and her siblings in an affordable apartment leased by Humboldt Park United Methodist Church
Delia (left) with her siblings Cristina (center) and Luis (right) in their apartment on the 3rd floor of the church (photo courtesy of Delia Ramirez).

The Proud Daughter of Guatemalan Immigrants

Delia was in a better place than the homeless adults. She lived in an apartment directly upstairs from the soup kitchen on the 3rd floor of the church building. Her mother Elvira volunteered for the soup kitchen, while her father Luis provided maintenance support. In turn the church rented them the apartment at well below market rate.

Elvira, who had crossed the Rio Grande while pregnant with Delia, also worked multiple low-wage jobs and sold jewelry and cosmetics, while raising Delia and her siblings. She provided dinner every day, did laundry, and drove them to church and school. Luis typically held down two jobs at time, including a factory in Oak Forest that made pies for Bakers Square. The parents got little sleep and rarely saw each other. They couldn’t afford child care, but they split shifts so one of them could always be with the kids. By the time Delia was seven, Elvira and Luis secured a loan to buy a home in Humboldt Park.

Delia Ramirez and her classmate at Prosser High School
“We came up with my fake birthday so we could celebrate it during the school year. Since my birthday is during summer break,” says Claudia Castillo (left), one of Delia’s classmates at Prosser High School (photo courtesy of Claudia Castillo).

First One in High School

Elvira and Luis never had the chance to attend high school in their native Guatemala. But they hoped for something better for Delia. In Chicago, Delia had access to public education, first at Sabin Magnet Elementary and then at Prosser High School.

Claudia Castillo, one of Delia’s classmates at Prosser, remembered her as the girl who ran a soup kitchen. Like the homeless adults at the soup kitchen, Claudia too got to break bread with Delia at the school cafeteria.

“We were all different religions, different backgrounds. We would talk about our families, share our cultures…we knew everybody,” Claudia recalls. But while getting to know Delia in Mr. McKay’s World Studies class, she noticed that Delia was different.

“She was really good at debates. Good at putting her point across. Everyone was in awe,” she recalls. “I knew she was going to be somebody.”

Delia at Prosser, prior to receiving a full scholarship to attend a private high school (photo courtesy of Claudia Castillo).

Delia’s “Lucky” Break

Although Delia was quick on her feet, she didn’t feel successful. “I struggled with feeling accepted. I struggled to fit in, I didn’t have a group, didn’t feel smart enough or cool enough, or pretty enough.” Her parents couldn’t help her with homework, and she struggled academically.

Fortunately, during her senior year a youth outreach program in West Town offered Delia a full scholarship to St. Gregory. The now-defunct private high school in North Park specialized in working with kids who have difficulties in regular school settings. There she found “a few really good teachers that really invested” in her. She earned straight A’s, gaining her a spot at Northeastern University.

Can We Do More?

While still in high school, Delia took a paid job as a mail lady for Humboldt Park Social Services. When the homeless shelter closed seasonally in June, the departing men told her, “see you in October!” This troubled her.

“Do they believe they’re going to be homeless in October and that’s why they’re telling me that?” she wondered. “What are we doing? I always ask, can we do more?”

Her habit of asking questions raised expectations that she might be part of the solution. By the time she started at Northeastern, she was promoted to full-time case manager. By her junior year, she became Executive Director.

Humboldt Park Social Services had been struggling financially. Even as Delia accumulated personal debt from college tuition, she quickly steered the agency out of financial trouble. Establishing a sharper focus on helping low-income residents achieve housing and financial stability, she would expand the agency’s budget fourfold. Under her leadership through 2013, the agency would eventually rebrand as Center for Changing Lives and expand its reach across the city.

Stemming the Tide

As Humboldt Park Social Services coached its clients towards financial stability, the shifting landscape of Logan Square and Humboldt Park posed mounting challenges for long-time residents. Real estate developers demolished much of the existing affordable housing stock to make way for newer, pricier homes. Housing costs quickly outpaced working class wages. Many residents, including over 20,000 Latinos in Logan Square, left the area. Delia built coalitions with neighborhood organizations such as LUCHA and Logan Square Neighborhood Association to slow the tide of displacement.

In 2007 as rents skyrocketed along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor, resident Jennie Fronczak organized with other tenants trying to hang on to their apartments. “In my darkest hour of need, she showed up,” she recalls of her first meeting Delia. She “didn’t know me. We just cared about the same thing. She turned out all of her people. We were able to hold back the tide for a little bit.”

Fronczak eventually relocated to a more affordable part of the neighborhood. But Delia later recruited her to work at Humboldt Park Social Services.

All in the Family

“It really was a place where you could bring your whole self to work. She always saw us as whole human beings,” recalls Fronczak, who has since become Executive Director at Chicago Housing Trust. The leadership team “understood what mattered to me outside of work…staying on top of what’s going on with Jocelyn,” her daughter.

At one point, Fronczak faced bankruptcy. She lost three months of her paycheck as her account was frozen. “I didn’t have rent money. I think it was Delia [and other coworkers who] came up with their personal money. And I didn’t ask.”

But Delia’s effectiveness as a leader also impressed Fronczak.

“She’s such a skilled orator, communicator, and a great storyteller, and really great at maintaining boundaries and leveraging the power that she has. She accomplished so much, while also having this nurturing, caring environment. And that is such a gift. And I think it’s really what makes a difference. It guides her in her policy work, her connection to her family, her connection to her community.”

Chicago Public School teacher Lori Torres had advocated for a moratorium on school closings in 2013, but was disappointed in her then-representative’s lack of responsiveness. In 2017 she joined community members to #DraftDelia for the role (photo courtesy of Delia Ramirez).

No Draft Dodger

Other neighbors recognized Delia’s community-building skills. In 2017, when a seat opened up in the Illinois state legislature, the grassroots #DraftDelia campaign encouraged her to run.

At first Delia was hesitant. 

We need someone to run. but not me. I’m just not ready. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t have a master’s degree,” she told her closest supporters. “Where do I come up with $300,000 to run for office?”

She wrestled with a question posed by one of her drafters.

“If you care deeply about your community, you want to make sure that your schools are fully funded, that there’s health care for all, that there’s a voice that’s authentic that’s not fake, where do you have the most power and authority to make the most difference?” she was asked. “Is it in your current position? Is it being an organizer for the community? Or is it running for office?”

She was concerned about “dirty tricks” and negative mailers candidates often face when running for office. She didn’t want to lose the strong reputation she had built. But she also knew that when people might attack her, it wasn’t about her- it was about the strong coalitions she built and the progressive platform she’d fight for.

Delia ultimately decided to risk it all. Giving up the job she then held as Deputy Director of Community Renewal Society, she sacrificed a reliable paycheck and health insurance. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and lost her car. But she was all in on the campaign.

campaign volunteers phone banking for Delia Ramirez
Delia’s 2018 run for Illinois state representative inspired 387 volunteers. She would win the primary with 48% of the vote in a 4-way race (photo courtesy of Delia Ramirez).

A Volunteer Army

Delia did not campaign alone. She staffed key campaign posts with “young women who had already beaten the odds that saw me as not just a candidate, but as a sister.” Leveraging this group’s community-building skills, the team inspired a grassroots army of some 387 volunteers.

Claudia Castillo hadn’t seen much of Delia since her Prosser days, but the campaign pulled her, too, back into Delia’s orbit as a volunteer. “You want someone from the community, who listens to the concerns of the community.” 

Delia’s mom took a tougher stance. “If you forget where you come from, you live next door to us, I will hit you with the chancla (flip flop) the way [I did] when you were twelve and tried to cut school,” Elvira told Delia. Reflecting a commitment to keeping connected to her community, Delia’s campaign adopted the motto “rooted and ready.”

Elvira proved to be “the best precinct captain ever,” according to Delia. Working long hours as a homecare worker, she spent her nights knocking on doors. Elvira and Luis contributed a few thousand dollars, about a third of their meager retirement savings. Delia needed these small contributions as she refused donations from real estate developers and charter school operators.

The gamble paid off. Delia won resoundingly, and she was off to Springfield.

Delia’s parents Luis and Elvira (photo courtesy of Delia Ramirez).

Coming Together

Lori Torres, a public school teacher participating in the #DraftDelia campaign, was not at all surprised that Delia won. But she was “surprised by the work that people put in, to not just see her have a victory but put other people to bed.” The victory helped her forge an even larger coalition. Torres witnessed “those who ran against her also come in and try to be a part of what we’ve grown since then. It’s been awe-inspiring to watch.”

Though Delia had nine months to wait prior to taking office, she immediately convened grassroots organizations to help shape policy priorities. Notably, two of her three primary opponents participated. And then in January 2019, a bus full of campaign volunteers took a three hour ride to Springfield to join Delia at her inauguration.

Delia Ramirez in front of the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois
Delia in front of the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois (photo courtesy of Delia Ramirez).

Building Bridges in Springfield

Springfield was unfamiliar and uncomfortable terrain for Delia. But she got to work in advocating for affordable housing, quality education, and expanded health care access. At one point, a Republican representative who seemed unlikely to support one of her bills complimented her passion.

“Passion doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t pay the rent. And it’s not gonna pay the mortgage,” she responded. “While I appreciate you liking my passion, what I’d appreciate even more is you passing this bill.”

Delia engaged her grassroots base in lobbying in support of her bills. “The reason that I’m able to move certain things, may not be because people love me in Springfield, it’s because they know that I’m not alone,” she reflects. “There are a bunch of people that are watching. There are a bunch of organizers and community people that are making phone calls and they’re making phone calls not just to Chicago electeds, but… to downstate, Central Illinois, and everywhere in between.”

At the same time, Delia created new infrastructure in Springfield. Recognizing that past efforts to protect affordable housing tended to languish within committees that wouldn’t prioritize them, she established a dedicated Housing Committee.

(photo courtesy of Delia Ramirez)

Getting the Votes, Getting it Done

Three years into her tenure, Delia can already point to a successful track record. After her first session, she celebrated that “in five months as a legislator I was able to do more to break the cycle of homelessness than the 13 years I spent in the social service field.” Eventually she helped secure $1.5 billion in federal housing relief for Illinois families impacted by the pandemic. She expanded healthcare coverage to every senior in Illinois including undocumented residents. And, delighting Lori Torres and other Chicago Public School teachers, she successfully championed a bill establishing an elected school board and halting school closures.

“Her results in a such a short amount of time,” Lori Torres remarked. “Like who does that? Who has the ability to go into unfamiliar territory, reach across the aisle, and convince people that this makes sense for everybody?”

From Impossible to Possible

Today Delia is running to represent the newly created Illinois 3rd Congressional District in U.S. Congress. Though election law prohibits her from retaining her current state seat, the community, relationships, and coalitions she helped build remain with us.

These coalitions have already played a key role in setting the stage for Delia’s would-be successor in Springfield. Three local grassroots organizations worked together to endorse Lilian Jiménez, an immigration and labor rights attorney, for the role. Rather than compete with Jiménez, a runner-up for the endorsement immediately lined up in support. And the coalition is holding Jiménez, like Delia, to an expectation of refusing campaign contributions from real estate developers and charter school operators.

And Delia’s peers in Springfield are in a better place today. “When I hear her fellow state reps and senators, especially women of color, talk about Delia, they often tear up,” notes Bridget Murphy, a community organizer who’s known Delia for close to two decades. “They get emotional thinking about how Delia has lifted them up personally during hard times, showed them it’s ok to be vulnerable, and formed circles of support.”

“What seems impossible, is possible,” Delia promises, “when you’re surrounded by women who will strengthen you, who will walk with you, who will make sure that you are able to move together.”

Acknowledgements

Claudia Castillo, Lori Torres, and Jennie Fronczak agreed to be interviewed for this biography. Ryan Kelleher provided a transcript of her interview with Delia in March.

Recommended Reading, Listening, and Viewing

Following is a short list of some of the most compelling and informative resources I referenced in writing this article.

Brave Shero (Brave Warrior Queen, 31 minute video, 2016). This stands as perhaps the most relatable interview of Delia, exploring her motivations for initially running for office in 2018.

Messy Love with Delia Ramirez (Kin City, 2016). This podcast episode explored the role of faith in Delia’s approach to helping people through relationships, not charity. I fortunately transcribed several sections of this in 2018 and included some of this in the article. Sadly the original recording, like many modern digital recordings, can no longer be located.

Roadblocks to Housing and Recovery (Hoodoisie, 1 hr 34 min video, 2020). Delia talks in depth here about the process of passing housing legislation in Springfield.

Celina & Delia Edition at the Hideout (The Girl Talk, 1 hr 4 min podcast, 2019). Erika Wozniak Francis interviews two Latina representatives who attribute their success in Springfield to their experience as organizers.

State rep. Delia Ramirez discusses the uphill battle to bring housing justice to Illinois (Chicago Reader, 2020). Though print media is my go-to source on a wide range of topics, major outlet coverage of state legislators is sorely lacking. MacArthur-funded City Bureau notably helps address this gap in Chicago.

1,000 Mile Journey Video Series: Delia Ramirez (Chicago Community Trust, 3 minute video, 2016). Delia briefly tells her story of growing up and the importance of travel in expanding her worldview.

2018 Women’s March (Women’s March, 39 second video, 2018). Delia speaks inspirationally of her life’s journey as a daughter of Guatemalan immigrants.

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