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Sarah Cohen

I have always felt a need to advocate for something. Intolerance for injustice was an identity for me growing up, but it was never political. I would display it while rescuing a lizard from under my dog's paw or ruining the mean pranks kids in my class would concoct against other students.

I grew up in Mexico City, Mexico, sheltered by a lot of privilege and surrounded by the bubble that is my Jewish community. In retrospect, my upbringing allowed me to remain ignorant of issues like housing.

Even though I experienced some discrimination as a Jewish person, my affluent and resourceful community always supported me. My first few years in Chicago were tinged with that ignorance. It wasn't until I started working at Open Communities that I began to uncover the layers of systemic oppression and its effects on the people around me.

At 23, I had been living in Chicago for four years, a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago where I got my BA in Acting. I wanted to start working in Theatre and Film around the city, but I needed a day job to support myself. As a native Spanish speaker, I wanted a part-time job where I could use my Spanish to help people. At the suggestion of one of my professors, I sent my resume to Open Communities. By some miracle, they hired me soon after my interview, even though I had no previous work experience.

I found myself thrust into an unfamiliar world of grants, housing, advocacy, and social justice. Having little to no context or knowledge, I remember feeling intimidated by the other staff members. Sure, I was only there to answer phones, translate and help with reports for 20 hours a week; but I felt that I needed to learn as much as I could about the work that I was doing while I was there. Between deposition, intakes, and grant instructions, I had my work cut out for me.

As the months passed, I continued to ask constant questions and take in as much information as possible. I learned about evictions, foreclosures, discriminatory practices, redlining, and predatory loans. I was exposed to the insidious nature of housing discrimination. I learned about laws and local ordinances crafted to target marginalized groups. I discovered that even though we call housing a human right, not everyone has access to it. Slowly but surely, I developed a passion for the work that my coworkers were doing. A simple day job had turned into a cause that I could support and try to make better for the rest of my life.

I will never forget a client story that happened in my first year working at Open Communities. A Hispanic family who did not speak English came in because their mortgage company sent them foreclosure notices from their bank even though they had been sending payments through a third party. It turns out that the third party they were using had been scamming them into bankruptcy all this time, keeping their monthly payments for themselves. I had to explain to this family that there was nothing we could do to help them against these scammers and that they would likely lose their home. It broke my heart to watch them walk away when all we could do was give them housing education and referrals like a small gauze on a bleeding wound that can't fix an injury's depth but can be a small barrier that begins the healing process.

I have now been working at Open Communities for two and a half years. My day-to-day looks very different from when I started, but one thing has stayed consistent; I believe in our work.

We may not do it perfectly, we may not be fixing every problem for every person who walks through our door, but we are doing something.

In many ways, this job has bled into other aspects of my life. It reminds me to look at the world and its systems critically. It has also helped me see how I have contributed and still contribute to the disparity somehow. To this day, I display the same intolerance for the injustice I had as a child, but I am thankful to have a cause to fight for and support—something to keep me accountable for making others' lives better. Wherever life takes me, I will hold that cause close to my heart.



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