Carmen Curet vividly remembers her first job: As a high school junior, she started working full-time in various capacities for a pediatrician on Chicago and Wolcott avenues in Chicago. “I was a receptionist, did medical billing, I even learned to give injections. Having that job helped me help my family,” says Curet, who grew up in a poor family with eight kids in the city’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.
The experience also had an impact on how Curet sees the world of work, challenges that young people face, and how to create jobs for people in underserved communities.
Curet is the executive director of the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation, which has helped fund Manufacturing Renaissance’s Manufacturing Connect, a nationally recognized career pathways program. She is also the newest member of the board of directors for Manufacturing Renaissance, joining the board this summer. “I see the commitment and determination of Manufacturing Renaissance,” she says. “They are focused on the greater good of communities – not on their own greater good.” She adds that her connection to the Renaissance reflects her own personal story. “I started working when I was in high school, and that changed the trajectory of my life,” she says. “Now I want to help provide opportunities for young people to work. The Renaissance can play a big role in achieving that goal.”
Her background includes considerable experience in both the nonprofit and private sectors. Early in her career, she worked as a leasing agent for Lakefront SRO (now Mercy Housing), a nonprofit that provides affordable housing services for the homeless. Later, she managed contracts for Gray Personnel Services in Chicago, where she gained management and staffing experience in Chicago and around the country. Through that experience, she connected with ShoreBank Neighborhood Institute, a leader in community investment. “They asked the company I worked for to help them start a temp agency for welfare to work clients,” she says. “I felt this was a great way to introduce people to the workforce,” says Curet, who was the primary architect of the program. She later managed the process on a full-time basis for ShoreBank.
Youth Service Project
From 1999 to 2006, she worked as employment program director and interim Executive Director for the Youth Service Project, a citywide nonprofit organization that trains young people for the workplace. “This experience helped me understand how our communities are starving for investment,” she says. “Even so, our youth are hungry to do better and be better. I never met a youth who didn’t want to rise to the occasion. Our young people are extremely talented and resilient.”
Curet, however, says that “our structures and community infrastructure were broken – and still are. Many youth didn’t have the resources to step into a place of power. The message they were getting is that investment in them wasn’t worth it.”
Curet continued her work as the Director of Youth Development for Alternatives, Inc., a nonprofit organization on the city’s north side. The program has served as many as 600 youth a year. Once again, she worked in a position where she was reminded of her own experience as a young person. “I never forgot what it was like to work while I was in high school, and give my mom money that helped our family. There was a sense of purpose and dignity about it. Today, so many kids don’t have that.”
Programs like Alternatives, Youth Service Project, and Manufacturing Renaissance, are sorely needed, as they provide much-needed services that are often unavailable elsewhere. Curet says that public schools “keep cutting career tech programs – the kind of programs that can help young people land jobs.”
Chicago Teachers Union Foundation
While on a trip for Alternatives that convened practitioners of restorative justice, she learned about the opportunity to head the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation. She started at the job in 2015. One of the first projects was to manage the renovation of the Foundation’s first new home – a $25 million renovation of a building that would accommodate the teachers union, students, and the foundation, and be suitable to rent out.
“This building became the physical manifestation of what the teacher’s union does,” she says. “It’s about bringing people together, having discussions, fighting for certain rights and justice. In a very real sense, it’s a community center. She adds that she’d “love another teacher’s union building on the south side that creates space for community. Our communities are starving for resource centers.”
Over the years, Curet has earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Nonprofit Management and Masters in Non-Profit Management as well as Higher Education Administration at North Park University. Curet is currently involved on a volunteer basis with numerous organizations, including those that focus on the trades, teen moms, immigrant workers, and Hispanic leaders.
Meanwhile, the grantmaking side of the Foundation provides operational grants to a range of about 30 organizations and programs that approach education through different lenses – including Manufacturing Connect.
Her focus on providing opportunities for youth, she says, continues to inform the way she connects her work at CTUF and sitting on the Renaissance board.
“Schools are the conduit for young people to make changes, but not everyone is going to college. If you introduce young people to different career paths, that can have a positive effect on them. I know I was one of those kids. The Renaissance has shown how this can work in Chicago – and can impact how it’s done on a national scale.”