Power is the Ability to Act: A Conversation with Chicago Community Organizer Berto Aguayo


Community Leader Berto Aguayo (Photo courtesy of Berto Aguayo)

Madelynn Prieboy, Phoenix Staff Writer

Community Leader Berto Aguayo (Photo courtesy of Berto Aguayo)

Growing up in a crowded apartment in Chicago’s Back of the Yards, a South Side neighborhood, Berto Aguayo lived the life that many Latino teens who live there do. Aguayo’s mother was a Mexican immigrant who worked from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.  as a hairdresser to give her family a roof over their heads and food for their bellies, so she was not around often.  

“The lack of supervision, school programs, and role models affected me and I joined a gang at 13,” said Aguayo in his introduction as the keynote speaker for Center for Student Engagement’s Latinx Heritage month discussion over Zoom. “The gang was my only way the express my love for the community,” he said, noting that it made up for the love he was not getting at home.  

Then, at 16, Aguayo got a job as an intern for an alderwoman in Lincoln Park. “It exposed me to a bigger world and it showed me the inequities between communities. The grass was actually greener,” he said. “It was bustling with businesses and houses when I came from cracked concrete and vacant lots.” 

Moving outside of his world in the Back of the Yards and working for a local politician gave Aguayo interest in doing more for the community and the importance of voting for people who advocate for his community’s interests. “I was showing my love through destructive ways, not constructive,” said Aguayo before saying he quit the gang and completely transformed his life. 

He started Increase the Peace, “an organization that develops young leaders and promotes peace through leadership development, community organizing, and advocating for solutions that tackle the root causes of violence.” As the Increase the Peace Facebook page says: A big aspect of developing those young leaders is through educating them on how to make change in their communities. The how, said Aguayo, is to act. 

“Voting is one of the best ways to nonviolently change the community. Vote for people who benefit your interests,” he said. “but voting is not the only way to benefit the community.”  

Aguayo explained that reaching out to local politicians helps when asked about how to build relationships with leaders during the Q&A of the meeting. “Show up to their office and request a one-on-one. Even if you have to wait weeks or months, you can get to know each other. You can help that official know what affects your community.”  

Aguayo asked everybody in the discussion a question of his own. “What does power mean?” 

Replies came into the chat with answers like “When someone has dominant control” and “Having a major influence over something.” Aguayo said that every answer was good, but that “Power is the ability to act.” Taking action in the community by making connections between groups who suffer the same issues, such as black and brown communities, talking to people who share difference views, and by voting for people who will advocate for interests of the community.  

“Not acting creates powerlessness,” said Aguayo towards the end of the discussion. “We all have the ability to act.”