Maggie Perales is the Southwest Organizing Project’s (SWOP) longest tenured employee, having worked with SWOP for over 26 years. She was born and raised as a second-generation Chicago resident; her father having migrated from Mexico to the United States. Growing up in Pilsen, Maggie was taught by the sisters of St. Casimir at Maria High School at Marquette Rd. and California. She purchased her first home in Chicago Lawn in 1986and settled into the community. In her time in the community, Maggie has witnessed the changes of how Chicago Lawn went from a predominantly White/Caucasian neighborhood to a mixture of different cultures of Black and Brown community members.
Maggie speaks of marrying young and raising her four sons with her husband at her side before taking a leap of faith to leave the corporate world she had known to raise her youngest two children. Though she focused primarily on being a mother during this time, she yearned to do more and began volunteering at St. Nicks, her Church at the time, which was a member institutions of SWOP. She also did a lot of volunteering at her local elementary school, teaching catechist for 12 years for 6th graders.
During her volunteer work at St. Nicks, she got to know leaders who were a part of SWOP and was invited to many SWOP actions. She met two board members for SWOP at the time, Jim and Tom, who spoke very highly of the organization which sparked her interest in wanting to learn more. Maggie did not realize at the time the profound impact that this meeting would have on her future. She began attending multiple leadership development sessions with SWOP and became the administrative assistant for the Executive Director of SWOP at the time. This is where Maggie started her part-time work with SWOP, beginning to learn about all the issue areas that SWOP was involved with. She could not decide which one she wanted to fully dive into as she was passionate about diversity and inclusion as a person of color, housing as a homeowner in the community, safety as a mother of young boys, and education as someone who understands the foundation it sets for future generations.
As her two youngest boys were getting older, Maggie began to have more open availability, allowing her to have more time to throw herself into her work with SWOP. Chicago’s immigrant families were being affected by the sweeps that were separating many family members and Maggie wanted to know how she could be a part of helping those community members. It wasn’t until the summer of 2003 when Jeff Bartow, current Executive Director of SWOP, asked if she wanted to be more involved, that she decided to take the leap. Maggie wanted to be an organizer and she began having conversations with Jeff about what it takes to become one. Her dedication to this effort would see her taking buses to her one-to-one relational meetings. She felt humbled that the people she engaged with respected their leaders enough to allow her to connect with them in their home and in such vulnerable states.
Through this, she could see through the lens of people in the community dealing with issues that she hadn’t even thought of.
Issues involving immigration were important to Maggie, and she was horrified to know that officials dealing with immigrants were separating families. “I knew how difficult it was to not be with both of my parents growing up and it really lit a spark in me, and I wanted to make sure no one has to deal with that hardship.”, Maggie shared. Though the fight was hard, she was happy to see community members that went from legal permanent residents to citizens via the work that SWOP, along with other leaders and organizations, put in. Maggie was able to talk with people who were being treated as criminals and praying with them, working to get them temporary driver's licenses as the lack of having one had been a huge contributing factor in setting them up to be arrested. Just this past year, Maggie advocated with others so that those who only qualified for a temporary driver's license will soon be able to get a regular driver’s license.
Maggie reflected on how she fully engaged with the work to get health insurance for undocumented community members as well as her role in helping families when they were losing their homes. Although Maggie worked in every issue area, she really latched on to Parent Engagement, recognizing how important it is that students, teachers and parents work together to build better and brighter futures for themselves and their communities. One of the ways they sought to do that was by making sure the schools had the resources in place to help cover the needs of the future generation. “Working with parents who see what we see and want what we want is always inspiring. It gives the kids hope and gives them the confidence to follow in step with those that are supporting them.” Maggie shared before recounting a story regarding someone that had an impact on her. “I remember listening to the story of a woman who left her town in Mexico because she wanted better for her girls. She put herself through school and made a promise to graduate alongside her daughters, despite growing up without education.”
Maggie joined the Parent Mentor Program in 2009 when the prior organizer, Stephanie Garza returned to school. Maggie has now been the director of the program for several years. With her deep connection with education and her commitment to her church, Maggie wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between the two and wanted everyone to be all inclusive and work together in the community they are serving. “Working with the Parent Mentors, connecting with the moms and finding common ground where they had an appetite to learn really made the work worth it. They learned together, taught together, laughed together and cried together, fostering strong connections and an understanding about what public life is about. To work in unity calls on a lot of discipline, and intentional hard work focused on what our goals are and how to reach that goal.”
“The most groundbreaking thing we can do is to open the gates of communication between different institutions. If I didn’t believe in the work, I wouldn't have devoted my loyalty to them. SWOP is like a second home or extended family. They always had my back and I know that they will always be there for me. I couldn’t have done this by myself. The team that I have is a group of strong women that believe in what we’re doing, and I can say with full confidence that they will continue to develop this into something more than what it is now. I can’t see anything but good coming out of this. Knowing all the good that happened to this day, I can’t help but be happy and proud of what comes next. We have so many people that care about this community working with us and they are doing amazing work. I can’t help but think how can SWOP not leave a legacy of its own.” Maggie shared about her experience with the organization.
Jeff Bartow, Executive Director of SWOP, had this to share about his experience with Maggie. “Twenty-one years ago, I walked into the second floor of the old SWOP office, and I met this energetic, incredible bookkeeper. I was welcomed into the organization and into the community at the most fundamental level because Maggie Perales knew who you needed to know. From that beginning, Maggie had shown me that I met the most compassionate, wise, thoughtful and hungry to learn person who had the best sense of the terms I call “anger” that moved her to action. She’s been a model for so many of us all this time. She’s not shy about showing her vulnerability and she’s not shy about showing her strength as well. It has been truly extraordinary working alongside her and I wish her the best in this next chapter.”
As Maggie Perales embarks on a well-deserved retirement from the Southwest Organizing Project, we reflect on the profound impact she has had on both the organization and the lives of those she has touched. Maggie's dedication, passion, and tireless efforts have left an indelible mark, shaping the trajectory of the Southwest Organizing Project and fostering a spirit of empowerment within the community. Her leadership has inspired countless individuals, and her legacy will endure as a testament to the positive change that can be achieved through commitment and compassion. The SWOP family expresses its deepest gratitude for Maggie's years of service, and her contributions will forever be cherished by those fortunate enough to have worked alongside her.