Since the early 1970s, Universidad Popular has become known as a place where community residents come to learn with, by, and from one another. We serve speaking communities and surrounding neighborhoods.
UP's most significant achievement has been its ability to get neighborhood residents to take responsibility for their lives and the quality of life in their community. Instead of expecting others to come in and fix whatever is wrong with the community, UP stresses among its participants the need for them to take charge. Most recently, UP participants demonstrated the success of the participatory philosophy when they found a home for Universidad Popular, and then took charge in transforming a former tavern/banquet hall in Little Village into a thriving community center.
We began offering adult literacy classes to Latin American immigrants in Lakeview in the early 1970s, and we have since followed the Latino immigrant community as it has been pushed south by gentrification. We spent many years in Humboldt Park and Pilsen, as well. As our participants began moving to Little Village – now it is the largest Mexican-American community in the Midwest – they began requesting that UP provide services in the Little Village as well. Tired of moving due to the rising rent prices that gentrification entails, UP sought to buy a building.
Our current 12,000-plus square foot space was an old tavern/banquet hall when we purchased it in 2002. It was in complete disrepair, and would need about $1 million dollars in renovations and restoration, which UP did not have. However, the residents urged UP to buy it, insisting that they would take care of the rest. Sure enough, community residents – carpenters, plumbers, painters, construction workers, and housecleaners – volunteered their time and services to fix the building. Eventually, the building was transformed into a gleaming community center – a convincing demonstration of participatory power. Nine years later, over 500 community residents visit UP's much-admired space everyday for classes, programs, and community activities.