The mother of eight children, Diane Latiker founded Kids off the Block, a non-profit organization based on the south side of Chicago focused on helping young people off the street.
Since 2003, Latiker has opened her family’s small apartment and provided educational and vocational programs to thousands of at-risk teens. The organization has flourished under her guidance, so much that CNN honored Latiker as one of the world’s Top Ten Heroes in 2011.
Latiker, 55, was invited to Abu Dhabi to the recent Festival of Thinkers and spoke to women at universities in the UAE, telling them her story of overcoming mistakes and learning to make a difference. She later told Arabic Knowledge at Wharton, “I told them, we have to let the world know that we know what we are talking about when we speak. There are so many areas in our lives that are common. We all want to do the right thing.”
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: In Abu Dhabi, you told a group of women students, in no uncertain terms, that women are natural leaders. Why do say that?
Diane Latiker: We just are. We have to be, we have no choice. We come into the world, and even if we are born third or first, we are thrust into the role of taking care of our siblings, taking care of the house, cooking and cleaning, basically take care of everything from when we are children. We have to negotiate all of that at an early age.
Even when I gave birth to my girls, I knew that I had to teach them to be leaders. Even if they were housewives, they had to be able to run their households. For generations in my family, the women were taught to run the households and to run the men. We are the voice of reason in the household.
When we step outside the home to go to work, we already have experience at many things. In the corporate world, we know firsthand that we have to compromise, that we have to negotiate. For us to achieve what we want to achieve we have to humble ourselves, be the voice of reason.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: There were always large groups of young women surrounding you after the panels in Abu Dhabi. What were they asking you and what do you think of the women you met?
Latiker: They are strong women, strong women. I admire them so much. When they came up and they started to talk to me, it opened up my mind. I went there with a preconception in my mind, which was all wrong. They are very strong young woman, and the older women were the counselors and the teachers. They wanted to reach out and be leaders in their community. They came up to me and said things like, ‘Wow, you have eight kids and still pursued your career.’ They have the same goals as we do, they just have to go about it a different way.
I told them, we have to let the world know that we know what we are talking about when we speak. There are so many areas in our lives that are common. We all want to do the right thing. A lot of them pulled up my name, read my story online. At both colleges, they said things like, ‘In spite of difficulties in your early life, you still said ‘I’m going to do this’, and you did it. You all these kids at an early age then you turned your life around.’ They admired that. They appreciated the fact that I didn’t talk about statics but where I came from. They also had misconceptions. They saw the women at the Festival as these people who had achieved mega status and they admired them, but they wanted us to be just women.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You spent a lot of time at the Festival talking about leadership. Do women make different leaders than men? Do they develop differently?
Latiker: We are all different. That’s the point. I do group sessions and the kids in my program are 80% male. But I talk to them as one, even in the group. The boys look at me and tell me a woman raised them; that’s the way it is in the African American community, sad to say. When I say something I have to earn the right to say it, but then the boys respect me. I tell the boys, when you are ready to tell me something, I’ll be ready to listen.
The girls have to chastise me, they are tougher; of course they are. They know that I am tough on myself. I was hardheaded I thought I knew everything when I was 18. My momma tried to tell me. I didn’t listen. But the most important thing is I will not judge. That is the key. All negativity has to go out the window.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Even after you gained the trust of teens in your south Chicago neighborhood, it took a while for Kids off the Block to gain acceptance from the adults in the community. How tough a sell was it?
Latiker: That was harder than you will ever imagine. Then adults were the biggest critics. They have lived their lives believing whatever it is they believe about young people and forgetting they were once young. They are set in their ways. When I say, ‘Yes, you can’, they say ‘No you can’t.’ I fight adults more than young people. What I have to do more than anything else is stay focused on the kids.
I’ll give you an example of what happens when you finally gain the trust of kids, but lose the trust of adults. Two years ago I had 53 young people working in my six-room apartment every day from 9 am until 6 pm. We would walk the community, clean up vacant lots, and go to events. They would do filing. These were the only job out there.
We had government funding for a certain amount of time. It ran out. I lobbied the governor, I wrote to the mayor. I did everything I could to keep those jobs going. I knew that violence decreased while those jobs were going. When these jobs end, the impact of the kids to going back to where they were was instant. They went back to selling drugs, walking the streets.
When I had to stand up that morning and look at those 53 young people, and some of them had kids, and tell them we couldn’t bring it back, the money was gone — I felt the despair. I was angry. Our priorities for our young people are at the bottom of the totem pole.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What’s wrong about our priorities regarding young people and what would you change?
Latiker: What’s wrong is that we have young people who are hopeless, who are running our streets, who are prone to violence and who make it so I cannot walk up and down our streets and feel safe.
What’s the solution? Put some training into these communities for our young people, put some money into the education here. Pay attention to our young people. Listen to them. There has to be education but there also needs to be recreational opportunities. Training is important. I don’t mean a six-week training course. Teach trades like plumbing and electrical, so they have something left for the rest of our lives.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What response do you get from elected officials to those suggestions?
Latiker: Sorry, no money. That’s the response in a nutshell. ‘We don’t have the money. We cannot do it right now. Just hang in there, Diane, I’ll get back to you.’ When our organization served young people between the ages of 6-19, it was a bit easier. Everywhere I would go, the people loved the little kids, 12 and under. They’d say, ‘Oh yeah, we can help them.’ Everyone loves a child and it makes them look good.
That’s why I’ve changed to helping youths that are aged 12-24. It’s much tougher to get funding. People would tell me, ‘You are crazy to help them, I don’t know why you are trying to help them, they are gone. You can’t reach them. They grew up in a drug household, et cetera.’
Everyone gets afraid of the older boys and men, understandably. I decided to focus on that age group because they need the most help. That’s the same group that the politicians shun. Most have dropped out of school.
My job is to let them know someone cares. I focus on GED preparation and what I call soft skills: many of our young people don’t know how to say ‘Thank you’ or ‘You’re welcome.’ I always say, ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir’ to my boys. Friends my age think I’m crazy. I tell them I’m teaching the young men respect by showing them respect.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Your life sounds exhausting.
Latiker: (Laughing) I go to bed at 3 in the morning and get up at 6 and my husband is always fussing at me to get some sleep. But I’m excited very day. There’s always something going on. Kids from our program come home from college and thank me. But you know, I thank them. Without them I could not exist. I couldn’t be pursing my passion. I love it. I wouldn’t do anything else in my life. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I can’t sleep at night because I am so excited.