Beyond buildOn: Chicago Alumnus Aims to Take Service to City Hall

A lot of Chicagoans have written off the city’s 37th Ward, even many of the neighborhood’s own residents, but buildOn alum and Chicago City Council candidate Antoine Curtis isn’t one of them.

Curtis and his family have lived in this West Side community that includes parts of the Austin, Humboldt Park, Garfield Park and Belmont-Cragin neighborhoods for generations. It’s a place he loves and sees huge potential in, but it also has one of the city’s highest poverty rates, ranks among the most violent and is home to notorious open-air drug markets.

Curtis, who has a master’s degree and a successful healthcare career, says he understands why someone in his position would be tempted to flee for other city neighborhoods or the suburbs, but he’d rather stay and continue the service he started with buildOn years ago.

“This is where I grew up. It’s where most of my fondest memories of my life came from,” Curtis says. “I want my kids to grow up in a community where they can say their family’s been in the same place for years.”

It’s this commitment to improving the community that keeps Curtis involved with buildOn. He currently serves on buildOn’s Chicago Young Professionals Board, raising critical funds for youth service programs at nearby Orr Academy High School. It’s also the reason he’s running to represent the 37th Ward in Chicago City Council, and he sees buildOn’s approach to empowering youth through service as crucial to transforming the city.

“I feel like buildOn’s mission and goal as an organization is perfect,” he says. “It fits the time that we’re in and addresses issues that everyone wants to cover up – that our youth are failing. They say we’ll deal with it later. But when later comes, you have (millions of) people locked in jail and you have all these dropouts… what are we going to do to get to the heart of the problem?”

Not surprising from a buildOn alum, Curtis sees improving education and empowering youth as vital to curbing violence and rebuilding the community.

“Education is a huge part of my platform,” Curtis says. “I feel like for any community the goal is to have a safe community, and you need that supported by three main branches: education, jobs and economic development… When all three of these things are failing there’s no way you can be safe.”

Curtis says his service with buildOn was instrumental to realizing the value of education, especially the trip he made to Mali in 2008 to build a school in the village of ——–. He says he left Africa impacted by seeing education, which he had always viewed as an essential right, treated as a luxury in one of the poorest parts of the world, and he felt empowered that he could change such injustices.


Antoine Curtis and students from Prosser High School in Mali building a school with buildOn in 2008

While his trip to Mali may have planted the seed of service that led to his candidacy, it was a more recent and tragic event that finalized his decision to run. This past summer his 17-year-old cousin ——- was shot and killed near her home – one of the many random shootings of the 1,500+ reported in Chicago this year alone. Shielding other families from such violence is an important part of his campaign’s mission and he sees partnerships with programs like buildOn as essential.

“I believe to my core that programs like buildOn have a huge positive impact on violence. Everyone wants to feel connected to something and feel like they belong to something,” he says. “When you have a freshman in high school that isn’t getting the attention they need at home, and you have programs like buildOn that can make them feel like they’re connected… it diverts them from going to the gang that’s sitting right outside their school.”

Curtis believes that buildOn’s programs not only empower youth and help divert them from gangs, but he also sees service as vital to lifting up the whole community.

“You take an abandoned lot and turn it into a community garden, and that gives that community something they feel is theirs. If you go into the 37th Ward or other struggling wards throughout the city, a lot of people say, ‘This doesn’t feel like my community.’”

Curtis hopes to change that, having seen first-hand the transformative power that service and education can have on struggling communities across the globe.

Chicago holds city council elections in April 2015. You can find out more about Antoine Curtis’ campaign at