Alumni Spotlight: From Corps Member to COO

Published Jul 19, 2016
Ilana Zafran Walden headshot

In 2006, we placed Ilana Zafran Walden at Umoja Student Development Corporation in Chicago, where she continued to work for over a decade.

Umoja works with under-resourced high schools to help students succeed, and Ilana instantly fell in love with everything about the work. She loved facilitating, dialoguing, and building relationships with young people from Chicago’s West Side. Ilana loved the work so much that when she was offered a full-time position at the end of her service year, she instantly accepted, and ten years later, she’s their Chief Operating Officer.

During her Service Corps year, Ilana partnered with a housemate to bring restorative justice practices to her students. Restorative justice serves as an alternative to punitive responses in schools, communities, and the justice system, providing opportunities for those who have committed harm to restore, rather than be punished for, what they have done. Following their success with restorative justice in one high school that first year, Umoja ultimately launched restorative justice partnerships in six more, exponentially increasing the number of Chicago high school students experiencing these transformative practices.

And it was more than just strong partnerships that continued to sustain Ilana. The lessons Ilana learned during her Service Corps year helped her to thrive despite the structural injustice that she saw in her day-to-day work. Avodah gave her the skills and support to avoid burnout while doing this necessary and deeply challenging work.

“Avodah taught me the importance of acknowledging complex realities and that we are rarely going to find answers, but instead more questions. I was and still am able to form deep and meaningful relationships with the population I work with because of what Avodah taught me about how to be an ally and the importance of doing this work with intention and an open heart.”

As the COO of Umoja, Ilana moved from her initial direct service work, and had to think on a larger scale about how to advance structural change in Chicago. She realized that one of the biggest ways she could work for a more just world was to create the supports and conditions needed for others to do that work.  So she invests her energy and time in mentoring, coaching, and supervising the next generation of leaders, including Avodah Corps Members. Ilana is now the Director of the Chicago Student Success Initiative for Chicago Public Schools.

Ilana credits Avodah with more than just her career path. Ilana found a new connection to Judaism through the pluralistic Avodah community. According to her, “Avodah that has been the most influential factor in cultivating my Jewish identity as an adult. The networks within the program and the alumni community kept me involved. Without Avodah, I don’t know that I’d have a Jewish connection.”

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