Jhoanna Maldonado

Photo of CTU Organizer Jhoanna Maldonado.

Jhoanna Maldonado realized at an early age that education is the key to addressing poverty.

“I became an educator because I wanted to get to the root of the problem, so I could be part of the solution,” she said.

The CTU organizer, like many CPS students, had a complex childhood, moving around a lot between parents, states, and even another country, living in Mexico from ages eight to 11. In Chicago, she attended Jamieson Elementary and then got into Lane Tech College Prep High School.

Moving around a lot and while living in Mexico, she began to see the difference in communities, schools, and systems. Those differences heightened when she was back in Chicago.

Although she attended a CPS selective enrollment high school and school came easy to her, she said it was something she “just survived.”

“I went, got a diploma, and that was it,” she said. “I knew I wanted to address issues of fairness and soon realized that if we were going to address systemic inequities, we had to address the inequities in education.”

After majoring in psychology at DePaul University, Maldonado briefly considered law school, but instead decided education was for her. She earned a Master of Arts in Teaching from National Louis University, through the Academy for Urban School Leadership program.

She began teaching at Bethune in 2011, as an AUSL resident. But AUSL’s rigid focus on test scores, lack of veteran teachers, excessive paperwork and obsession with data, was killing her soul.

“These corporate deformers like AUSL did not care about students, staff or their community, just test scores,” she said. “I knew, that year, it wasn’t the ‘secret sauce’ the organization made it out to be.”

In her second year of teaching, staff in the building began talking about a potential strike, but the school had no delegate to share information. A lot of the staff were new, untenured, and afraid of the AUSL bosses but, she said, someone had to step up. After CTU organizers Brandon Johnson and Christel William-Hayes came to her school for a union meeting, she knew what had to be done.

“Even though things were moving fast, Karen Lewis highlighted the problem and made the solution clear,” she said. “We had to strike for the schools our students deserve. She spoke truth to power and I was inspired to do my part.”

She became delegate, the staff united, and the strike won historic demands. But in 2013, then Mayor Emanuel closed 50 schools, including Bethune. “That was a blow and hard to process, after winning so much during the strike,” she said. “And the students saw how little the system cared for them.”

Maldonado started working at Yates in the 2013 – 2014 school year and was welcomed by veteran staff and the school’s Logan Square community. But the neighborhood was gentrifying rapidly, with construction of the 606 Bloomington Trail, and families were being pushed out. In one year, the school lost hundreds of students and, as a result of student-based budgeting, 17 staff positions.

She joined the CTU’s Summer Organizing Institute (SOI) that year, and she and her colleagues staged desks on the 606 to show the loss of students in the neighborhood. After two more summers with the (SOI), CTU hired her as an organizer.

Now, she spends her days working with rank-and-file members — her favorite part of the job — helping them organize to solve school level problems, find joy in the work, and connect to broader citywide campaigns.

She is the staff liaison to the CTU Housing Committee, a committee she joined as a rank-and-file member. The committee works to protect the STLS advocates CTU won in its 2019 strike and to demand that CPS and the city do more to address housing inequities. The committee also connects members to broader citywide campaigns like Bring Chicago Home, which is fighting to end homelessness in Chicago.

She also is proud of her work with CTU’s Sustainable Community Schools (SCS) initiative and its Anti-Racist Educators Cohort. That group has come together to challenge how schools and curriculum center whiteness, using professional development offered through the CTU Quest Center.

As an Afro-Latina organizer, Maldonado said she is humbled by women of color organizers who have come before her. She seeks to carry on the work that was started by her ancestors and continue to challenge the oppressive systems in which we work.

“Teaching and organizing is about having hope, especially for women of color, hope that we can correct the errors of racism, capitalism, and patriarchy by being able to prepare what’s next for our world,” she said. “A world that isn’t fueled by trauma and inequity, but by a society that is built on radical love.”