Longtime activist and marathon runner Gaylon Alcaraz has been speaking out on LGBTQ equality, anti-violence initiatives, housing rights, gender equality, health prevention and reproductive rights for nearly 25 years.
Alcaraz began this journey by writing letters to the editor when she was pregnant with her daughter.
"Every time something struck a nerve, I wrote a letter to the editor," said Alcaraz. "Many ended up being published. My fingers were constantly typing. I did not even have a computer, so I would get on the Belmont bus and go the library to use the computers. There I would be, big and pregnant with my 4-year-old son, banging out letters to the editor. I remember one of my first letters was about DJ Irene Mojica who was given less desirable timeslots at WGCI. I wanted the public to know about the sexism happening at the radio station." ( Note: Mojica, in the '90s, had sued employer Gannett Company, Inc., alleging discrimination based on sex and national origin. )
Alcaraz's first foray into housing rights was through her training with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. Due to what Alcaraz learned, she was instrumental in restarting the tenant's council in her HUD building, and where she led fellow residents in a $1 million rehab of the property.
"I joined Affinity Community Services in 1996." said Alcaraz. "From protesting on behalf of Vernita Gray when she lived in South Shore, to marching in protest of the Bus Stop Rapes, to walking through neighborhoods honoring Sakia Gunn among other actions. We were doing so much then. As one of the founding board members, I am proud. That was our baby. That little organization was so instrumental in my activism growth."
Alcaraz was hired as Chicago Abortion Fund's executive director in 2005 and that is where she said she "grew up."
"It was a real eye-opener." said Alcaraz. "I really have to thank Mary Morten for that experience."
When Alcaraz left the Chicago Abortion Fund almost ten years later, she began to consult with not-for-profits on leadership transition, fundraising and event planning. She has worked with clients such as the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago, Project Fierce Chicago and The Illinois Safe School Alliance. Alcaraz is also a Northeastern Illinois University adjunct professor where she teaches classes on poverty and organizing.
All these experiences, Alcaraz explained, will help her do the work she does as the new LGBTQ program specialist with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ( DCFS ).
"The experience I bring to the table informs how I will do the work in this new position," said Alcaraz. "I have always advocated for others and that is what this position entails, ensuring that children who identify as LGBTQ get the resources they need. My work has always been for the voiceless. This is just another extension of that."
Alcaraz will continue to work with organizations and teach when necessary, since they do not conflict with her new DCFS position.
Most recently, Alcaraz ran for the 4th District Cook County Commissioner seat against incumbent Stanley Moore. Moore won the primary and was uncontested in the midterm election.
"One of the biggest lessons I learned from the campaign is that there are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends," said Alcaraz. "I also learned most people do not want real and systemic change."
Alcaraz's life's work has been rooted in her upbringing where her family struggled with poverty.
"After my father was killed, I stayed with my maternal grandparents a lot," said Alcaraz. "We ended up moving from the South Side to Boystown after his death. That is how I became a North Sider."
Alcaraz attended both public and private Catholic schoolsincluding the now defunct Mother of Sorrows boarding school in Blue Island, St. Sabina and eventually graduating from the now defunct Queen of Peace Catholic High School in Burbank. She earned her BA and MA from DePaul University, focusing on reproductive justice, women and gender issues.
Currently, Alcaraz is working on her Ph.D. in community psychology; her scholarship is focused on reproductive-rights restrictions and how they are intersecting with the prison industrial system.
Among the accolades Alcaraz has received include induction into Chicago's LGBT Hall of Fame in 2013, being named "The Activist" in the Chicago Reader's 2014 People edition ( where she was on the cover ) and being chosen as one of Chicago Woman Magazine's 2017 "The Fierce 50."
"It was exciting to be inducted into the Hall of Fame," said Alcaraz. "I was floored when I was named 'The Activist' in the Chicago Reader. It was a mind-blowing experience to be walking through the city and see my face in the window of the Reader newspaper boxes. I will never forget that."
When asked what her message to the world would be, Alcaraz said, "You have a responsibility to give back and to pull others along. It is required of you. Try to leave this world better than you found it."