In my mind, a school should serve as a community center, a place where, when everything else is chaotic, there’s that one place that you know for sure you're going to get answers. To me, that's at school. I think, “How do we attract families to the community in a way that's comfortable?” I mean, schools can be scary to some individuals depending on what their own experience was as a child. So I’m interested in anything that would help families feel welcome and connected to the school.
[What will happen to the eggs once the chickens are old enough to start laying eggs?] Our thinking right now is that we're going to enlist families to help us take care of the coop. And so whoever signs up for a week will get the eggs the chickens produce that week. And then when kids start taking care of the coop, too, it will be a nice little incentive for them to hopefully want to engage more with their chickens.
[Have you ever had chickens before?] We would visit my grandmother in a province in Panama where there is a lot of agriculture. My grandmother owned chickens. I recall her having them, though not so much taking care of them. As I've gotten older, I’ve missed many parts of home, like gardening and tending to chickens. It allows me to hold on to some of those memories.
[How long have you been at Peterson Elementary?] I got here in the summer of 2017, and this is my third year as principal. It's certainly a sense of community that drove me to want to stay here. I always say, you can find a job anywhere, but you can't find a community. And I think that's one of the things that makes the school and the entire community very special. And you see examples all around, like the food pantry that came up to satisfy a need that existed. I love what I'm doing and I always thought that I need to do it in a place where we all sort of have the same vision. Being able to support the community is key, and it’s very tied to my beliefs.
I came [to Chicago] in 1994 at 12 years old. I’ve only lived in Chicago. I truly love the city and how diverse it is. Not very many Panamanians, but very diverse nonetheless. I've been here ever since. Before Peterson, I was at Wells High School. I started there in 2011 and taught history for most of the time I was there. After I finished my BA at Northeastern in 2006, I got a job at one of the satellite campuses for Daley Community College. I taught ESL to adults for five years.
At that point, I was also becoming a U.S. citizen, and to me it was important to understand what has happened that has allowed me today to become a citizen, so I started taking history classes. I took some at Northeastern and got my masters from Loyola in history.
I'm very, very grateful for the opportunities that I've been able to receive here. I thought, I can't just become a citizen without fully understanding the sacrifices that so many have made for me to be here and to enjoy the rights that I have.
Yalil Nieves was interviewed by a neighbor in September of 2022.