Joni (Hlavacek) Schwartz-Chaney wasn’t sure what to expect when she moved to New York City after graduating from Minnetonka High School. All she knew was that she felt she had a mission to leave a positive impact on her community.
Forty years later, Schwartz-Chaney has met her goal. She’s now living in NYC after founding three learning centers serving marginalized communities, including the Downtown Learning Center, Turning Point Educational Center and the Literacy Partners Learning Center. While these centers started small, they proved extremely successful and have grown to provide services including GED, ESOL and housing for homeless adolescent populations. Their overall goal is to provide people with a second chance at education and career development.
In addition to her service-based involvement in NYC, Schwartz-Chaney is also a writer and professor at LaGuardia Community College. She has written several books and scholarly publications centered around equity and racial dynamics. Her most recent book, Learning to Disclose: a Journey of Transracial Adoption, was co-written with her daughter, Rebecca, and describes what each has learned through their relationship.
"I’m a writer at heart,” Schwartz-Chaney explained. “I look at writing as a struggle against silence. My writing is a form of social activism, really, and it’s a way to get my voice heard.”
Schwartz-Chaney sees herself continuing to write and speak up about social injustice for the rest of her life. She also hopes to continue working at the learning centers and volunteering around NYC for as long as possible.
Schwartz-Chaney said she is humbled to have been chosen to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award. “It’s an honor to receive [this award] from Minnetonka because I know it’s a really good school.”
Schwartz-Chaney believes each and every graduate of Minnetonka holds a responsibility to improve the communities we live in. “With privilege comes responsibility,” she said. “We all need to ask ourselves, ‘in the interests of equity and democracy, how am I going to take this life and this opportunity and use it for the greater good?’”
Schwartz-Chaney encourages recent graduates to identify an issue which they are passionate about and continue to work to improve it throughout their lives. “I think everyone can [be an activist] from their corner of the world,” she added. “Everyone can address it in different ways, but we each have to find our own way to fight for social justice."