April 2, 2024

From Chicago basement to international stage, the power of collaboration fueled a Latino-led nonprofit working with youth

By Elizabeth Tamez Méndez

Director of Programs and Grants, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity

Streetlights is a thriving, Latino-led nonprofit that got its start thanks to a collaboration with a longer established organization in Chicago. 

Photos courtesy of Streetlights

In its early days, a startup nonprofit working to make the Bible more accessible to young people in urban areas found a crucial community partner. The result of their collaboration is a lesson for us all, writes a director of programs and grants for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

For almost a decade, I’ve enthusiastically followed Streetlights’ journey as the organization’s innovative Latino leaders re-imagined the audio Bible, infusing it with the vitality of hip-hop beats and showcasing diverse and authentic voices. Their artistic vision and dedication to placed-at-risk youth speaks directly to my heart.

Born from a vision in a basement 17 years ago, Streetlights has grown into a thriving nonprofit with an $800,000 annual operating budget, 75,000 newsletter subscribers and 430,000 app users worldwide, according to its leadership. It has achieved international influence, reaching 18 million plays of its audio Bible — currently in Spanish and English — with plans for more languages. Beyond the audio Bible, its initiatives also include the Corner Talk teaching video ministry and a music ministry through its touring band, ALERT312.

ALERT312
ALERT312 is a music ministry of Streetlights.

How Streetlights expanded from basement dream to international reality offers a powerful learning opportunity for us all, including for my own role as an executive director. Since visiting the Streetlights studio in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin community last fall, I’ve gleaned valuable lessons in organizational leadership and capacity building from its inspiring story of collaboration.

Esteban Shedd, Streetlights’ co-executive director, said his vision emerged from the disconnect many youth in his community felt toward the Bible. They found it inaccessible — difficult to understand and hard to relate to culturally — with a lack of engaging resources. Shedd, inspired by the scripture “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17 NKJV), envisioned a culturally relevant, bilingual audio Bible for the digital-native generation. That led to the development of artistically rich digital tools that engage young people from urban communities in their heart language.

Streetlights app
Streetlights has 430,000 app users worldwide.

Shedd patiently refined his vision over two years, supported by prayer, discussions with leaders and family, and in-depth research about resource production. He waited for the right moment — confirmed by the Spirit and community support — balancing the demands for action with the wisdom to nurture the vision, anticipating when peace and faith would align.

The catalyst came from a friend at GRIP Outreach for Youth, a faith-based nonprofit working with Chicago’s young people, who suggested that Shedd speak with that organization’s executive director. This conversation ignited Streetlights’ inception, leading to a series of conversations and careful planning with GRIP’s board. Bolstered by their support, including covering his salary for a month, Shedd was offered precious time and space. GRIP evolved into an incubator for Streetlights.

But, Shedd said, it was a challenging decision for some in GRIP’s leadership, given that GRIP, too, works with urban youth in underresourced neighborhoods. The initial wariness that the partnership might strain GRIP’s limited budget eased after a board member highlighted how Shedd’s culturally relevant Bible project aligned with GRIP’s mission, offering new ways to serve youth.

Shedd said those who were hesitating realized that the organizations’ missions weren’t separate but an opportunity for unity; they came to see GRIP as part of a larger, interconnected ecosystem. Strategic planning for the partnership began, focused on communicating clearly and engaging stakeholders, crafting a framework that equipped GRIP to effectively navigate and adapt in this new role.

album cover The Lord is Beauty
ALERT312’s album cover for “The Lord is Beauty.”

This was also a leap of faith for Shedd. Newly married and juggling his roles as rapper and hip-hop group leader, he committed to Streetlights despite the economic uncertainty for his family. Through prayerful consideration, he and his wife found peace, understanding that vision and conviction are crucial in Christian leadership and may precede funding. Trusting in God’s call and in GRIP’s leadership, Shedd entered into a mutually affirming partnership, where he knew that his vision would be honored, with no attempts to change, control or compete against it.

GRIP’s support meant more than guidance — the executive director and board offered spiritual backing, mentorship, friendship and essential connections for the work ahead. Shedd vividly remembers Scott Grzesiak, GRIP’s founder and then-executive director, providing unwavering encouragement during uncertain times, which was vital to persevering.

In that crucial first month, Shedd devoted countless hours to developing Streetlights’ business plan, capturing its vision and how it would fit within GRIP’s fiscal umbrella. Thanks to the supportive environment provided by GRIP, Shedd was able to avoid some of the typical challenges that organizational leaders face — playing multiple roles and wearing various hats, risking feelings of isolation amid a flurry of meetings, swinging between exhaustion and exhilaration as the vision takes shape.

Out of the Tension... Comes Beauty
ALERT312’s album cover for “Out of the Tension… Comes Beauty.”

During this phase, Shedd harnessed his skills as a hip-hop group leader for strategic planning and building social capital. He laid the groundwork for capacity building and sustainability by earning trust from leaders, forging connections in Bible publishing and engaging in effective fundraising. And he wisely focused on community and collaboration, as he sought advocates both within and beyond GRIP.

Shedd initiated scaling efforts, taking on odd jobs with friends to contribute toward the salary for Streetlights’ second team member and leveraging his artist community ties for a digital audio Bible demo’s fundraising. This pivotal first year set Streetlights on a path toward resilience and significant growth, focused on mobilizing resources, managing finances and coordinating volunteers.

What began as a one-month commitment became a nine-year dynamic partnership between GRIP and Streetlights. Within GRIP’s abundant and creative embrace, Shedd and his co-leaders, Loren La Luz and Aaron López, transformed Streetlights into an autonomous organization. As with Acts 2:44-47, Streetlights and GRIP united under a common vision, sharing resources, celebrating collective successes and meeting their community’s needs with joy and gratitude toward God.

The partnership between Streetlights and GRIP exemplifies the power of unity, faith, generosity and a mutual commitment to enhancing capacity. It underscores how organizations can come together to create transformative outcomes.

Streetlights’ journey inspires me to broaden my organizational leadership views, sparking questions like: What resources do we have to empower others? Where can we find partnerships to build essential support systems and strengthen our capacity?

Rooted in Christian values, such an ethos of collaboration reminds us we are not meant to tackle this journey alone. Together, we grow stronger, shaping a future that transforms capacity building, where collective progress and innovation become our common goal.

sound mixing
Streetlights’ leaders reimagined the audio Bible to reach a younger audience.

By Elizabeth Tamez Méndez

Director of Programs and Grants, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity

etamez@div.duke.edu


The Rev. Dr. Tamez serves as a director of programs and grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, where she oversees the Innovation Grant and Seek The Welfare. Dr. Tamez is also the founder and executive director of New Generation3, an international organization dedicated to training leaders, conducting research, producing resources and providing consulting services to educational, religious, corporate and non-profit groups. She is a specialist in multicultural youth development, strategic planning, DEI and design thinking; has 25 years of diverse ministerial experience; and holds a Ph.D. in Leadership from Andrews University. She is originally from Mexico City, has a previous career in architecture and design and is passionate about developing emerging leaders for the church and community.