Nadeen Israel: A Life with Purpose

August 24, 2023

By Aleah Vega, Editorial Intern

With her recent promotion to AFC’s Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy, Nadeen Israel is more ready than ever to show up and show out for the Chicago community. Work in the nonprofit sector, however, is to Nadeen “like a lifetime journey,” one that she embarked on long before her career began. 

Nadeen has been with AFC for nearly five years. Prior to her work here, she worked for two other nonprofits focusing on health and housing policy and advocacy in the Illinois and Chicagoland areas. “The through line for me has been the ability to center racial justice and racial health equity,” she affirms. Nadeen grew up in Baghdad, Iraq and was in elementary school during the first Gulf War in 1990/1991. “Living through that war and then the aftermath of it,” she remembers, “I think I was too young to understand systems and who has power and who makes decisions, that kind of thing. But injustice I saw, and that I understood as a kid and I just didn't understand the why behind it.”  

“Immigrating and then going through that process with my family” Nadeen continued, “and going through all the things immigrants go through to figure out how to live in a completely different place… there were a lot of injustices that I experienced and saw. Not just personally, but around me.” 

After immigrating to the U.S., Nadeen attended school in Illinois. “When I was in high school, the US went to war with Iraq again,” she recalls, “and so I started a peace club in the high school that I was attending and did a petition against the war.” By Graduate school, she had become familiar with the systems working within the U.S. government and her community. From there, Nadeen says, “things made more sense to me in that it was these structures and systems controlled by a few people in power that dictated which people, communities, schools, etc. were invested in and supported, and which weren’t.” 

“When all this clicked for me, I decided that this is what I want to do. I want to change these bigger systems to make them work for all those who have been shut out of them.” 

As the new Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy, Nadeen looks forward to continuing her work to help others and divest from destructive systems. “The root cause of all these disparities for Black people, for Latine people, for other people of color that we see in HIV, healthcare, housing, etc. is structural racism and white supremacy. The outcome of these root causes are the disparities we see. The data tells us that Black and Latine people are more impacted by HIV and housing instability and homelessness more than other communities and at a disproportionate rate .... it’s because, if you trace this back, when these systems were built in the first place, they were not meant to work for everyone. In fact, these systems were initially built in such a way to keep out anyone that wasn’t a white, cisgender male. And so, for decades, activists and advocates have been working to change these systems to make them work for the rest of us. It’s been humbling to be able to join the ranks of the fearless healthcare and housing advocates and activities in IL over the past 13 years.”.” 

However, “change takes time.” Though Nadeen remains hard at work, she recognizes the need to “build your stamina and be in it for the long term. It took so much time to build the inequitable structures and systems that we all live and exist in today. So, it's going to take time to undo them, especially when a lot of the people who still benefit from keeping things the same are in power…I always liken it to a big cruise ship, and how much [effort] it takes for it to start moving in a different direction, it has to happen slowly because it's so huge…we’re trying to move, change this big cruise ship, so expecting dramatic changes to happen fast is not realistic.” This is no reason to lose faith in the fight or dream small. According to Nadeen, “the most important thing in this work in my opinion is for us to not lose hope. The enemy wins when we lose hope. As long as we have hope, we keep pushing for positive change, these structures and systems will change. I’ve seen it now firsthand.”  

And to hope, to push, is exactly what she plans to do, and has done for over a decade. “I built relationships with people who essentially gave me the advice of ‘you have to keep at it’” she explains, “You never know which phone call is going to be the difference, the one that tips that legislator’s opinion to yes from a no, or which story is gonna resonate with that decision maker in a way that other similar stories didn't.” 

In her work at AFC, Nadeen makes it her mission to improve her community, in community. “If we don't have certain voices from our priority communities,” she states,  “if they're not at the table, if we're not talking to them, we’re making sure that we're spending whatever time and energy that's needed to be able to connect with them, partner with them in a meaningful way and get not just get their input, but also figure out how we can partner with them in implementing whatever we decide the policy priorities are for that year.”    

“Because, when you do policy work and advocacy work, you're never doing it alone, at least you shouldn’t. You're always working with others, in coalition.” 

Still, there are times when Nadeen works alone. “Racial justice is not just about the external,” she explains, “it's also about looking inward.” She asks herself daily, “What am I as Nadeen doing to dismantle, you know, racism, and how am I an anti- racist human today? How is AFC an anti-racist organization?” She keeps AFC’s core values close, explaining that “it's an organization where to me those values aren't just, you know, words on a piece of paper… we actually live them out in the different ways of how we do our work, how we present ourselves. We certainly fall short sometimes, but that’s our daily goal.”  

“This is where I want to be, in a place that’s focused on doing the internal and external work of dismantling racist structures and policies.” 

As for the next coming year, Nadeen looks forward to “deepening the Policy and Advocacy team’s focus on utilizing storytelling, deepening the team’s reach within the Housing policy & advocacy space in Chicago and in IL, and adding value and capacity to housing-focused coalitions, campaigns, workgroups, etc at the city and state levels.” According to Nadeen, “The ultimate focus for this housing system-level work for us is to end homelessness for people living with HIV in IL as a key step to ultimately ending the HIV epidemic in Illinois by 2030.” 

Nadeen will continue to thrive in her new position and welcomes the challenges of her career, quoting Nelson Mandela, “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” 


Categorized under Advocacy, AFC news, Chicago, Illinois and Inside Story.

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