The way Juan Andrade sees it, many of the problems plaguing Chicago and other big cities can be traced to a single place: middle school. “That is where the disconnect begins,” says Andrade, the 67-year-old decorated activist and longtime advocate for the nation’s Latino community. “That is where a child begins to ask whether they belong or not, whether they are cut out for this world or not. And if the answer is no, they begin to withdraw.”

That’s why Andrade spends countless hours in school gyms and auditoriums across the country, delivering pep talks and hosting career and college fairs. “We are looking for the students who might not make it,” he says. His program, called the Student Leadership Series, is backed by his 32-year-old Chicago-based organization, the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. This year alone, Andrade says, the program could reach 150,000 students.

Andrade still speaks with the slow drawl of his home state. Growing up in Brownwood, Texas, he cleared weeds in farm fields, delivered newspapers, and worked dollar-an-hour shifts at meatpacking plants. “All of those jobs teach you to respect hard work and hard-working people,” he says.

Before he turned his focus to the youth leadership series in 2009, he made a name for himself with his decades-long efforts in voter registration and workers’ rights. In 2001, Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal for helping to register more than a million new Latino voters and increasing Hispanic representation in government.

Sitting behind his cluttered desk at his institute’s tiny headquarters—a converted four-bedroom condo in a South Loop high-rise—Andrade motions toward a shelf filled with reports on the political and economic impact of Latinos. “We are the fastest-growing group in America. The day is coming when America will turn to us for the leadership that this country needs. I want us to be ready.”

Related: Chicagoans of the Year, 1994–2014