Improving the Quality of Life in Chicago Neighborhoods
July 10, 2018 | 40 Years, 40 Stories

Rebecca Riley, Former MacArthur Vice President for Community Affairs

Andrew Mooney, Former Executive Director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation/Chicago

Carlos Nelson, Executive Director, Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation


Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)/Chicago is the local office of the nation’s leading community development support organization, backing local initiatives in primarily low- and moderate-income neighborhoods to help forge resilient and inclusive communities of opportunity. MacArthur was an early and significant funder of LISC/Chicago in the 1980s. Then, from 2003 to 2013, LISC/Chicago and MacArthur partnered onthe $60 million New Communities Program (NCP). The nation's largest demonstration of comprehensive community development, NCP sought to improve the quality of life in 16 underinvested Chicago neighborhoods by addressing a broad range of issues, including employment, health, housing, and violence.


What was the state of the community development field locally when LISC/Chicago began?

"After decades of unresponsive government leadership, neighborhood disinvestment, and racist housing policies and programs, communities drew upon Chicago’s robust local traditions of grassroots organizing to fight back."

Riley: After decades of unresponsive government leadership, neighborhood disinvestment, and racist housing policies and programs, communities drew upon Chicago’s robust local traditions of grassroots organizing to fight back. In the 1960-70s, nonprofits were created at the neighborhood level to tackle widespread housing and economic development challenges. A key problem for these organizations was the lack of resources. Federal budget cuts were being felt throughout poor communities, and economic and real estate development required a level of capital investment unavailable to these organizations.

The Ford Foundation, seeing this need as a crisis and an opportunity, launched the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) in 1979. This new national entity would provide grass roots development agencies, often in the form of community development corporations (CDCs), financial and technical assistance through a network of affiliated offices. In support of programs and strategies forged at the community level, LISC would seek investments from local foundations, corporations, and financial institutions. Soon after, diverse Chicago leaders began to organize a LISC program. Ford encouraged MacArthur to nurture and support this local effort understanding that Chicago could provide a nationally significant laboratory for community development practice and policy.

In 1985, MacArthur approved a LISC/Chicago grant of $2.5 million to be used for pre-development financing. At the time, this was the largest grant that any LISC program had received and is credited with having significant impact on helping the local CDC movement evolve and mature. It also gave significant credibility to the organization and encouraged local corporations to became actively engaged in LISC/Chicago’s work.


How did LISC/Chicago’s work shift in the 1990s?

Mooney: We convened the civic community in Chicago to undertake a critical review of the state of neighborhood development in 1996 during my tenure at LISC/Chicago. The Futures Committee issued a seminal report, “Changing the Way We Do Things,” that transformed the way that organizers, funders, practitioners, and residents of the city thought about the serious business of improving their neighborhoods. Prior to the report, LISC/Chicago had focused primarily on housing as the key to neighborhood stabilization. Though a necessary component, the committee found this to be insufficient to the overall task. Shifting gears, LISC/Chicago subsequently created the New Communities Program, a multi-year initiative that embedded the concept of comprehensive community development into the practice of community development not only in Chicago but influencing policies across LISC’s entire national footprint.



As a community leader, what did you think when you first heard about the New Communities Program?

Nelson: Honestly, we were skeptical as a community in Auburn Gresham and as an organization because the New Communities Program came with a promise of so much, a promise of really supporting the communities’ goals and strategies of rebuilding our own community and rebuilding our own people here in Auburn Gresham and on Chicago’s South Side. To hear a funder say that this was going to be a “bottom-up” kind of project really made us go “hmm.” The New Communities Program ultimately transformed the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation. It took us from a small, lightly-resourced organization to one that had sustainability, had capacity and turned it into one that was going to be a really impactful organization in the Auburn Gresham community. And more importantly, it allowed us to not only rebuild the community and the human capital in our people but to become a strong and trusted convener of community partners, as we promised to focus on collective impact here in our community.


What was the impact of NCP on the low- to moderate-income communities your organization serves?

Nelson: The New Communities Program really centered around community engagement; it was about convening residents, and not just homeowners and renters, but other stakeholders, like business owners. It resulted in things like the 79th Street Renaissance Festival, which is now in its 13th year. That was an NCP seed project. It is now a two-day iconic festival that attracts 23,000 people and celebrates people working together, playing together, worshipping together, and living together in our South Side communities. It’s had a huge impact. It’s built so much pride, and it’s allowed us to develop more block club leaders, support for homeowners, support for renters, and support for entrepreneurs. There were a couple of very strong organizations doing great work separately in silos. Now there are 20 community-based organizations doing impactful work that are working cohesively and collaboratively and doing it with an eye toward data outcomes and with a focus on sustaining the quality of life in our greater Auburn Gresham community.


What did we learn from NCP?

"...successful community development relies on the strength of local residents, their leaders and organizations."

Mooney: MacArthur became LISC’s stalwart partner in the New Communities Program, providing both financial – $60 million – and technical resources over an unprecedented 10-year period. Taking a comprehensive approach to neighborhood development in 20 communities in Chicago, NCP’s strategic methodology led to multiple ventures and impressive outcomes in housing, family financial and employment services, health care, education, and economic development, among others. In addition to outcomes, however, NCP also validated two fundamental principles. First, that successful community development relies on the strength of local residents, their leaders and organizations. Second, that it also relies on what we ultimately called “the platform,” the network of relationships prompted by NCP within a neighborhood and between neighborhoods and their larger socio-political context. Another lesson: programs like NCP succeed when you have a long-term working partnership between the funder (in this case MacArthur) and the operating agency (LISC).


Between 1981 and 2017, MacArthur has awarded more than $101 million in grants and program related investments to LISC/Chicago.



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