Listening and Learning Locally
October 14, 2016 | Director's Reflection | Chicago Commitment, Community & Economic Development

MacArthur’s Chicago Commitment team has sought input and advice from stakeholders across the city as it considers new directions for local grantmaking programs. Contributors to these discussions include representatives of organizations serving Chicago youth, programs helping individuals reenter their communities after time in custody, and groups offering a variety of human services. The discussions have also included community activists, developers working to expand opportunity in low-income neighborhoods, local foundation representatives, researchers, and leaders of arts and cultural organizations.

From these conversations have emerged common themes and a number of concerns  that relate to the Foundation’s work in Chicago, but also reflect broader national conversations about race and equity.

Local residents participate in neighborhood events supported by the Chicago Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities.

First, in Chicago and elsewhere, there is an underrepresentation of people of color in leadership of the non-profit organization sector with which the Foundation and other philanthropies work. This is true in social service, research, and advocacy organizations. Philanthropy suffers from the same challenge, as people of color are underrepresented among the staff members of some foundations. At the national level, Change Philanthropy and the Black Social Change Funders Network are pressing foundations to examine their own cultures and operations as they strive to reverse the effects of racism and inequality. The Association of Black Foundation Executives is addressing these issues by offering training to foundation staff, including those in Chicago, to explore racial equality and incorporate it into their grantmaking. A local cross-cultural initiative, Enrich Chicago, promotes greater racial and cultural equity in the arts with a primary focus on creating new pathways for African, Latino, Asian, Arab and Native American peoples. Its members, which include arts organization and funders, own, drive, and implement its collaborative work. A handful of local donors, including MacArthur, provide resources to Enrich Chicago, both to support its mission and to learn from its democratic approach.

We are hearing a renewed interest in broadly focused community initiatives that engage many partners with the goal of achieving a large effect on neighborhoods.

Second, and related, our conversations have revealed that funders need to grapple with the positive and negative power of networks. Foundation staff, like so many others, seek advice from experts and colleagues—people they trust, admire, and respect. However, tapping known networks can leave us blind to leaders and innovators that are outside our usual circles. In our exploration of future priorities in Chicago, we are striving to identify and learn from individuals and organizations that we did not know or work with in the past.

We are hearing a renewed interest in broadly focused community initiatives that engage many partners with the goal of achieving a large effect on neighborhoods. Some seek to take a comprehensive approach by working in multiple areas simultaneously, while others seek to drive change by having a significant impact in specific areas (such as commercial or housing development, or expanding youth development opportunities), with the added intention of having a ripple effect on quality of life. While these efforts are similar in approach and ambition to the Foundation’s decade-plus years of support for the New Communities Program, which also sought to have a large effect on quality of life in neighborhoods, we are listening closely to understand what this latest generation of community initiatives portends for change in neighborhoods, in what ways they might be complementary, and the balance they propose between on-the-ground experience and what research has revealed works in practice—if they differ at all.   

In the short term, the Foundation joined local donors in a new collaboration called the Chicago Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities. The Fund was created to respond to requests from neighborhood groups seeking support for small-scale, local activities.  It  provided $500,000 in rapid-response grants to more than 70 organizations working to increase community cohesion, occupy public spaces to crowd out violence, engage young people in activities that keep them safe and out of harm’s way, work in partnership with local law enforcement to increase mutual respect and trust, and curb violence in their communities. The Fund has served another purpose as well; it provides concrete evidence that challenges the narrative that residents of neighborhoods beset by violence are either apathetic or paralyzed by what is happening in their communities. The Fund supplements each of the contributing foundations’ ongoing programs and efforts to address the root causes of violence in the city.

Across all of these efforts, the Foundation remains committed to learning. We believe that informed decision-making leads to more effective stewardship of our resources and is necessary to maximizing the impact of our programmatic work. Therefore, we continue to collect and reflect rigorously on feedback from the people we aim to support.  

MacArthur’s Chicago Commitment team is grateful to all of the community leaders who have already taken time to share their advice and feedback with us and who have introduced us to talented, committed individuals we did not previously know.

Several elements of our work in Chicago are in place: our extensive support of the infrastructure of arts and culture organizations; our effort to bring to ground in Chicago our national effort to reduce mass incarceration by helping to make local systems of justice more fair, equitable and effective; and the recently-announced Benefit Chicago, which aims to mobilize $100 million in impact investments to strengthen local nonprofits and social enterprises, and the communities where they are located and serve.

The rich interactions and the wise counsel we received from so many individuals and organizations will be reflected in the choices we make about what else to support here in Chicago.

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