MacArthur in Chicago: Reflecting on 2019
January 28, 2020 | Perspectives | Chicago Commitment, Criminal Justice, Journalism & Media, Impact Investments, Civic Partnerships

John Palfrey, President of the MacArthur Foundation, shares our commitment to justice in Chicago.


I joined the MacArthur Foundation five months ago with great excitement about calling the city of Chicago my new home. While visiting the Foundation in the spring and summer of 2019, I saw the great pride the Chicago-based staff take in their city. Now that I have had the opportunity to see the work up close, listen to the insights learned, and feel the impact of organizations serving residents all across the city—I share the deep personal commitment to advance our shared goals for a more equitable and just Chicago.

"I share the deep personal commitment to advance our shared goals for a more equitable and just Chicago."

Some people expressed concern that a new MacArthur President without roots in the city would shift focus away from the Foundation’s current commitments to its hometown. Let me assure you that MacArthur’s Board, staff, and I remain committed to Chicago and the metropolitan area. Last year, we awarded 99 grants totaling $20.5 million. In fact, since our founding, MacArthur has invested $1.4 billion in over 1,600 organizations and individuals in Chicago and the region, more than in any other location around the world.

The year of 2019 held many auspicious moments for Chicago. Voters elected Lori Lightfoot mayor, in a historic election runoff between African-American women. Gun violence, which spiked in 2016, is decreasing—though it is not rapid enough, we are seeing progress. A consent decree between the City of Chicago and the Illinois Attorney General will address the decades-long history of racism in the Chicago Police Department and support the department’s efforts to reform many of its internal policies and practices. The city saw another year of population decline and struggles to ensure resources are available in all neighborhoods. The media continues to walk a tightrope between expansion at the community level, with new outlets bringing energy and rigor to local reporting, and contraction or consolidation of long-established outlets diminishing the breadth of reporting we need in a vibrant democracy. These topics and themes inform the grantmaking of the Foundation’s programs that work in the metropolitan area. 

Our work in Chicago also embraces the Foundation’s commitment to what we call the Just Imperative, an initiative rooted in the belief that justice is reflected in values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Through the Just Imperative, we are reviewing all of the Foundation’s policies and practices to ensure we lead with justice, including the process of recruiting and hiring staff, whom we entrust to invest our endowment, and how we design our grant programs.


In the days before I officially joined the Foundation, I was privileged to assist my predecessor, Julia Stasch, in cooperating with the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) to acquire the archive of Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of the iconic Ebony and Jet magazines. The archive includes more than four million prints and negatives comprising the most significant collection of photographs cataloging African-American life in the 20th century. The foundations have jointly pledged to donate the archive to the Smithsonian NMAAHC, the Getty Research Institute, and potentially other leading cultural institutions to ensure that it is available to the public. We are thrilled to begin to share the rich history contained in the archive with a public event later this year in Chicago. Stay tuned for more information.

"We strive to support diverse leadership because we believe that their influence will inform and improve decisionmaking across the city."

Within our Chicago Commitment team, we made a significant shift in 2019 to bring equity into the center of our support for arts and culture. As Senior Program Officer Cate Fox described in a Perspectives piece, we recognized that our long-standing grant guidelines had “the unintended consequence of excluding significant parts of the city’s population and a variety of art forms and genres that contribute to the richness of the cultural sector.” In response, we developed a new program, Culture, Equity, and Arts, that “reflects the intrinsic value that the arts bring to the city, including developing human potential, building empathy, encouraging individual identity and empowerment, and bridging divides between communities.” The new approach shares power with community members by inviting a panel to engage in a participatory grantmaking process and recommend slates of awards to the Foundation. The first set of grants under the new approach will be announced this spring.

In recent years, we heard a call to promote and elevate the voices of community leaders and to provide them with unrestricted support to pursue individual goals and personal growth. In response, we launched a new initiative with the Field Foundation, called Leaders for a New Chicago. As described by the Field Foundation, the first class of awardees will help “to retell the story of what a leader looks like—and it looks like Chicago. Women, men and gender nonconforming—LGBTQ and African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American (ALAANA). Leaders are of a wide range in age and experience and they represent and speak to our city’s unique history.” Beyond this program, and across all our work, we strive to support diverse leadership because we believe that their influence will inform and improve decisionmaking across the city.


Criminal Justice in Chicago
Our Chicago Commitment and Criminal Justice teams pursued their goals of reducing gun violence in Chicago and mass incarceration in Cook County. Our efforts to reduce gun violence are in collaboration with more than 40 other foundations and funders working to provide alternatives for individuals and neighborhoods most affected by violence, to restore police legitimacy, and to support efforts at the community and block level to promote safety and peace. MacArthur has contributed nearly $13 million to these collaborative efforts, called the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities, since 2016. Through the Safety and Justice Challenge, the Criminal Justice team supports efforts in Cook County to safely reduce the jail population, address racial and ethnic disparities, and implement alternatives to incarceration. The program has a particular focus on reforming unfair and ineffective practices that disproportionately affect people of color, low-income communities, and people with mental health and substance abuse issues. We are proud to be working in close partnership with the City of Chicago, Cook County, and a range of philanthropic and community leaders to make this city a safer, more just place for all Chicagoans to live.

Envisioning Justice, a multi-year project invited residents to reimagine the criminal justice system by asking, “What happens when you center the voices of those most directly affected by the criminal legal system to reimagine justice using the arts and humanities?” Supported by our Criminal Justice team, and executed by Illinois Humanities and a number of neighborhood-based partners from across the city, Envisioning Justice culminated in a fall exhibit that reflected the broad community involvement in the initiative.


Investing in Chicago
In 2019, our Journalism and Media team built on the 2018 announcement of the Jack Fuller Legacy Initiative, which strengthens journalism and media in Chicago by investing in local outlets committed to accurate, just, and inclusive reporting. New awards supported the Chicago Reader and the Chicago Reporter, both highly respected independent news outlets dedicated to rigorous reporting and an equitable approach to community coverage. With colleagues at the Chicago Community Trust, and the Field, McCormick, and Joyce Foundations, our Journalism and Media team called on the business community to rally around independent journalism to strengthen trusted sources of news and information for Chicago’s residents, particularly those most underserved by mainstream news.

Photos by Pat Nabong

City Bureau reporters in action 


Benefit Chicago, which mobilizes impact investments that expand opportunity in Chicago-area communities, has committed over $76 million in loans and investments to 20 organizations since its inception in 2016. Created by the Foundation, along with the Chicago Community Trust, and Calvert Impact Capital, Benefit Chicago’s loans support social enterprises and community development efforts that help populations with limited access to conventional forms of capital. The portfolio of largely patient, low-interest rate loans holds promise to create jobs, fuel economic development, and contribute to large-scale community revitalization.


Partnership and Community
I know that I am still in the early days of a long journey of listening and learning, but what I have seen thus far leaves me genuinely inspired. I am deeply impressed by the way Chicagoans work tirelessly to address the challenges we face and by the spirit of collaboration in which they approach this work.
At MacArthur we seek to model the partnerships we want to build. At READI Chicago, which provides services, jobs, and cognitive behavioral therapy to reduce violence, the program has built a culture where frontline staff ask permission to walk beside the people with whom they work. This approach helps to build trust and understanding. It requires a combination of openness, honesty, humility, and boldness. At MacArthur, we hope to cultivate relationships in a similar manner, so the interventions we fund can serve as a catalyst for big ideas. I look forward to all that we can accomplish together in the new year.
Stay Informed
Sign up for periodic news updates and event invitations.
Connect with us on social media or view all of our social media content in one place.

The privacy of your data is important to us. We've updated our privacy policies in response to General Data Protection Regulation.