We honor the local luminaries leading the charge in our community. From arts and education advocates to innovators finding solutions to current challenges, these formidable forces drive change, pushing the city of Chicago forward for the greater good.
Chance the Rapper makes our list for countless reasons, chief among them the raising of more than $5 million for Chicago Public Schools through his youth empowerment foundation SocialWorks. The pandemic hasn’t slowed down the 27-year-old: This year, he took part in Verizon’s livestreamed concert series to raise money for small businesses; spoke out on social justice matters; and, through SocialWorks, donated 45,000 masks to the Chicago Park District for summer camps and other youth programming.
“We can’t wait on other people to save us or the systems that fail us to self-correct,” says Britney Robbins, founder and CEO of The Gray Matter Experience. Robbins’ big idea? Connecting the Black community to experiences that will foster success. Here are four questions with the young dynamo.
How would you describe your mission? To unlock the self-determining power of Black youth and strengthen their ties to community through real-world experience in entrepreneurship
How are you helping your community? In all my work, I aim to improve the well-being of Black communities and individuals by providing quality resources, more direct access and education to begin to close the wealth gap.
What is your 2020 motto? Get to know yourself. If this time is doing nothing else, it’s giving us the space and opportunity to understand more about who we are.
What has been your silver lining this year? The more we understand and acknowledge how our systems continue to fail the majority of people, the bigger the opportunity for us to change it.
When the coronavirus effectively shut down Chicago in spring, few leapt into action as quickly and decisively as Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation Executive Director David Farren, who knew the city’s arts and culture sector would be dramatically affected among nonprofits, what with venues closed and artists unable to supplement their creative work. After calling for an emergency board meeting in April to approve emergency funds for organizations in need, Farren spearheaded the release of nearly $3 million of expedited funding to the foundation’s roster of 175 arts grantees in the Chicago region, plus 40 in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Helping keep cultural organizations thriving—particularly those focusing on neglected narratives—has long been a passion for Farren. What does he hope we learn from the current situation? “Everything is connected—our health, and ultimate sustainability, to the natural systems on which we all rely, and our community’s social and political viability to creative expression that shines a path toward a just and equitable future.”
As executive director of Friends of Prentice—which supports women’s health research through Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital—Kristen Field knew fundraising would look very different this year. In April, she pushed pause on planning FOP’s big gala set for Oct. 24, and her instinct proved prescient: The nonprofit became one of the first to announce it would be going virtual this gala season. “It’s a different undertaking,” Field says, “but our goal”—a lofty $750,000—“remains the same because our mission is the same. It’s very important people know we are still here.” (In fact, it’s more important than ever: One of this year’s grants focuses on the effects of COVID-19 on pregnancy.) Despite a roller-coaster year, Field’s commitment has never wavered: “I wake up every day and ask myself, ‘What’s possible with love and compassion?’”
“I love my city, but we have to do better. I am committed to creating better by building spaces for people to be vulnerable. My community took care of me when I needed them the most, so now it’s only right that I take care of my community. They need me just like I need them. While we continue to provide quality food for South Side residents [through the PIV10K program], we’re also helping people get back to work by partnering with employment services and small-business owners.” –Christopher LeMark, Founder, Coffee, Hip Hop & Mental Health
Maurice Cox has practiced architecture in Italy, taught at universities from Syracuse to Harvard and even served as mayor of Charlottesville, Va. But on arriving in Chicago last year, he wasted no time making his mark: Less than 100 days into his role as commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, Cox helped kick off the INVEST South/West initiative. The program aims to uplift 10 neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides that have been devastated by population loss, disinvestment and crime. It’s no small undertaking: The initiative leverages $750 million in public dollars planned or allocated to support local businesses, upgrade transit, expand community spaces and more—and Cox is working to see that number multiplied by investments from corporate partners. “If downtown is the heart of the city, neighborhoods are the soul,” Cox has said. “This [initiative] will reinforce neighborhood centers as destination points… in terms of economic vitality, jobs and community cohesion.”
Many of us don’t give a second thought about where our food comes from, but that question is always top of mind for Melissa Flynn. As executive director of Green City Market, Flynn recognizes the fragility of the food system, noting that when Chicagoans were faced with empty supermarket shelves in the early days of the pandemic, the market’s independent, sustainable farmers were there to step up and provide. It’s a lesson worth learning, notes Flynn. “I hope that people take a minute to understand what an incredibly important part each of us plays in creating the food system we want to have, that where you buy your food and how it is grown is not only critically important today, but will determine what is available tomorrow.”
She has been called everything from the “true mayor of Chicago” to the “Zora Neale Hurston of her generation,” and the accolades for Eve L. Ewing aren’t overblown. With an astounding spectrum of works ranging from poetry collection 1919, a searing examination of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, to Ghosts in the Schoolyard, a look at the controversial 2013 school closings on Chicago’s South Side, her voice is poignant and powerful. Oh, and she also writes the Champions series for Marvel Comics, making her one of the coolest writers/scholars working—in Chicago or in any other city—today.
By providing experiences to underserved students across the city, Embarc has helped transform young lives in Chicago for the past decade. At the heart of the organization is Imran Khan, a passionate advocate for the power of such moments to impact the future of the city. Here are three questions with the Embarc co-founder and CEO.
How are you helping your community? Embarc students achieve a graduation rate 44% higher and postsecondary success rates 33% higher than peers at their schools. As they go on journeys all over Chicago, we’re transforming our entire city into a more interconnected, welcoming, equitable place for everyone.
What has been your silver lining this year? Seeing our students, teachers and communities rise to the challenges we’re facing. Embarc supporters helped us distribute more than $100,000 in emergency grants for students and their families; our teachers have put in incredible work to transition to remote learning; and we’re seeing so many young people leading the fight against racism and injustice in Chicago. Their activism gives me hope for what our city will be.
What does the world need more of now? The world needs to listen to what young people and their communities want. We need to expand our ideas about success beyond simple metrics to focus on how we can empower our young people to create a more just world.
Artistic expression is a crucial component of the social justice movement, which is what makes Future Galerie, an art auction and sweepstakes platform featuring work from Chicago’s most iconic street and visual artists—with 100% of the proceeds supporting racial justice organizations—such a powerful concept. Says Creative Director Alaiia Gujral, “Our goal is to challenge the boundaries of artistic intent to bring people together. I believe knowledge is powerful and encourage others to research organizations that are on the forefront of creating change in the world and to support them and share their voices if possible.”
Change starts close to home, and few people embody that mindset more powerfully than Jahmal Cole, founder of My Block My Hood My City, which works to improve the lives of Chicago youth one community at a time.
How would you describe your mission? To have a more interconnected Chicago through volunteerism and youth engagement
What do you hope the world learns from these challenging times? Anybody and everybody can create the change they want to see in the world. Ask yourself these 15 words: ‘What’s something simple I can do that will have a positive impact on my block?’
What is your 2020 motto? Helping people, no matter what
What do you recommend to those who want to follow in your footsteps? Volunteer and explore your city; it’ll create the muscle necessary to change for the better.
What has been your silver lining this year? While there have definitely been challenges, they have brought us closer together. People have reached out more than ever to help, and that in itself is a great indicator of just how caring the city is.
“We’ve never seen a surge in need like this. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. But I am also inspired by and grateful for the outpouring of support from our donors, volunteers and partners.” –Kate Maehr, Executive Director and CEO, Greater Chicago Food Depository
41 years since the founding of the Greater Chicago Food Depository
120% more people served in recent weeks compared to January 2020
93 million pounds of food—77.5 million meals—distributed in fiscal year 2020
5,000-plus volunteers who have worked at the Food Depository since March, putting in more than 36,000 hours of work
“Sparking democracy through documentary since 1966” is the motto of Chicago-based Kartemquin Films, which has been a fierce advocate for diverse voices in film for more than 50 years—and a serious success, with four Academy Award nominations to date for films like Life Itself and Minding the Gap. As the organization’s board chair and an award-winning filmmaker in her own right, Pamela Sherrod Anderson is one of Kartemquin’s driving forces, and she’s excited about what’s to come. “I see opportunities for us to build on our history and strengthen our position as a forward-thinking leader in the documentary field,” she notes. “While we have a rich history as an advocate for independent and ethical filmmaking, we are not content to be part of the pack, but to lead so that our films and filmmakers have their own rhythm and confidence to make a real difference in the stories they tell.”
For most NFL players, their time on the gridiron is a career pinnacle. For former Chicago Bear Israel Idonije, it was a launch pad to entrepreneurship and service, from his iF Charities to his Blessed Communion business—and now, to the 40,000-square-foot FBRK Impact House, which supports the city’s philanthropic community. Here are three questions with the former No. 71.
How has Impact House been able to make a difference during the pandemic? Within the first few weeks of the pandemic, Impact House residents, who are some of Chicago’s largest givers in the family, legacy, corporate and athlete foundation space, responded by providing $50 million-plus in COVID-19 relief funds. It really demonstrates the power of the Impact House network and the importance of Chicago’s philanthropy sector.
Why is this work so important to you? Service has always played a big role in my life, and I truly feel that if we want to transform our communities it’s going to take leaders across all sectors to make that change happen.
Where have you been finding inspiration and motivation during this tumultuous time in Chicago? Because of my involvement in sports, I’ve always been able to self-motivate. Also, many in the community made a commitment to come out on the other side better than they were, so another part of my motivation was just being part of that mindset.
Jamila Woods is a poet, singer-songwriter and activist from the South Side of Chicago. She’s collaborated with Chance the Rapper, served as associate art director of Young Chicago Authors and, last year, released a solo album dubbed Legacy! Legacy! inspired by a dozen Black icons. In a track that pays homage to author Zora Neale Hurston, Woods sings: “None of us are free but some of us are brave … Fear ain’t no way to live, yeah / Must be disconcerting how I discombob’ your mold / I’ve always been the only, you’re so unoriginal / Your words don’t leave scars, believe me, I’ve heard them all / I may be small, I may speak soft, but you can see the change in the water.”
For years, Puerto Rico native JC Rivera (@jcrivera) has used his artistic talent to advance the message of movements and organizations from Black Lives Matter to Special Olympics Illinois. On June 2, shortly after unrest in Chicago began, he posted a message to small-business owners among his 45,0000 Instagram followers: “I’m down to paint boarded ups. I’ll [provide] everything. … I just want to contribute.” The resulting murals, which promoted messages of positivity and unity, popped up across the city outside places like Soho House, Emporium Wicker Park, Paulie Gee’s and Storefront Events—and his signature Bear Champ is a fitting totem: “People can identify with the character,” Rivera says. “The underdog that rises to the top, falls back down and keeps pushing forward.”
“A camera changed my life by providing an outlet for self-expression and a means of making a living,” says Paul Octavious, whose Instagram account @pauloctavious has racked up 551,000 followers. Now Octavious is focused on helping other Black people tell their own stories via his new effort, Black Archivist.
How would you describe your mission? To get cameras into the hands of as many Black people who want them, no matter their proficiency. We believe in the power of the Black narrative and that Black artists are best suited to tell the stories of our community.
What do you hope the world learns from these challenging times? I hope the world develops more compassion and for folks to challenge their preexisting views. Just because something has been the same for years doesn’t mean that it’s right or effective.
What is your 2020 motto? It’s our time.
What do you recommend to those who want to follow in your footsteps? Start small—a small idea can gain momentum very quickly. Just see how you can help and don’t be afraid to ask others for support.
One of the most powerful lessons of the pandemic is how critical our healthcare workforce is to keeping our communities cared for—which is what inspired nonprofit professional Maria Demopoulos (whose sister is a nurse) to found the Health Worker Data Alliance. The free app and analytics tool gives health workers a secure and anonymous platform to track their physical, mental and occupational health; data is aggregated to help decision-makers compare which policies and procedures are, or are not, working at their hospitals. Already active in 22 states, Canada and Mexico, the tool is proving to be a valuable predictor of burnout, enabling rapid response to the mental health needs of healthcare workers. Demopoulos’ words to live by? “Rest is resistance. From Tricia Hersey: ‘Get drunk off uncertainty and remember your ancestors built a spaceship from uncertainty. Stand in the traces of this resistance. Embrace the power there. Rest.’”
With the recently announced plan to develop a vacant brownfield site in Auburn Gresham into the 9-acre Green Era Renewable Energy and Urban Farming Campus, Chicago is taking a critical step to alleviating the food desert patterns of the South and West sides. Spearheading the project is Erika Allen, co-founder of Urban Growers Collective, which operates eight urban farm projects on 11 acres of land predominantly located on the South Side. Slated for completion in spring 2022, the development will feature community garden plots, native plant habitats, a produce stand, 13,000 square feet of greenhouse space and more. “One of our goals is to build knowledge and an awareness of healthy produce, urban agriculture and the food system,” notes Allen. Through this development, she adds, “we hope we can improve quality of life, ultimately improving community health, well-being and economic vitality.”
Katy Lynch and Craig Ulliott aren’t shy about expressing their mission: “To teach a billion kids how to code.” Thanks to their company Codeverse, they’re well on their way. With the pandemic temporarily closing the company’s studios, the pair have pivoted in a nimble fashion, moving to a one-on-one virtual coding program for kids, who receive weekly 50-minute video-based classes led by a live instructor, learning how to code, building mobile apps and games and more—and creating dozens of new employment opportunities for teachers in the process. They’re also making sure that kids from underrepresented communities in Chicago have access to the company’s virtual learning platform by partnering with nonprofit organizations like iF Charities, Big Brothers Big Sisters and By the Hand Club for Kids. All this while crossing the country in an RV during the pandemic (“It rocks—the biggest highlights have been in North Carolina”). Wherever they are—whether working remotely or eventually returning to Codeverse’s Lincoln Park location post-pandemic, it’s obvious these two are going places.
Erick Williams has long been known as not only a culinary talent extraordinaire as owner of Virtue, but as one of the Chicago food scene’s great “good guys,” donating his time and talent to everything from mentoring youth to supporting a variety of charities. No surprise, then, that he has become an even more towering figure of inspiration during the pandemic—here’s how.
How are you helping your community? We’ve been providing meals for healthcare workers and first responders. They are truly on the frontlines of this crisis, and it’s one small way to show our gratitude and support.
What is your 2020 motto? Our ancestors survived on less and overcame more. Survival is in my DNA.
What do you recommend to those who want to follow in your footsteps? Work with purpose, humility and a focus on equity. It is not a heavy lift to give to family and friends; however, it is our moral obligation to support those in need.
What has been your silver lining this year? My faith and humility have grown stronger, and my team is committed. I have never been this determined to make positive impact, and I have also never been as supported as I am at this very moment.
In 2013, Kurt Seidensticker—a Wheaton-born aerospace engineer with NASA on his résumé—founded collagen nutrition brand Vital Proteins. Despite the brand’s skyrocketing popularity (celebs like Kourtney Kardashian and Charlotte McKinney are fans) and a recent majority share merger with Nestlé Health Science, Seidensticker’s mission to put people and connections at the forefront remains intact. Case in point: During the pandemic, Vital launched Sip It Forward, an initiative to support the frontline with collagen waters. “We let our customers nominate their hometown heroes, first responders and medical professionals who were going above and beyond,” Seidensticker says. “We received almost 2,000 nominations and donated nearly $500,000 in product and support.”
Amanda Williams walked away from a lucrative career as an architect to devote herself to art full time. The result? Potent works like Color(ed) Theory, a two-year project in which she painted condemned houses in vivid, locally resonant colors; and the more recent What Black is this, you say?, a series of social media posts musing on different shades of black and their meaning, with the goal of creating work that “teases out the nuances of Blackness” and “gives Black people the language to talk about their experiences.” It’s that amalgamation of race and place and the built environment that lend a particular power to her works, making her one of the city’s true artistic visionaries.
One of the Chicago neighborhoods facing the most critical need is Englewood, and Robbin Carroll has stepped up in an impactful way with her organization I Grow Chicago, which she founded with a mission to rebuild the Englewood community, addressing the root causes of violence and trauma by way of love and wellness. “When we come from a place of love versus fear,” notes Carroll, “we see the value of all life.” The organization’s Peace House in West Englewood provides intergenerational programs that foster wellness and empowerment for all, with services ranging from education and mentorship to yoga and mindfulness. The organization is eagerly seeking monthly donors as children return to school, but Carroll can already see a silver lining from this challenging time: “Being able to open our Summer of Hope camp and sustain it safely with COVID precautions for six weeks. Six weeks of camp alone will not solve trauma and violence, but we have already seen a difference in our campers’ attitudes and outlook.”
The city’s South and West sides are the focus of much attention these days thanks to a variety of new programs and much-needed developments. For true inspiration on the areas’ potential, leaders should look to Theaster Gates, the pioneering artist and scholar whose Rebuild Foundation has transformed an abandoned bank building into the Stony Island Arts Bank, a rich and lively neighborhood resource for arts, culture, cinema and music. With the three core values of Black people matter, Black spaces matter and Black objects matter, it’s a safe space for the community and a glimpse into the mind of one of the city’s most impactful figures.
Photography by: From top: by Carl Timpone/BFA.com; by Chuck Olu-Alabi; courtesy of Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation; by Sarah Cole Kammerer; by Jookie Portrait Studios; by Anjali Pinto; by Stan Magoni; by Colin Boyle; by Paul Octavious; by Cheyanne Epps; by Laurell Sims; by Daniel Kelleghan; by Leah Missbach Day/styled by m2057 by Maria Pinto; by Benjamin Lozovsky/BFA.com