How Unstoppable Could Chicago Be? We Rise Together Is Helping Speed Economic Recovery in Black and Latinx Communities

“Community work isn’t a spectator sport” would be an appropriate tagline for the online presentation “We Rise Together: Accelerating Equitable Economic Recovery,” which brought together varied perspectives of Chicago business professionals who have taken a deep dive into improving economic opportunities for Black and Latinx communities and their members in Chicago.  

The April 13 session was presented in partnership between The Chicago Community Trust and the HRMAC Institute at the Executives’ Club of Chicago, which is a community of professionals who are passionate about talent and building the best organizations for the future. 

The panel was moderated by Helene Gayle, president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust and attended by several panelists: Sarah Glavin, head of Community Engagement for Amazon, Stephanie Hart, owner of Brown Sugar Bakery, and Julian Posada, president and CEO of LiftUp Enterprises. 

In addition, Gloria Castillo, director of We Rise Together: For an Equitable and Just Recovery, took part in the program, which revolved around the question “How unstoppable would Chicago be if our Black and Latinx neighbors had the same economic opportunity as our white community members?’” 

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We Rise Together 

Castillo kicked off the discussion with a description of We Rise Together: For an Equitable and Just Recovery, which is an initiative of The Chicago Community Trust.  

We Rise Together, which was founded in October 2020, is an accelerator seeking to boost economic recovery and to help ensure that Black and Latinx communities, which were hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis, are not left behind. 

 “We knew then and we know now that we must act quickly and strategically to bend the recovery towards equity,” Castillo said.

Castillo said supporting under-resourced communities and their Black and Latinx members will benefit the region overall. 

We Rise Together is focusing on three areas: spurring development in long disinvested Black and Latinx communities, increasing quality and resilient employment and strengthening Black- and LatinX-owned business. 

In the first year and a half of a five-year effort, she said We Rise Together has made $8.5 million in grants. They anticipate making $40 million in grants in fiscal year 2022. 

Grant enables expansion for one business

One of the grant recipients is Hart, a small business owner, who said she is starting to see interest in under-invested neighborhoods such as the one where she operates her bakery. 

“I think the economic recovery got off to a rocky start for small businesses like mine,” she said. “I think the rocky start put a highlight that we had not had in our community before around what our needs are,” she said. “I am pleased that people inside and outside of our community are putting a highlight on how important economic stability is for small businesses like mine.” 

She noted that her bakery was founded at 328 E. 75th St. and now is expanding. 

The bakery was one of seven projects selected for a $200,000 We Rise Together grant which Hart is paying part of the cost to repurpose a former candy factory at 7637 S. Western Ave. and use it for to manufacture her own candy line called Brown Sugar Life is Sweet. 

Her goal is to show other minority companies how they can stretch and become manufacturers of their own products, sell nationwide into major stores and provide career-level jobs. 

“I used to say (to employees) ‘I can take you from sweeping the floor to being a baker,’” she said. “Now I say ‘I can take you from sweeping the floor to chief operating officer.’” 

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Corporations look beyond The Loop

While Brown Sugar Bakery is a small business success story, Glavin, who represented the corporate viewpoint, said she thinks large businesses also are re-thinking how they approach economic development.  

Previously, she said, “the corporate barometer had over-indexed for progress in the Loop over progress in the 77 neighborhoods of Chicago.” 

“That conversation has started to change, which I take as a good indicator that there is really a renewed understanding that Chicago is not a monolith. We need to be thinking about small businesses and economic recovery on a neighborhood by neighborhood approach,” she added. 

In addition to expanding their focus to neighborhoods behind the Loop, Glavin said corporations are also focusing on helping employees grow and develop in their careers, which will have the ripple effect of bringing economic growth to under-served communities.   

“We need to be more than just job creators,” she said. “We need to invest in our employees. We need to be developing real career pathways that lead to strong wages so people have money in their pockets and can spend money in their communities.” 

While progress can be slow, she said there are examples of how corporations are focusing on career development for employees. She noted that Amazon recently changed its policy on tuition reimbursement, which now allows employees to receive full-paid tuition after 90 days of employment.  

Whether an employee stays with Amazon or moves to another career or company, “we need to set them up for success,” she said.  

More work to do

While their have been successes in promoting economic development and better jobs, Posado said there are still many challenges to be addressed. 

He noted that people who are working three jobs just to survive often have a difficult time planning for their futures.  

“We need to help that person get to the point where they can think about the future,” he said. 

LiftUp 

Liftup Enterprises is a for-profit social enterprise that creates, grows and scales profitable entities that are managed with dignity. It is committed to harnessing the talent of the underemployed and creating pathways to stability. LiftUp focuses on building companies and giving employees the opportunity and freedom to grow. 

“Women of color are not part of the recovery as I see it,” said Posado who said there is a need for more flexibility for employees in areas such as child care and schedules.  

He noted, for instance, that some employees may only want to work 10 hours a week rather than 40 because they want to spend time with grandchildren. 

“We need to listen to employees about where they want to be,” he said. 

Castillo agreed. 

“Community voices are a priority and at the center of all that we do,” she said.


How to Help:

Investment in neighborhoods is a catalyst for thriving communities. Donate to We Rise Together to support their work helping to ensure Black and Latinx communities hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis are not left behind.


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AnneMarie Mannion, freelance writer

Annemarie Mannion is a freelance writer and former reporter for the Chicago Tribune. She earned a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and a degree in English Literature from St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She is especially passionate about covering nonprofits.  Whether writing about  work  to reduce the harmful effects of bright lights on sea turtles or covering volunteers’ efforts  to address the health care needs of children in Guatemala, she loves spreading the word about initiatives that have the potential to change the world for the better.