Chicago Leaders Talk Community Transformation and Grassroots Activism

exec club chicago

Earlier this month, Exec Club Chicago’s 77 Forum hosted “A City For All – Grassroots Growth and Winning Opportunities.” The virtual discussion, moderated by Dahleen Glanton, senior advisor at Kivvit, featured the leaders of several Chicago-area grassroots organizations. Over the course of an hour, they discussed the importance of community engagement and promoting economic investment in the South and West sides of the city. 

All of the featured organizations provide essential services to Chicago residents, particularly amid the pandemic and calls for racial equality. Chris Brown, director of operations for the Southwest Organizing Project, detailed their efforts to mobilize a COVID-19 response corp that provided financial relief to residents and encouraged vaccinations.

“The community was hit hard because it’s a community where people that live there are folks who had to go to work,” Brown said. “To counteract that we did a lot of work to connect people to grants from the government and private individuals that helped them get through by paying their rent or utility bills.”

Community engagement was a recurring theme of the discussion as the speakers  emphasized the importance of building strong relationships with the residents of the communities they serve. 

“One of the things that are critical to our model is infusion of community voice at every level,” said Ayesha Jaco, executive director of West Side United, an organization with the goal of decreasing the 14-year life expectancy gap between residents of Chicago’s Loop and 10 West side communities by 50% by 2030. To achieve this, they are focused on increasing healthcare access and promoting economic vitality in West side neighborhoods. 

“For us it’s an all hands on deck approach,” Jaco said. “We’re looking at healthcare but also bringing partners to the table like Amazon, JP Morgan, and others that can help us bolster this engine when we think about life expectancy.”

LaForce Baker, vice president of the community impact team at World Business Chicago, emphasized the importance of community investment. To address this, World Business Chicago connects large, well-known corporations to local investment opportunities, with the ultimate focus of promoting small business growth beyond downtown Chicago. 

 When we look at the South and West side, their neighborhoods have these amazing natural assets,” Baker said. “We need to think about how we can create these little ecosystems so that if folks want to, they can go downtown, but they can also get a lot of the amenities in their community.”

Many of the speakers gave advice to those interested in supporting grassroots activism. President and CEO of Bethel New Life, Sharif Walker, gave alternatives to monetary donations. Instead, he recommended to consider offering expertise by joining an organization’s board of directors or acting as an advisor. 

“A lot of times the assumption is that if people give donations, that’s what organizations need all the time,” Walker said. “Besides the envelopes, the strategies that organizations like Bethel need to move things forward are very important.”

To close out the event, Sarah Glavin, head of external affairs of the 77 Forum encouraged viewers to continue the dialogue regarding the importance of community activism, as grassroots organizations across Chicago work toward a more equitable city. 

“The work doesn’t end after two years of activism,” she said. If we really want to see sustainable changes take place throughout the city, we need to keep having conversations like this one today.” 

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Melissa Perry is a senior journalism and international studies major from Northwestern University. Raised in Mt. Sterling, Illinois, Melissa is a proud Midwest girl through and through with a lifelong love for dance and the arts!

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