Dr. Helene Gayle has devoted the majority of her life to aiding the most vulnerable of populations. After more than two decades with the CDC, where she led initiatives to combat HIV/AIDS, Gayle has directed her recent philanthropic efforts to Chicago. In 2017, Gayle was named the president and CEO of Chicago Community Trust and has successfully shifted the organization’s focus to combating Chicago’s racial and ethnic wealth gap, making her an obvious choice for Better’s 2021 Top Chicago-area Philanthropists list. In a recent fireside chat, Susan B. Noyes spoke with Gayle about her journey to the Windy City, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the value of equity.
What brought you to Chicago?
I was quite intrigued when I was called about the job at Chicago Community Trust. I had spent a lot of my time focused globally, and I felt that my years of working around the world could bring something to bear in a local context.
I would love for you to talk about the initiatives that you put into place once COVID hit.
When I came about four years ago, we took a step back and said: Where could we make the biggest difference? So we said that we would make closing the wealth gap our highest priority. Two-thirds of the region in Chicago are Black and Brown and if we look at wealth and how it’s distributed, Black and Brown communities have not had the opportunity to realize their full potential.
And then the COVID pandemic hit, where we again saw this disproportionate impact on communities of color. So we’ve mounted a major effort focused first on immediate relief for households that have been hit hard by COVID. So looking at recovery with a lens of equity, links to our overall mission of closing the ethnic and racial wealth gap.
Can you tell us a bit about your family?
I’m the middle of five children. I’m very pleased to have grown up in a family that believed it was important for us to get a great education but to use that education in a way that could give back. So for me, being able to give back has always been a part of who I am.
With the programs you’ve helped put into place, what is your hope for where we’ll be two years from now? Five years from now?
What I hope is that Chicago can go down in history as one of the large American cities that took inequity seriously. That’s why we have committed ourselves to this issue of closing the wealth gap, because we feel that if we can make a difference in people’s economic opportunity — we all prosper.
And your call of action to others….What can we do?
All of us can play a role because all of us have a voice. We can vote. We can demonstrate our values through who we put in office. But becoming educated about the issues in our region, and figuring out where you sit, is how you can make a difference.
Go on our website, cct.org. We have a huge compendium of organizations that we work with. We advise our donors on the places where their dollars can make the biggest difference. It starts with where is your heart? We’re happy to work with people to unlock their values and commitments.
Watch the full Fireside Chat below:
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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!