Forces for Change: Meet 6 Leaders Making Chicago and the Suburbs Better

2020 Better Chicago Changemakers

If there’s one word that’s been used to describe 2020 over and over again, it’s “unprecedented.” Yes, we’ve faced unprecedented challenges, unprecedented political and social strife, and unprecedented sadness and heartbreak. But, during what will likely go down as one of the worst years in our collective memory, when so many of us have experienced moments when we’ve felt like giving up, there are some who’ve risen to the occasion in truly unprecedented ways. Here are six women and men at the forefront of a tidal wave of positive change, giving us reasons to face 2021 with hope and optimism.

Arne Duncan, Managing Partner, Emerson Collective
by Madison Muller

In 2015, after working in D.C. as President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan returned home to Chicago. In a house just two blocks from where he grew up in Hyde Park, Duncan wasted no time in getting back to work. This time, to confront Chicago’s most critical crisis: gun violence. 

“Chicago has given me everything,” Duncan said. “For me to come back to this city and not work on this—I couldn’t have lived with myself.” Read more.

Monique Jones, President and CEO of Forefront
by Julie Chernoff

Sometimes it takes someone from outside the bubble to see the big picture.

When Monique Jones first interviewed for the leadership position at the Evanston Community Foundation (ECF) back in 2015, she thought it was a place-based philanthropy all about Evanston. “I’ve since found out that the foundation is part of the fabric of Evanston, and the local grantmaking, though important, is not what makes it ECF,” says Jones. “What makes it ECF is that everyone involved — board, staff, donors — is seeking change, looking to tackle some major social issue. That takes more than just grantmaking. And leading this organization, you also must want to be a changemaker. You can’t have just one motivating issue; you must be invested in all of the issues affecting the community.” Read more.

Ric Estrada, President and CEO of Metropolitan Family Services
by Lauren Coughlin

The multi-pronged aid offered by Metropolitan Family Services (MFS) is near and dear to Ric Estrada. Since March 2011, CEO has preceded Estrada’s name, but his roots are not unlike those of the 93,000 Chicagoans served by MFS, most of whom are working poor or lower-middle class.

Estrada, a Mexican-American immigrant, grew up in a basement apartment in the Little Village neighborhood.

“I am a male of color who was born poor,” Estrada said. “We just didn’t have all the resources that [some] people have.” Read more.

Kate Maehr, CEO of Greater Chicago Food Depository
by Lauren Coughlin

The need for food across Chicagoland has stunned Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) Executive Director and CEO Kate Maehr, but it has never disheartened her.

“Every time I go out to a distribution, I’m just struck that every single person standing in line is a person with a life, with a family, with a story—and those lines just go on for blocks and blocks,” Maehr said. Read more.

Liz Thompson, Founder and President of The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education
by Lauren Coughlin

Liz Thompson knows the power of a good educator.

“I have always admired teachers because of the amazing people that taught and motivated me throughout my education,” said Thompson.

So, this year, when children across Chicago were unexpectedly distanced from those impactful figures, Thompson wanted to make sure tomorrow’s young leaders could hold their heads high. Thus, The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education (The CAFE), of which Thompson is the founder and president, launched Operation Megaphone, a campaign seeking to amplify messages of positivity. Read more.

Ed Wehmer, CEO & Founder of Wintrust
by Susan B. Noyes

Ed Wehmer founded Wintrust on a strong belief that he could spend more time with his large and growing family, while serving a community he loved, if he built a better bank for Lake Forest, where he and his wife, Dorothy, were raising six young children. He was so successful that the bank grew to eventually become Chicagoland’s largest locally owned financial institution. His kids blossomed into successful adults and grandchildren arrived, too.  

So, it is no surprise to hear Wehmer say, “One of the upsides of coronavirus is more time with family!” Nor is it surprising that Wintrust quickly rose to the occasion, continuing to effectively serve community—clients, employees, and other local institutions—despite the gauntlet of challenges presented during the past eight months. It started with a response to the pandemic, which quickly secured the safety of Wintrust employees, and required a quick pivot to continue their service for clients virtually. But, Wintrust’s response to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan opportunity was even more impressive. Read more.

More from Better:

  Who We Are       NFP Support       Magazine       Programs       Donate