Collaboration, Communication, Commitment: The Essentials of Community Development

Thursday, March 21, 2024 - 11:04 am

The once-closed public library in Chicago's Marshall Square, silent for a decade, now thrives as a dynamic community center, pulsating with youth activities and powered by clean, renewable energy. 

Luis Gutierrez, founder and CEO of Latinos Progresando, which runs the center, hails it as an “opportunity for the community.” It serves immigrants from over 40 countries, offering vital support for immigration, health and wellness programs, education services, and preserving Mexican cultural heritage through local theater and talks. 

But the shuttered library’s second life as a vibrant community center did not emerge overnight. As with most transformations, there were challenges to overcome, including securing funds for the project. To clear that hurdle, Gutierrez secured support from Chicago Community Trust's We Rise Together initiative, a funders collaborative that works to address urgent economic needs in Black and Latinx neighborhoods.  

“There is so much talent in our neighborhood; they just need spaces like this community center to be able to go explore those talents and be creative and fulfill every dream that they have,” Gutierrez said.

Centers like the Latinos Progresando offer young people job training and placements, enabling them to connect with careers that will create wealth for the next generation.

Centers like the Latinos Progresando offer young people job training and placements, enabling them to connect with careers that will create wealth for the next generation.

This center is among several projects supported by Chicago Community Trust's 'We Rise Together,' the recipient of the Council’s Scrivner Award. Mandy Burrell, the Trust’s Communications Manager for Special Initiatives, noted that the foundation’s nearly $38 million in strategic investments since September 2021 have supported more than 30 neighborhood anchor real estate projects valued at more than $366 million. To further the success of these projects and their impact on the surrounding communities, We Rise Together has also granted over $7.5 million to support locally owned businesses and enhance employment opportunities in these areas.

For the community, by the community

We Rise Together's work has been community-driven since its inception. Established as a five-year initiative to aid pandemic-affected, long-disinvested communities, the primary goal was rapid funding for high-impact projects. 

"Communities know what they need; many have had development plans for years, seeking funding for projects," Burrell said. “Identifying projects that were already vetted by communities has helped us achieve that goal as well as meet community needs and desires.” 

To facilitate community engagement, the Chicago Community Trust instituted a steering committee comprising community, corporate, and philanthropic partners. They focus on shaping new partnerships and funding collaborations that strengthen equitable community development in Chicago. 

Through grants to organizations like the North Lawndale Employment Network, the Chicago Community Trust supports workforce development that enables local residents to gain skills that move them toward economic prosperity.

Social enterprises Sweet Beginnings and Beelove Café, part of the North Lawndale Employment Network, also received grants under the We Rise Together fund. Brenda Palms, who owns both organizations, said their center can support and build employment networks to benefit the vulnerable and the incarcerated.  

“Our Workforce Development Center is all about improving the quality of life for residents today" Palms said. “It was a dream to have a place where people could walk in and receive skills, certification, training, and resources to help us transform dreams into reality.”

While grantmaking supports real estate and community-led development projects, the Trust’s efforts also benefit the neighborhood as a whole. For example, the Trust invested in the North Austin Community Center, a nonprofit campus for sports, education, and wellness on Chicago’s West Side. Within seven months of its February 2023 opening, businesses within a 1-mile radius benefited from an increase in consumer spending of at least $1.8 million, as reported by We Rise Together's evaluation partner Mastercard Data Services.   

North Austin Community Center, supported by the Chicago Community Trust, hosts for-profit sporting events and leagues that bring some 250,000 visitors a year. These events, in turn, help fund free gym time and recreational programming for local residents.

“We Rise Together got the wheel started – their investment created other investments and opportunities for our folks in our community,” said Pastor John Zayas, President of North Austin Community Center, which offers children a community structure and multiple opportunities in sports, education, and wellness. “If one child becomes a doctor, athlete, or teacher, it changes the economic scope of the whole family, and I think Chicago becomes a better place.” 

Such projects are direct results of Chicago Community Trust’s focused approach to supporting thriving, locally owned businesses and enhancing employment opportunities in these communities. Currently, the Trust's support enables 12 projects to deliver immediate impacts for young people through job training, healthcare, childcare, and healthy food. 

Funding underserved communities differently

Generations of discriminatory public policies have calcified economic and racial segregation in areas in and around Chicago, limiting opportunities for millions. A study by the Metropolitan Planning Council analyzed segregation patterns, revealing that the region could gain $4.4 billion annually and increase gross domestic product by about $8 billion if Chicago were less economically segregated. 

With the goal of uniting communities to address challenges and capitalize on opportunities, the Chicago Community Trust has been tackling the racial and ethnic wealth gap in the Chicago region since 2020. Burrell emphasizes that this gap is at the root of numerous societal challenges including violence, homelessness, and food insecurity, leading to missed opportunities that significantly alter the trajectory of individual lives. We Rise Together, then, provides flexible capital to its grantees to finance projects in disinvested communities.

With a focus on stronger neighborhood economies, the Chicago Community Trust's primary objective is financing and investing in projects that meet community needs.

With a focus on stronger neighborhood economies, the Chicago Community Trust's primary objective is financing and investing in projects that meet community needs.

"As a funders collaborative, we’ve been able to make more and more significant grants than we would have had the Trust been the sole funding partner," Burrell said, adding that the Trust puts great importance on expediting the distribution of grants to prevent delays in project implementation and potential cost overruns. 

Key to the Trust’s efforts is a commitment to creating opportunities for its grantee partners to exchange ideas and collaborate. The Trust also hosts regular events to showcase the impact of grant recipients’ work, giving donors insights into both the challenges and potential of the projects at hand. 

“These events take effort to coordinate, but our grant recipients have told us they value the opportunities to learn from their peers,” Burrell said. “Some of these meetups have even sparked new collaborations that we have further supported with our grantmaking."

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