By Ryan Goodwin
Photo by Masimba Sasa/Common Purpose

The trip really made an impact on me and my perspective on our work.”
—Robert White
chief program officer of The Cara Program

After 13 hours of meeting officials and community members in neighborhoods like Sophiatown—a former black cultural hub in Johannesburg destroyed in South Africa’s era of apartheid—a group of Chicago leaders ended their day with a frank discussion about their own city’s struggles with racial and socioeconomic inequality.

Baronica Roberson, one of the leaders who took part, found common cause with young women she met during the trip to South Africa. “They were expressing how they had no jobs, how they weren’t able to afford school, how there was no job training,” says Roberson, deputy commissioner for the Chicago Public Library. “You could literally take them from Johannesburg and place them in the middle of almost any lower-income community in Chicago and hear the same story. These are problems that are plaguing the world, and it leaves me feeling like there’s a lot I’ve got to do.”

The group was the first class of the Civic Leadership Academy, a new program created by the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement that provides instruction and resources for emerging leaders in Chicago. The program is designed to help leaders from a diverse range of organizations work together to develop more effective solutions to civic challenges. The group’s one-week immersive trip to South Africa came after six months of coursework with experts from UChicago’s professional schools, the program’s external partners, and a capstone project to address challenges within their own organizations.

Derek Douglas, vice president for civic engagement, and Sonya Malunda, senior associate vice president for community engagement, shared an inspiration for a program that would invest in high-potential leaders. “We wanted a program that could make an impact on Chicago and prepare the next generation of leaders,” says Malunda. “We felt that this really fit under our role as an educational institution and an anchor institution on the South Side.”

“The program complements other leadership development programs in the city while bringing in new elements of nonprofit and government collaboration, supported by a rigorous classroom experience with University of Chicago faculty,” says Douglas. “We knew there was a need for this type of program, and so far, response to the Civic Leadership Academy has exceeded even the high expectations we had for it.”

The Civic Leadership Academy is one of a broader set of UChicago’s initiatives to foster and strengthen leadership in Chicago, including the Community Programs Accelerator, the Chicago Urban League’s IMPACT, and Future Leaders of Chicago, among others.

Building bridges

The Civic Leadership Academy’s distinct strength comes from its ambitious interdisciplinary model, employing the resources and expertise of five of the University’s professional schools—the Harris School of Public Policy, the School of Social Service Administration, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the University of Chicago Law School, and the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies—as well as the Institute of Politics. The program also utilizes local experts who are part of Civic Engagement’s external partners—Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago, Civic Consulting Alliance, the city of Chicago, and Cook County.

The CLA also focuses on fostering communication and creating lasting partnerships among nonprofit and government leaders. Finally, the global practicum, made possible through a partnership with Common Purpose, gives CLA fellows the opportunity to engage leaders in other countries and think about their own work in a larger context.

“This program engages the University’s strengths with tangible results,” says Joanie Friedman, director of Civic Partnerships, who brought together various stakeholders and scholars the program needed. “The faculty tell me they love teaching in the program. Not only because it’s a new type of student, but they also recognize this as a way to make an impact.”

The inaugural CLA fellows represented a diverse range of experience. Andrea Ortez, who at 14 started her first nonprofit in Los Angeles, is now a community organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project and leading their Statewide Parent Mentor Program. Randall K. Blakey, a former CBS photojournalist who covered Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, is now executive pastor of LaSalle Street Church on the Near North Side.

To prepare each fellow for new career challenges, the program employed a management framework co-authored by Harry Davis, the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management. Davis’ work stresses the importance of leaders developing a body of knowledge and skills that inform one another and can be adapted to tackle the ever-evolving challenges of their fields.

Davis brought in Linda Ginzel, who played a primary role in structuring and teaching in the CLA. Ginzel, clinical professor of managerial psychology, helped kick-start the program with what she calls “unfreezing” lessons to encourage people to be more receptive to new ideas.

“As leaders we get really comfortable with our mode of operation,” says Ortez. “It’s our responsibility as leaders to be the ones pushing the envelope, knowing when to interject and when it’s time to simply absorb what others have to share.”

Lasting impact

After pioneering the first year of the innovative program, the 28 fellows were surprised by its impact on them as leaders and collaborators.

“The conversation we had in South Africa—I can’t imagine the experience without it,” says Robert White, chief program officer of The Cara Program, a social enterprise fighting poverty through employment. “The trip really made an impact on me and my perspective on our work, which addresses institutional racism and economic issues.”

“There probably is not a week that goes by that I’m not in touch with one of those fellows,” Blakey says almost six months after the program ended. “There’s no way you can pay for these connections, and there’s no way you can achieve that at a networking session.”

Bilqis Jacobs-El, director of Facilities Management for Cook County, used her capstone project to reduce recidivism by creating a vocational program for young detainees in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. She was told that the youths would ask the facilities workers how they decided on their professions. Jacobs-El was inspired to teach skills that the young people could use for their own future employment.

“CLA gave me the courage to do it,” says Jacobs-El. “I think without CLA, I would have been more nervous or thought, ‘This is not something I should be doing, or I should stay in my lane.’ But coming to CLA made me say, ‘This is exactly what I should be doing.’”

Originally published on January 11, 2016.