This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on August 23, 2016.
Chicago Beyond, a philanthropic venture launched this spring by former Fenger High School principal Liz Dozier, announced Tuesday that it will invest $2.7 million to enhance and study the impact of three local programs that work with young fathers, formerly incarcerated youth and high school seniors at risk of falling off the college track.
The three programs — The Dovetail Project, Storycatchers Theatre and Genesys Works — were selected from 202 applicants to Chicago Beyond’s inaugural Go Innovate challenge, which sought early stage ideas in two areas: re-engaging “disconnected” youth in work or school and supporting college enrollment and graduation.
A key part of the investments is a research partnership with the University of Chicago Urban Labs, which will evaluate the impact of the programs on participants’ labor market or educational outcomes in order to understand what actually works.
“We believe this has the potential for national impact,” Dozier said. “These learnings are applicable across the board.”
Chicago Beyond launched in the midst of a violent year in the city with the twin goals of improving youth education and safety. It is targeting its investments at the 45,000 16- to 24-year-olds in Chicago who are neither in school nor working, plus the vast contingent of public school students who don’t graduate from a four-year college.
Dozier makes it a point to call the funding “investments,” not grants, because “we really see ourselves walking alongside these organizations” to uncover what makes a measurable difference in young people’s futures so that public and philanthropic dollars can be directed at the most effective programs.
Chicago Beyond, which Dozier describes as a philanthropic venture capital fund rather than a traditional foundation, pulled together selection committees comprised of varied stakeholders — including police officers, teachers, business leaders and students — to choose the winners.
“It truly is a partnership,” said Meade Palidofsky, founder of Storycatchers Theatre.
Storycatchers, founded 32 years ago, puts on musicals written, produced and performed by incarcerated youth, with the mission of getting them and their audiences to examine their life choices.
Chicago Beyond is investing $900,000 in Storycatchers’ post-release Changing Voices program, launched in 2014, which is an employment program for 16- to 24-year-olds who have been recently released from juvenile detention centers and prisons.
Participants are paid $10.50 an hour to work 30 hours a week performing musicals in front of small audiences, usually middle and high school students, plus they receive life and jobs skills training. Each participant writes his or her own play, which are combined into one musical drawing on elements from each.
While the organization has seen kids change over time, from angry and explosive to becoming community leaders, “we have never had the opportunity to do research before,” said Palidofsky, who hopes to expand it to a statewide program.
Chicago Beyond’s investment will allow Storycatchers to add two more touring performance troupes while Urban Labs tests the impact of the program on long-term employment and recidivism, comparing the participants with a control group that expressed interest in the program but did not get enrolled.
“When you think about violence and crime in our city, Storycatchers serves an incredibly vulnerable population,” said Dozier, who has been on the front lines of the violence. She became principal at Fenger shortly before the mob beating death of 16-year-old student Derrion Albert and later featured prominently in the CNN series “Chicagoland.” This year she lost another one of her former students, Lee McCullum III, who also was featured in the CNN program, to gang violence.
A notable factor of Chicago Beyond’s investments are that the programs target niche audiences, highlighting that at-risk young people have varied needs. The Dovetail Project, founded in 2009, serves young dads. It puts African-American fathers aged 17 to 24 through a 12-week program that includes training in financial literacy, job skills and “felony street law,” which includes how to avoid getting incarcerated by interacting smartly with police and complying with child support laws. The program ends with parenting skills, which includes discussions about “manhood and fatherhood,” which aren’t always modeled properly.
“It’s about being a man first and foremost and taking care of your responsibilities,” said founder Sheldon Smith.
Ninety percent of the 230 young men Dovetail has served since its launch grew up with fathers who were in and out of their lives, and 80 percent were not employed, said Smith, whose own father was intermittently in his own life; same with his dad’s dad.
Chicago Beyond is investing $990,000 in Dovetail to serve 220 men over two years while Urban Labs studies the program’s effect on long-term unemployment, wages and GED completion.
“If you can impact these fathers economically you don’t just change the trajectory of their lives, but you’re also changing the trajectory of their children’s lives,” Dozier said.
The third innovation investment is going to Genesys Works, which gets high school students into corporate internships as a way to lift their sights and drive them into college. The program, which has been in Chicago since 2011, is part of a national organization, headquartered in Houston, that operates in five cities.
The local program puts Chicago Public Schools students through an intensive workforce training program the summer before their senior year of high school, in which they learn technical skills in accounting or information technology as well as basic job skills such as how to send a professional email.
The students then do a yearlong paid internship, for which they are paid minimum wage, in the IT or accounting departments at Chicago companies.
The program targets “the quiet middle” — students who are neither overachievers nor low performers, who are on track to graduate from high school but at risk of not enrolling in college, said Laura Lukens, local director of development and communications at Genesys Works. The greatest challenge, she said, are the low expectations that these students have for themselves because they don’t often have professional role models.
Ninety-six percent of its students enroll in college and 81 percent remain enrolled, though it is too early to know how many graduate, Lukens said. The program sticks with the students once they have entered college to help them adjust to dorm life, get internships or transfer from two-year to four-year schools.
Chicago Beyond is putting $790,000 toward Genesys Works to serve 205 students, while Urban Lab tests the effect of the program on college matriculation, graduation rates and future workforce participation. Lukens said the plan is to look at salary data to see if the students secure jobs in the economic mainstream.
“If the results show that we’re making an impact, it creates an incredible opportunity for us to expand not only in Chicago but nationally,” Lukens said. Chicago Beyond plans to announce another innovation challenge early next year. It won’t disclose how much money is in its fund or identify the private investors providing it, but it already has moved $12 million to four large programs as part of another initiative called Go Together.
Dozier’s efforts come as others also are fixing attention on the city’s long-standing problems of youth violence, unemployment and educational shortfalls.
While many nonprofits and foundations exist to tackle the problems, “there is a lot of siloing happening” that often keeps them from finding solutions together, Dozier said.
“When we think about how massive this problem is, we have to look at breaking down those silos,” she said. “How are we partnering with people and valuing the voice of people who are really doing the work.”