Happy Birthday, Chicago Beyond.
Five years ago, I stood in a room with funders, researchers, and city leaders to introduce and launch Chicago Beyond into the world. One word silently clung to my every breath. Freedom. It was my North Star. I wanted to use this opportunity to fight for the freedom my father never had and to make sure every person had the opportunity to heal, prosper, and reach their full potential. As the former principal of Fenger High School, it was what I lived and breathed. In that room, I shared my vision for what Chicago Beyond would stand for, and how it would contribute to our collective liberation, a return to humanness — an opportunity to make our systems work for Chicago’s young people, and ultimately beyond.
In our early days, I remember entering meetings and rooms with some of our city’s and country’s largest funders. Our conversations were steeped in theory and far removed from people’s lived experiences and the issues they were facing. They were far removed from the lived experiences of my former students. Somehow, we had lost the humanness of this work within our dialogue.
When I took a step back early on to assess the progress Chicago Beyond was making against our aspirations, it was not hard to see that we, too, had fallen way short. Not only were we not making as much progress as I knew was possible, we were potentially creating more harm and widening inequities. Some examples included:
In order to have the type of impact I knew possible, we had to orient ourselves differently. It was then that we decided to take a human and holistic approach to investing, similar to how my school team and I invested in our students at Fenger High School: through trust. We put trust and empathy first, not a title or dollar amount.
As a result, we started to shift what we invested in, and began to see a more significant impact on people and communities. From education to the safety of young people to community development and more, we take a holistic approach to investing — because there is no single barrier to equity.
Our investments have ranged from early-stage ideas such as a Safe House for young people, and supports for young Black fathers through The Dovetail Project, to developing the first-of-its-kind blueprint for holistic trauma supports for over 350,000 students in Chicago Public Schools.
In 2019, Chicago Beyond shared our learnings in Why Am I Always Being Researched?, a guidebook designed for funders, researchers, and community organizations to move from harmful power dynamics to more authentic truth. It has been used in all 50 states and more than 90 countries. It has informed the guiding principles at one of the largest funders globally, national and Chicago-based nonprofits, state government early childhood agencies, national research institutes, and youth development groups from South Africa to Northern Uganda, and beyond.
Today, Chicago Beyond’s North Star, “Our Why,” remains the same: Chicago’s young people and their freedom. Our dedication to investing in Black and Brown people and communities has never wavered. It is critical, though, that we remain vigilant still to challenging ourselves on several fronts:
As we celebrate our 5th anniversary, we also look forward to what we can accomplish in the next five years. We are committed to investing further in creating more space for all people to be free and reach their fullest potential.
This is just the start, there is so much more to come. I didn’t start Chicago Beyond with an idea of radically reconceptualizing philanthropy, but instead stumbled upon the need for it based on our own missteps. As we continue on this journey, we know that as much as we strive to be doing differently, there will be more missteps and opportunities to learn from others. It’s an ongoing process to free ourselves from “how it’s always been done,” and, there is no arrival. While we remain steadfast to our North Star, we hope that you will remain with us: hold us accountable, challenge us, and walk with us in the fight.
Here’s to the next five years, and beyond.
Founder & CEO