Insights

Collaborating on Community-Driven Investment

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A native of Waukegan, I was born into a community grappling with deindustrialization. Just 21 miles north of the border of the country’s second largest city at the time, Waukegan was a microcosm of Chicago: urban, blue collar, industrial, segregated. And like Chicago, this lakefront city’s century-old manufacturing economy was changing.

By the time I graduated high school in 1987, Waukegan’s once-vibrant downtown was largely quiet. The shoreline factories that employed my father and uncles were closed (or would soon close), leaving behind Superfund sites and dashed hopes for a downtown renaissance or lakefront revitalization. Urban sprawl lured many long-time residents to literally greener pastures in rural Lake County. As Waukegan’s Mexican immigrant population grew substantially—a 202% increase between 1990 and 2000—racism fueled the westward exodus. My working-class family remained in and around Waukegan. Though I was unable to speak eloquently about it at the time, the feeling of being left behind festered in the background of my life and hometown. These impressions were so strong that I eventually pursued a career in urban and regional planning.

Not returning to Waukegan after college is probably more my loss (see the plans underway there now). But the mere option of having the choice is what so profoundly strikes me today. Despite my path’s many obstacles, being White was never a complicating factor. And yet, race and place remain inextricably linked in our segregated region. A sobering 2019 Urban Institute analysis found that for every dollar in private capital invested in Chicago’s majority-Black neighborhoods, majority-White neighborhoods benefit from $4.60 in private capital. Latinx communities fare slightly better than majority-Black neighborhoods, but not substantially so.

By the time I graduated high school in 1987, Waukegan’s once-vibrant downtown was largely quiet. The shoreline factories that employed my father and uncles were closed, leaving behind Superfund sites and dashed hopes for a downtown renaissance or lakefront revitalization. Though I was unable to speak eloquently about it at the time, the feeling of being left behind festered in the background of my life and hometown.

To offset, government invests, however imperfectly, in struggling communities and philanthropy does the same at much lesser amounts but with more freedom to be strategic and catalytic. The two sectors often work in silos and not in lockstep with the community, which makes it difficult to build the momentum necessary for market-building private capital to pay attention.

Thankfully, the downward spiral of underinvestment slows and even reverses when community investment stakeholders band together and stay at it. The renaissance of Pullman is a noteworthy example. But working together across sectors in partnership does not always come naturally and is not widely evident in a region with one of the country’s densest concentrations of local governmental units (1,550 at last count); upwards of 50,000 registered nonprofit organizations in Cook County alone; and enormous socioeconomic diversity.

The Chicago Community Trust’s Community-Driven Investment strategy is grounded in the idea that developing and implementing solutions for tough challenges is most effective when we collaborate—across the public, private and nonprofit sectors; across neighborhoods and jurisdictions; across community organizations and institutions; and across topic areas and disciplines. In our work, we found that mechanisms to sustain collaborations over time are largely unsupported and unfunded. And when they do occur, critical stakeholders such as community organizations or business interests are overlooked. Attracting “inclusive” financial capital to historically underinvested Black and Latinx communities is the aim of the strategy, and collaboration is how we will achieve it.

In our increasingly interdependent world, one neighborhood’s injustice has a ripple effect, however subtle, that makes the entire region a bit more vulnerable. A bit less viable. A bit less livable.

Restoring economic prosperity in places locked out of markets for decades is an all-hands-on-deck commitment, and the reason this work supports efforts across the community investment ecosystem. For example, small and medium-sized organizations deeply rooted in Black and Latinx communities are the front line of community investment and should be flexibly resourced to attract, shape and drive it. Collaborative efforts that pave the way for financial investment should be staffed and funded to succeed, be it through the implementation of a corridor plan, leveraging the catalytic potential of a transit station or advocating for a policy or process that helps a community attract and absorb capital.

Also, community-driven investment needs easier, varied and more flexible financial capital, as well as efficient ways to deploy it through land banks, nonprofit lending, mission-driven funds, social entrepreneurs and other established and emergent vehicles. And without private capital, filling the gap is impossible—government and philanthropy cannot do it alone. Systemic change has occurred when private capital sees value in underinvested places, potential in unrealized community assets and pathways to invest inclusively.

Complex challenges are rarely, if ever, solved in isolation. In a recent column about a compelling approach to poverty alleviation in Canada, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that entrenched problems call for “community-wide collective impact structures.” In our region, underinvestment in Black and Latinx communities is an entrenched problem, solvable not just through new technical or policy interventions but through new methods, processes and approaches for creating, deploying and sustaining those interventions together.

Everyone has the right to leave a place as I did. But that choice should never be rooted in discrimination, overt or structural. In our increasingly interdependent world, one neighborhood’s injustice has a ripple effect, however subtle, that makes the entire region a bit more vulnerable. A bit less viable. A bit less livable. Therefore, the Trust’s new vision calls for a “thriving, equitable and connected Chicago region where people of all races, places and identities have the opportunity to reach their potential.” This is as much a vision for the privileged as it is for the marginalized. Achieving it is in everyone’s best interest.