In celebration of Black Philanthropy Month, the Trust is featuring a series of conversations with Black philanthropists making their impact across the Chicago region. This article is the second in our series—be sure to check back as we profile the impact of generosity in the Chicago regions Black community throughout the month of August.
Darryl Rodgers’s values and belief in community engagement were forged by his family’s commitment to education and his own service in the U.S. military. Rodgers is a Financial Advisor at Bernstein Private Wealth Management and is a member of The Chicago Community Trust’s African American Legacy (AAL)—a philanthropic and educational initiative led by African American civic and community leaders who share the common goal of improving the quality of life among African Americans throughout metropolitan Chicago.
Rodgers recently sat down with Meghan Lewit, communications manager at the Trust, about following a higher calling to service, and why a philanthropist must be “comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Some questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Meghan Lewit: Tell me about your philanthropic journey.
Darryl Rodgers: My journey started in downstate Illinois in Champaign-Urbana where I was raised in a Black middle-class family. We were the only Black family in our neighborhood. My parents were educators—my dad was a professor at the University of Illinois and my mom was an elementary school teacher but had a background in social work. My father started a program that focused on urban education, and in doing so, advised over 50 people in getting their doctorate degrees.
These are the values I came to embrace growing up, to lift as you climb. My parents always had this duty and calling to help family members because they were the ones to advance. And so we were raised with that commitment to give back in any way we can.
Meghan Lewit: In what other ways has your life experience inspired you to give back?
Darryl Rodgers: The late Senator Paul Simon, who I hold near and dear to my heart, nominated me and my two brothers to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and I then went on to serve in the U.S. Army for three years. The ideals of accountability and how you can effect change in this world had an incredible impact on me. When you graduate West Point, you raise your right hand and take an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the United States, and that has no expiration date. When I was sitting with Senator Simon one day, he said to me: “Son, the State of Illinois invested in you. I expect you to come back and invest in it.” Those words are still ringing in my ears. Service is about a higher calling and something bigger than ourselves.
Meghan Lewit: What brought you to African American Legacy at the Trust, and why was the focus on community engagement important to you?
Darryl Rodgers: Not being from Chicago, I certainly didn’t know everything about the city’s rich, vibrant and complex legacy as it relates to race. I went through the IMPACT Leadership Development Program at the Chicago Urban League and that is where I first met some people who were involved in African American Legacy. That gave me an introduction to some of the history in Chicago and led to me volunteering my time with some other organizations. I was also very impressed with The Chicago Community Trust saying “we are going to support a group of African American leaders who have deep expertise and relationships in these communities of Chicago, and we will support them with time, talent and treasure and allow them to identify the grassroots organizations that are addressing complex issues.” When I was approached to join AAL, I graciously and humbly accepted the opportunity to support Black-led grassroots organizations.
Meghan Lewit: You spoke about the influence of your family. Does anyone else in your life play a role in supporting or inspiring your charitable giving?
Darryl Rodgers: I do give credit to my family first. I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by people who have led with their actions. But I have to highlight one person because he had such a dramatic influence on my life, and that’s Eli Williamson. Eli is very well known in Chicago as the co-founder of Leave No Veteran Behind. He is an Army veteran like myself, and I’ve learned so much about Chicago from him. He helped to educate me on the trade-offs of philanthropy, because like any institution or movement, there’s going to be disagreements on the most effective path forward.
One thing I’ve learned from Eli is to make sure that I’m comfortable being in an uncomfortable position helping those in need. So, if I ever get comfortable in the work I’m doing, then it’s not enough. It’s how I define philanthropy.
Meghan Lewit: Can you talk a little bit about the spirit of giving in the Black community?
Darryl Rodgers: As a Black American, I can say that giving is part of our DNA, it’s how we operate. In families and communities that have historically been marginalized and lack access to funds, we have a history of taking care of each other. That culture has always been there, it’s just not given as much attention because other headlines often take the spotlight.
Meghan Lewit: We’ve seen a flood of generosity this year as a result of COVID-19 and the social justice issues that have come to the forefront. How did that impact your approach to giving?
Darryl Rodgers: This is an opportunity to lead with your actions. People will see where your dollars are flowing and who you’re supporting, and my call to action is to find an organization that’s credible, that does great work, and that you want to invest in. My firm, AllianceBernstein, offered to match giving and I saw an opportunity to marshal our resources and raise money through African American Legacy because we had already identified organizations that are doing great work in the community and that needed access to resources because of the economy grinding to a halt. We asked people at the firm to step up, and with AllianceBernstein matching part of our gift, we were able to give 40% more than we expected for the COVID-19 response.
Meghan Lewit: What message would you share with someone starting their philanthropic journey?
Darryl Rodgers: It’s simple, just get started. Find something that keeps you up at night, something that’s calling you forward. Find an organization you respect and show up. We’re in a world right now where we’re talking to each other via technology, but leadership does not happen behind a screen. That may mean you need to get out there and make yourself uncomfortable. But when you make it through to the other side, it’s glorious.