From Crisis to Change: Lessons from Year One of We Rise Together

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As we mark the one-year anniversary of We Rise Together: For an Equitable and Just Recovery, it seems fitting to reflect on all we have achieved and learned during this challenging but remarkable year.

We Rise Together is an unprecedented multi-sector collaboration focused on making sure Black and Latinx communities hit hardest by COVID-19 are not left behind in the Chicago region’s economic recovery. The Chicago Community Trust created the initiative because we knew our region couldn’t endure yet another recovery like the ones of the past, where communities of color suffered the most and, in most cases, have yet to fully rebound. This time needs to be different, and that requires an intentional, concerted effort with all hands on deck: businesses, government, philanthropy, nonprofits, communities, and individuals.

I joined We Rise Together because I believe that the impacts of COVID-19, devastating as they have been, have also given us a rare opportunity. In my multi-decade career advocating for equitable economic opportunity for people of color, never have I seen a more promising chance for the Chicago region to reimagine our collective future and build an economy that’s more resilient, sustainable, and just.

Looking back on We Rise Together’s first year, I am humbled and inspired by our initial results:

  • 116 donors
  • $39 million raised
  • $8.9 million granted, including $7.4 million to 10 catalytic development projects in eight disinvested communities
  • Another $10 million in grants to be committed by the end of 2021
  • 25+ businesses committed to specific actions to expand opportunities to build wealth in Black and Latinx communities through our 5/25 Move to Action initiative

By themselves these numbers are encouraging, a testament to the incredible commitment and generosity of our partners. But beneath the metrics, there is also a wealth of knowledge and lessons we are learning about how to collaborate and effect change at the scale We Rise Together envisions.

1. Intentionality is key. Collaboration isn’t easy. No matter what sector you work in, bringing people together can be challenging because each individual brings unique perspectives, ideas, and approaches. But we knew that if we wanted different results, we had to allow time and space for different kinds of conversations and different ways of being and working together.

In keeping with our focus on community-led projects and initiatives, we formed working groups centered on community residents and representatives. Our goal was to ensure that every aspect of We Rise Together would be directly informed by people from the communities served.

As with any collaboration, our process wasn’t always smooth. In fact, it was rough and messy at times. But staying committed to inclusive, authentic conversations enlarged and enhanced what we were able to accomplish together. It also allowed our diverse Steering Committee to generate a set of principles that have become the mainstay of our work—for example, one principle is “authentic community engagement and collaboration that builds community voice and capacity.” Being intentional has helped us stay true to our purpose and ultimately get better results.

2. Businesses are eager to make their DEI commitments visible. We’ve also learned that Chicagoland companies have a real desire to ensure their DEI commitments are seen and recognized by their employees, customers, and communities served. Part of the value these groups have found in We Rise Together is that it provides a platform for doing just that. By joining the initiative, companies can make it clear to stakeholders that their DEI work is more than a statement—it’s about taking action, investing in communities, and adopting equitable business practices that lead to more just outcomes for people of color.

3. There is a hunger for shared learning and results—and that tells us lasting change is possible. Participants from both the public and private sector have shown that they are genuinely excited to learn and work together through this initiative. Grant recipients have begun meeting regularly in workgroups to share information and align goals and practices. In addition, a We Rise Together business learning community will soon be established in response to interest from corporate partners.

Businesses want to learn from peers how to translate their equity intentions into tangible results. That’s exciting because it suggests that sustainable change toward a more inclusive economy is possible. 85% of the region’s jobs are in the private sector, so the scale of change that could come from business alone is huge. Through taking actions such as those our 5/25 companies have committed to—adopting more inclusive hiring practices, expanding affordable lending in South and West Side neighborhoods, increasing procurement and professional service engagements with small businesses of color—Chicagoland corporations have the power to help radically shift things like racial disparities in employment and income, for good.

The first year of We Rise Together has been an amazing journey, made possible only through the energy and commitment of our extraordinary partners. I am beyond excited for our continued collaboration, impact, and insights over the coming year.

Ensuring an equitable recovery from the pandemic recession is in the shared interest of our entire region, but we cannot lose momentum. We Rise Together will only be as successful as the resources, time, and actions we are willing to invest.

Learn how you can join us in building a more resilient and inclusive Chicagoland economy by visiting