The Trust launched the Open Call for Ideas – Advancing Policy in May 2021 as a vehicle to source and fund new policy and advocacy ideas from organizations in the Chicago region seeking to reform policies and systems that have led to the racial and wealth gap.
In this Q&A, Advocating for Policy Change team members Ianna Kachoris and Aimee Ramirez, as well as former Trust staff member Alex Ivory, discuss why they launched an Open Call, what policy and advocacy trends they have seen from applicants, and why this work is important to the Trust’s efforts to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap in the region.
How did the Advocating for Policy Change team develop the idea for an Open Call to Advance Policy? Why was there a need to create it, to begin with?
Ianna Kachoris, senior director of policy and advocacy: We started with the belief that we can’t always know what organizations and people have the best ideas out there. An important part of our work is to elevate new voices, and we thought that value must be reflected in how we surface grant opportunities from across the city and region. It was important to us to have a way for people to reach out to us to tell us who they are and the issues they’re working on and share the opportunities they see policy innovation related to the Trust’s areas of focus.
Alex Ivory, former impact coordinator: I think the team also had this shared vision that we wanted to be responsive to the policy opportunities that arise, given that policy is constantly changing, often unexpectedly. We wanted to add resources to a policy or communications campaign or different policy tools to help organizations move the lever on various policy efforts.
Aimee Ramirez, manager of policy and advocacy: We’ve seen examples, particularly at the state level, where locally led advocacy sparked an immediate legislative response. And it’s important to make sure that the organizations that are experts in their field and serve as the voices of impacted communities have a seat at the table to shape policy reforms. One very clear example was in 2020, following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, when calls for systemic change and policy reforms opened the door for the Illinois Black Caucus to drive critical legislation to address disparities in healthcare, in education, in economic development, community safety, and criminal justice reform. That was not just legislators trying to fix these issues, but it was a compilation of voices from community members who had long been advocating for a lot of these policy changes, some of whom are Trust grant recipients.
How does the Open Call differentiate from how the Trust typically does grant making?
IK: I think traditionally, foundations create RFPs that look for a very specific set of activities that they want to support on a particular issue, or a theme, or approach. We thought it was important to say there may be ideas worthy of funding that don’t fit within a neat box. And because of what Aimee was just talking about in terms of policy windows, we can’t always anticipate when those windows open, so we needed to create a quick response mechanism for us to be more nimble and support efforts that seize the policy moment. So, we looked to our Catalyzing Neighborhood Investment team colleagues, who had created an open call for community development efforts. We felt it was the best, most welcoming way for us to be responsive and within the structures of our grant making capacity at the Trust.
When reviewing applications, are there ones that stood out? Did you notice any policy trends or recurring themes?
AI: One that stood out to me was the proposal we received from Connections for the Homeless. Their application focused on the zoning rules and regulations in Evanston. What I found significant about that proposal is the simple fact that they’re doing the research, they’re doing the deep-dive analysis on the zoning code, and they’re breaking it down into a dissectible manner for community members to determine how they can best engage in these systems.
From my perspective, many proposals tend to put people at the center. Putting folks that have been directly impacted by these harmful systems and making sure that their perspectives are being heard has been something I’ve been seeing.
AR: One proposal that stood out to me was Legal Action Chicago. Legal aid is a mechanism through which low-income individuals can access free legal services when they need them. And while that is incredibly important, that system only provides a remedy for the individual seeking it through the courts at that moment. There isn’t enough free legal representation to seek remedy for every individual within a system that is clearly broken. Legal Action Chicago is a relatively new organization that works in tandem with Legal Aid Chicago to see where there are issues through which individuals are seeking remedy in the justice system. They identify opportunities to change the system itself and make sure that the other people who are experiencing the same negative impact don’t have to continue to experience that. When that proposal came through, I thought, this is an opportunity to really address systemic change.
And I think that was a recurring theme that we also saw in Connections for the Homeless. It’s not just about putting somebody in a shelter or providing them with a home; it’s how we are changing the system to eliminate these barriers that are causing homelessness.
How does the Open Call advance the priorities of the Advocating for Policy Change team?
AR: When we look at the Trust’s strategic plan graphic, we have this triangle that highlights all our strategies—and then it’s surrounded by Advocating for Policy Change. The Open Call is advancing our priorities because we get to marry the very impactful grant making of all the Community Impact strategies, but also look at it at a systemic level. If our goal is ultimately to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap, we recognize that programming itself is not going to do that. Supporting efforts that seek to make systemic changes allows us to make sure that in the future, perhaps, programs don’t need to provide emergency or temporary support because the system itself builds an environment in which everybody can achieve their utmost potential.
How does the Open Call fit within the broader work at the Trust to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap in the Chicago region?
AI: Our small but mighty team is fully aware that we don’t have the capacity to solve all of the policy issues that address the racial and ethnic wealth gap. Through our Open Call, we have this unique opportunity to support the organizations that have been in this space for years and get them resources to advocate and work towards addressing the wealth gap. And going back to Ianna’s point about being nimble, it provides us this pathway to create more partnerships, join coalitions, and advocate for policy solutions as we’re thinking about our broader work of closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap.
IK: To add to what Alex said, many of the reasons we have the racial and ethnic wealth gap today are because of some explicit and implicit policies designed to advantage certain race and ethnic groups over others, namely white Americans. And we need to think about how we both unwind those policies, not repeat the mistakes of the past, and intentionally focus on opportunities to build wealth in communities of color. We can’t do that if we don’t think about forging those partnerships and supporting those organizations doing the research and will-building required for policymakers to move the needle on some of these entrenched systems that have held communities back over generations.
What is the role of philanthropy in advocacy?
IK: The role of philanthropy is to have the resources and capacity to engage in the dialogue around the policies and systems changes that need addressing. It is our role to support the ecosystem of organizations that can innovate and bring those ideas to policymakers. At the Trust, we are fortunate that we can use our voice and our platform to say to policymakers when we think they should act to address community needs and to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap. We don’t do it on every issue, but more and more, we’re hearing from our grant recipients and partners how helpful it is to have the Trust elevate important issues.
AR: One of the aspects of our strategy to Advocate for Policy Change is to build knowledge and public will because policy change happens when people understand what the problem is and agree on the solution to remedy it. There are a lot of issues that are very complicated in our communities that the public at large is just not completely informed on. So even though many philanthropic entities cannot directly engage in lobbying or funding these efforts, philanthropy does have the platform—and perhaps even the responsibility—to elevate the problem and the solutions.