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Chicago Tribune Profiles Susana Vasquez as a 'Remarkable Woman'

20 January 2013

Susana Vasquez, center, at the groundbreaking for the Zapata Apartments in Logan Square.

Gordon Walek

20 Jan 2013 - Nara Schoenberg, Chicago Tribune Remarkable Woman: Susana Vasquez


Susana Vasquez's office on 22nd floor of a Loop high-rise is spacious and bright. What's missing, save for some children's drawings and an impressive Tinkertoy contraption displayed in the corner, is much in the way of decoration.

Vasquez, who became executive director of the Chicago office of the national nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC, more than a year ago, acknowledges the bare walls.

"There's a stack over there — they're things I'm supposed to be putting up," she says, indicating her wall art. She turns to a neat pile of unpacked moving boxes.

"My predecessor Andy Mooney (now commissioner of the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development) — those are still his files that I'm supposed to be going through," she says of the boxes. "Those are his Tinkertoys, too, but I inherited those."

Vasquez, who has worked to revitalize Chicago neighborhoods for 20 years, has a lot on her plate as the leader of LISC/Chicago, which obtains government, corporate and philanthropic funding for locally based revitalization projects in struggling neighborhoods. Vasquez oversees a full-time staff of 17, an annual operating budget of $10 million and a loan portfolio of $8 million.

"It's exciting and impossible — the work of leading a nonprofit in this city right now," she says.

"This is a very complex time: You've got a different mayor, you've got financial resources going away, you have issues in the neighborhoods tougher than before and there's a general sense of anxiety (among nonprofits) around. ... What is our role? What is the right impact we should be having?"

But she believes deeply in the community-organizing approach, designed to help residents of low-income neighborhoods come up with their own solutions to local problems, with nonprofits such as LISC providing the expertise and funding. And she's excited by projects such as Smart Communities, in which LISC helped five low-income neighborhoods come up with a plan to expand broadband usage, a critical issue in an era when so much job and school information is increasingly accessible online.

LISC obtained $9 million for the broadband project, which included public service messages featuring neighborhood residents.

Born in Ecuador, Vasquez, 42, came to Chicago as a baby and was raised by her mother, a nurse and a teacher, after her parents' divorce. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She and her husband live in Oak Park with their three young children.

"Part of this goes to the personal," she says of her commitment to giving neighborhood residents a voice in decisions that affect their lives.

"I was raised by a single mom in subsidized housing, and from my vantage point, a lot of well-intentioned policy can be created by folks who don't have the day-to-day experience of what it's like to live within those policies," she says. "The greatest experience base to attack the issue comes from the folks experiencing that issue."

Read the full Chicago Tribune article. (Trib digital subscription required)


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