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At City Club, Vasquez Calls for ‘New Vision’

Laying out a new vision for Chicago and its neighborhoods, LISC Chicago Executive Director Susana Vasquez used her October 16 speech at the City Club of Chicago to describe the “civic infrastructure” necessary to build a stronger city. 

Susana Vasquez, LISC Chicago's executive director, at the City Club on October 16.

Photos by Gordon Walek

“The Chicago we seek – the Chicago we will be proud to call home – requires a new commitment to strengthening neighborhoods by investing in civic infrastructure,” Vasquez said. “Once established, it provides a platform of relationships, knowledge and trust that enables investment, innovation and greater impact.” 

Vasquez spoke to a sold-out room at Maggiano’s Banquets on Grand for one of the forums on civic and public affairs held by the City Club, a non-partisan organization founded in 1903. The audience was a mix of elected officials, members of the business community, community leaders, philanthropists and others. 

“Susana did a fantastic job,” said Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García. “And I appreciated that she noted how diverse it was for a City Club forum, with people from so many different groups and parts of the city.” 

Vasquez painted a clear-eyed picture of the challenges faced by organizations working to improve city neighborhoods, and acknowledged the hard work it takes to create change. But the heart of the speech was a focus on new methods and tools that build on road-tested programs by LISC and its community partners. 

“So what will it take to move Chicago forward?” she asked. “It will require new forms of civic engagement and planning that place neighborhoods at the center of the discussion. It will require local knowledge and robust data to provide a better understanding of the assets and challenges facing neighborhoods. And it will require thinking differently about what is a community organization.... Finally, it will require fresh thinking about the many roles of a community development organization.” 

"It was pitch perfect. It celebrated local leaders and work that are so essential to a vibrant city but often go unrecognized," said Deborah Bennett, a senior program officer at the Polk Bros. Foundation. “The speech didn't sugarcoat the work, though, it conveyed that it is nuanced and time-consuming.” 

Today’s world

Underlying Vasquez’s remarks was an appreciation that digital technology, the economy, and the field of community development are all undergoing transformational changes. 

As part of the Big Data movement, she said, the public and private sectors are exploring new ways to take massive amounts of information and use it to advance economic growth and the enterprise of government. 

Lori Healey, the chairman of LISC Chicago's board of advisors, was among the sold-out City Club audience who heard Vasquez's speech.

That data provides a clear lens on another trend – the growing disparity in our communities, where, she said, “the neighborhood where you live is a woefully strong predictor of your chances of getting shot, and whether or not you live next to someone who wakes up in the morning and goes to work, and of who dies young or lives to retirement age.” 

It’s all causing what Vasquez dubbed a “Kodak moment” for community developers. In the 1970s, she explained, Kodak had nearly cornered the market in both cameras and film. But the company’s inability to adapt to the digital era left it bankrupt by 2012. “That’s called confusing the product for the outcome,” she said, pointing out that community developers and their funders have sometimes been too focused on plans and projects – and not enough on the outcome of better communities. 

Vasquez identified three key issues that are “disrupting” community development: technology and data, financial models, and scale and systems change. Each is challenging how the field works and how effective it can be, she said, but each also offers great potential for innovation and growth.

Old lessons

Vasquez came to Chicago from Ecuador as an infant, and she and her two older siblings moved frequently as her single mom looked to find affordable housing and a safe community to raise her young family. 

That experience, Vasquez said, is why she knows that young people are “one good education, one stable home, one after-school program and one mentor away from being powerful contributors to our city.” The point hit home – with a wave of applause for the importance of opportunities and support for the city’s youth. 

Throughout her speech, Vasquez touched on the important lessons learned from hard-won experience – from Jane Addams’ pioneering efforts at comprehensive community development to Jane Jacobs’ understanding of cities as “complex adaptive systems.” 

She said the “little things” done each day by community partners are the building blocks of stronger neighborhoods, noting, for instance the youth mentoring via a summer basketball league in South Chicago and the job referrals made by the Center for Working Families at Safer Foundation. Recent developments like the ribbon-cutting for Shops & Lofts in Bronzeville and the announcement of a new 79th Street Metra Station in Auburn Gresham show how community development organizations can get big things done, too. 

Members of the audience nodded in agreement – and in some cases cheered their approval – as she cited the examples of important work being done around the city (although the biggest response from the knowledgeable crowd might have been when she said that complex and interconnected issues can’t be solved “with a one-year grant with only 10 percent administrative costs”). 

Vasquez pointed out that the fundamentals of LISC’s New Communities Program – engagement, planning, acting, communicating, evaluating, and repeating – are now LISC’s core approach, “because we’ve found it works.” 

Vasquez with Francia Harrington, the president of the Lurie Childen's Hospital Foundation.

She also highlighted ways that LISC is confronting community development’s Kodak moment: investing in digital skills and digital access, helping to launch the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy, and supporting a website that is taking the city’s Large Lots program to an unprecedented scale. 

Such work can’t be done alone. Allies for these programs range from the Chicago Department of Planning to World Business Chicago, from the Civic Consulting Alliance to LISC Chicago’s longtime partner, the MacArthur Foundation. 

Beyond Bizarro

In closing, Vasquez said that, as a mother of three young children, she reads a lot of stories, including a superhero book that she can’t help but interpret as an allegory for community development. In this tale, Bizarro, the opposite of Superman in every way, pulls up a tree to protect it from a cat stuck and crying in its branches. 

“In our community development world, we encounter this Bizarro fellow fairly often,” she said to laughter from the crowd. “It may seem obvious, but community development depends on engaging community residents… but in Bizarro land, this essential step is often skipped, and sometimes people from the outside end up saving trees that did not need to be saved.” 

LISC is prepared to advance a broader vision for Chicago and build the civic infrastructure to implement that vision, Vasquez concluded. “At LISC, we are seeking out new collaborations that will help us build this civic capacity,” she said, “in new communities and with new forms of planning “  

Text of Susana Vasquez’s speech, and City Club video of the speech. 

Posted in Economic Development, Placemaking


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