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Inaugural Class of Business District Leaders Graduates

To the hoots and hollers of family and friends, the 20 beaming graduates marched to the podium, one-by-one, to receive their hard-earned certificates. Law school? Hardly. MBAs? Nope. 

The graduates of LISC Chicago's first Business District Leadership program class.

Photos by Gordon Walek

They were the first commercial district managers to complete LISC Chicago’s Business District Leadership (BDL) program, which is designed to promote professional development and networking opportunities for commercial district practitioners. It’s inspired by the Coro New York Neighborhood Leadership program and funded by the Polk Bros. Foundation, PNC Bank, Associated Bank and the City of Chicago

For the past six months, the students – community development veterans whose jobs with neighborhood organizations involve promoting business development – had studied “adaptive leadership” skills intended to help them negotiate the often complicated issues that arise between business interests and resident demands around commercial revitalization plans. 

They analyzed business strategies in various neighborhoods, met monthly for four-full day workshops (one Saturday a month) to focus on leadership skills (including purpose, vision, partnership, inquiry, personal ecology and goal setting), and gathered for four days to study key revitalization tactics, such as creative placemaking strategies, retail sales, small business support, redevelopment, tenant mix and performance accountability. 

In the process, they got to know, and like, each other. The graduation ceremony at Harold Washington College in the Loop, with hugging, backslapping and good-natured ribbing, had the qualities of the last day at summer camp. Armed with a new set of skills, they were all going back to work. The grads will re-convene in October to review their “neighborhood change” projects – ranging from storefront façade improvements in Roseland to a 5k run in Pilsen to creating a theater district in Edgewater – which each representative identified during the program. 

Kevin Barbeau, executive director of the Old Town Merchants and Residents Association, receives his certificate from Dionne Baux, the LISC program officer who directs the BDL program.

“BDL is a best example of us trying to do two key things really well,” Susana Vasquez, LISC Chicago’s executive director, said at the graduation. “Leadership development and capacity building so all neighborhoods can connect their residents and businesses to resources they need to grow stronger and healthier.” 

Her words could just have easily applied to a number of other leadership and training programs that LISC Chicago has initiated, advanced or supported in recent years, including… 

  • The Civic Leadership Academy – The six-month University of Chicago program for community development professionals and government staff that combines interdisciplinary courses taught by faculty from five U of C professional schools – Chicago Harris, Chicago Booth, Social Service Administration, the Law School, and Graham – with hands-on project management experience and coaching. The first class graduated earlier this summer. LISC Chicago was a partner with the University of Chicago in developing the Civic Leadership Academy and provides ongoing support and collaboration.
  • Community Organizing and Engagement Workshops – Created by LISC Chicago and led by specialists from community organizations throughout the city, these sessions address leadership ability, community organizing techniques, and neighborhood engagement tactics.
  • Data Fridays – LISC Chicago has been hosting these informal Friday afternoon gatherings since 2012, attracting self-described data geeks and representatives of neighborhood organizations who share how they collect, analyze and present information about their community development work. The sessions are at 3 p.m. on the second Friday of every month and typically attract a diverse group of beginner to advanced data users.
  • AmeriCorps – Over the last 15 years, LISC Chicago, with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), has supported about 250 AmeriCorps members who have completed one- or two-year terms of service with local neighborhood organizations. Many of them have been retained at those organizations as full-time staffers.
  • Chicago Plans – With support from the Chicago Community Trust, LISC Chicago has launched Chicago Plans, a new workshop series for nonprofit and community leaders designed to strengthen engagement and facilitation skills and support meaningful neighborhood engagement in place-based planning. Online applications for the Fall 2015 cohort are being accepted until Friday, September 4. Click here to learn more and apply. 

“The network we developed was worth the value of six months of training,” said Christina (Tina) James of the Greater Southwest Development Corporation.

“The network we developed was worth the value of six months of training,” said Christina (Tina) James of the Greater Southwest Development Corporation. “The allies and friends we made among people who understand what we’re doing – that will make the work easier and more enriching.”

Roxanne Nava, chief small business officer for the City of Chicago, had encouraging words for the BDL grads. 

“It’s not really the end,” she told them. “It’s a new path. You won’t be in the same roles forever. But the better work you do, the better our neighborhood businesses will be. No matter where you are.” 

The next cycle of the Business District Leadership program will begin in Spring 2016. An information session about the BDL program and the application process will be held Wednesday, October 28, 2015 from 3 to 5 p.m. at LISC Chicago, 135 S. LaSalle St., Suite 2230. Learn more here.

Applications will be available in November 2015. For questions or more information contact Dionne Baux, / (312) 422-9564.

Posted in Economic Development


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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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