In some ways, it seems like a long time has passed since NICI launched one year ago. Illinois was moving back into restrictions again due to the COVID-19 Delta variant, and we quickly changed our launch celebration event into a virtual one. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since then. In other ways, I can’t believe how quickly time went by. This was especially true as we were completing our first grant cycle, which was deeply satisfying. It was the culmination of our months-long strategic planning process and gave us a bold vision for our path forward.  I feel strongly about the nonprofits we have partnered with and will continue to support over the coming year.

One thing I am proud of is the diversity of challenges our grantees are addressing; it reflects the broad and complex nature of economic development. Our goal is to have a comprehensive approach that impacts multiple components of the economic development ecosystem. With grant investments in the areas of public transit, entrepreneurship, and food security, I think we are off to a great start!

Today, I am very pleased to present our 2022 Impact Grant awardees.

While I was doing research on barriers to employment for marginalized groups, I was struck by how large of a role access to public transit played. Seeing this in the current context of people who are looking for good job opportunities and employers desperate for workers, transportation seems like an especially unfortunate obstacle. The South Cook Mobility Study found that south suburban residents have the longest average round trip work commute in the county, 24 miles.

Given the number of people who could be impacted by finding solutions to this problem, I thought this area may be a good fit for our Impact Grant program. I began doing some research, and saw that the Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation (CSEDC) had been thinking about this for some time. I spoke with the Executive Director, Reggie Greenwood, and was delighted to hear that his organization had recently started an initiative called the Southland Mobility Collaborative (SMC). The purpose of the SMC is to convene public, private and civic sector stakeholders to help identify and develop solutions for an array of interconnected mobility and economic development challenges for southern Cook County. Our grant funding will help support this effort, as well as the launch of a pilot study on a micro transit system.

Economic opportunity is important for any community, but before that is possible the most basic needs must be taken care of first. For under resourced neighborhoods, meeting those needs cannot be taken for granted, something that the Harvey Brooks Foundation (HBF) knows well. Founded in 1988, HBF has been providing services, programs, and healthy food to residents on the southeast side of Joliet for almost 25 years. Thanks to their dedicated and passionate staff, HBF’s reach goes far beyond their size. The southeast side of Joliet has historically been under served, and HBF has become a crucial source of support for residents in that area.

In addition to character building afterschool programs, HBF operates a robust community garden full of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Each week, they provide fresh, organic produce to residents via their food pantry. In a neighborhood that has been designated as a “food desert”- where 33% of residents live more than one mile from a grocery store- the garden has become an important part of the health of the community. Residents in the neighborhood have come to rely on their garden as a source of healthy, organic produce and HBF’s pantry serves up to 100 individuals a week. I had a chance to help plant broccoli and kale among other things and was amazed at the bountiful harvest the garden produced when I came back two months later. Our grant will support capacity building for the programs, garden and add a new role focused on fundraising to their staff to set HBF up for long-term success.

While there has been an increase in the number of minority- and women-owned businesses, and federal, state and local programs to support them since the beginning of the pandemic, these entrepreneurs continue to lag behind when it comes to investment funding. In addition to a lack of resources, diverse businesses are also less likely to have access to other resources critical for success such as a social network that can provide “angel investors,” mentoring, technical assistance and business plan development. This has been the case historically and has been a barrier to the growth of these businesses. In Rockford, a nonprofit organization called Think Big is addressing this issue head on.

Think Big was founded in 2018 by Sheila Hill and Duntai Mathews, two highly accomplished African American entrepreneurs. They came back to Rockford specifically to share the knowledge and tools that made them successful with other minority and women business owners. For the past three years, that knowledge has been provided through Think Big’s School of Business, which NICI’s grant funding is helping to support and scale. I had the pleasure of meeting with Sheila and Duntai this spring and was impressed by their dedication to Rockford and the potential of the people, city and the region. Not only do they want to help other diverse entrepreneurs be successful, they also want to change the way funders and financial institutions view investing in these businesses. Their ultimate goal is to change the mindset of diverse businesses being seen as “risky.” Think Big has accomplished a lot in its four years of existence and now is a particularly exciting time for the organization as they secured a building for their new headquarters earlier this year. We are thrilled to support the growth of their capacity and impact throughout the Rockford region.

All of our grantees bring much to the table and we appreciate the opportunity to sit with them as partners in their respective communities. I look forward to what we will accomplish together.

Comments are closed.