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Fired up, ready to go: LISC Chicago’s neighborhood network

Leverage and results – smart investors insist on both.

You invest in organizations that know their business and apply every dollar to maximum advantage. You invest in those that deliver a reliable and measureable result.

In the complex business of urban community development, no vehicle matches the leverage and impact of every dollar invested quite like LISC Chicago.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

LISC Chicago brings together the community development community annually to celebrate the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards.

For 33 years LISC has been Chicago’s indispensible intermediary between funders seeking to improve the quality of life in the city’s at-risk neighborhoods and the community-based organizations and developers that know how to get things done there.

During the last 12 years, thanks to an extraordinary investment by the MacArthur Foundation, NCP has woven a network of working relationships and best-practice methods and has become a national “how-to” model for comprehensive community development.

Comprehensive? One lesson learned early on is that real estate investment, be it subsidized housing or shiny new stores, does not, by itself, “turn around” troubled neighborhoods. Of course it doesn’t.

Not when residents lack the skills and education needed to join the post-industrial workforce; not when there’s no fresh produce at the corner liquor-and-Lottery store; not when there’s no safe place for children to play or medical clinics to treat chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes.

A truly healthy neighborhood is composed of many things. That’s why struggling communities, more than anything, seek a partner possessing the technical capacity, managerial flexibility and financial backing to help neighborhoods help themselves.

Photo: Gordon Walek

Stabilizing and improving neighborhood housing remains a key cornerstone for LISC Chicago, most recently through its involvement in the city's Micro-Market Recovery Program, designed to mitigate against the ill effects of foreclosures.

As we broaden our effort beyond the initial NCP neighborhoods, we’re strengthening this platform and expanding our NCP Network. We believe it’s the best model yet devised for enabling entire neighborhoods, and the individuals who live in them, to gain control of their future. 

Then again, we’re always looking for additional partners … and for our existing partners to step up with new ideas and wherewithal.

New ideas? Consider the energy generated by just this sampling of programs we launched and/or fine-tuned during 2012:

Smart Communities – So far more than 550 households and 46 businesses have adopted broadband Internet, and more than 2,000 adults have received digital skills training, as part of this partnership with the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology.
 
Using a one-time, $7 million federal stimulus grant and the skills and hardware contributed by our many tech-savvy partners, Smart Communities has delivered more than 1,000 netbook and desktop computers to help bridge the digital divide; we also helped five neighborhoods create Internet “portals.”  These feature local businesses, neighborhood news and timely listings of community activities and resources. Take a look at www.pilsenportal.org for one shining example.

Photo: Gordon Walek

LISC Chicago has helped bring about 21st century skills and workplaces through efforts like its quiet brokering of the Green Exchange development in Logan Square.

Measureable results? New survey research from the universities of Illinois and Iowa found that residents of our five Smart Communities are taking to the Internet at a rate 15 percent faster than other neighborhoods.

"This is about redeveloping the skill set of Chicagoans and bringing us up to the level of other cities,” says John Tolva, the city’s chief technology officer.  But more needs to be done, he admits, especially with expiration of the federal startup grant.

So the MacArthur Foundation has stepped up once more by supporting one full-time tech leader in each of the five Smart Communities during 2013. McCormick Tribune Foundation is also getting involved, as is Comcast. Who’s next?

Centers for Working Families – Innovation has been a constant at our 13 Centers for Working Families, where in 2012 more than 12,000 Chicagoans received some combination of job placement, public benefits counseling and one-on-one financial advice.

A new partnership with Citibank, for instance, is issuing Banamex USA secured credit cards as a credit-building tool. This might sound counterintuitive, but timely card payments have helped the previously un-scored reach credit ratings in the 740-760 range in just three months.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Through Kennedy-King College and LISC's Centers for Working Familes, Army vet Terrence Prayer's now employed as an IT professional at Allscripts, a provider of health records systems, in the Merchandise Mart.

Next up in 2013 – expansion of CWF’s partnership with the City Colleges of Chicago as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to reconnect graduates with our region’s growth industries. The idea isn’t to supplant college placement services but to ensure CCC students have the skills and supports needed to meet basic needs, focus on their studies, and begin climbing a career ladder.

The new partnership is being piloted with great success at the Kennedy-King campus in Englewood, where the CWF staffed by Metropolitan Family Services coaches students in the fundamentals of job-hunting – from what to wear, to what to say at that first interview. 

“Suddenly I’m somebody,” exulted Terence Prayer, a Kennedy-King student who won admission to an Allscripts trainee program, one of several college-to-career arrangements negotiated by the Emanuel administration.

The once-homeless Prayer remembers how he was provided a suit coat and collared shirt – plus some intensive interview prepping – by CWF counselors. “They held our hand step-by-step, right down to the wording of my [resume] cover letter. It all came together. They give you a base, a base you can build on.”

Youth Sports Programming – Keeping kids positively engaged in organized sports doesn’t just help them stay healthy … it can help them stay alive. That’s just the sad reality in a city that endured more than 500 homicides in 2012. The dead are mostly young, mostly black or Hispanic, and mostly shot either because of gang rivalries or because they simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

In addition to its namesake attraction, Hoops in the 'Hood provides young people the opportunity to participate in soccer, face-painting, chess-playing and other peaceable activities.

One place and time where nobody gets shot are the Friday afternoon basketball tournaments called Hoops in the 'Hood, held in public spaces under the auspices of the city, LISC Chicago, our local partners and State Farm Insurance.

Now entering its seventh season, Hoops is going strong in 12 neighborhoods with the potential to expand to more. By roping off a local street or schoolyard, a Hoops gathering, which usually includes a refreshment table and even a local arts-and-crafts bazaar, lets neighbors regain control over streets too often monopolized by gangs. The kids are safe and the only mind-altering stuff being pushed is sportsmanship and mutual respect.

Measuring community-wide impact of such programming is tricky. But consider this: according to a LISC analysis of police data, the number of crimes reported in the vicinity of a regular Hoops site in East Garfield Park has been cut in half during basketball games over a recent three summers. A coincidence? We think not.  

Not everyone plays basketball, so LISC has partnered with the city, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, the cyclists at Active Transportation Alliance and World Sport Chicago on a PlayStreets program featuring dancing, jump rope, giant chessboards and other ways get folks outdoors, moving and socializing.

More than 50 such events were scheduled last fall, with more in the works this spring. Also, with the National Football League, we’re supporting a Grassroots Program that has rebuilt 10 community football fields in the city and close-in suburbs.

Photo: John McCarron

Driver Sacha McLeod and helper Joel Casey are ready to weigh fruits and veggies aboard the Fresh Moves mobile produce market. LISC's health advisory committee has called for more traveling grocers.

“Just the idea of parents and kids being in a public play space is a very big deal,” says Rob Castañeda, whose Hoops affiliate in Little Village, called Beyond the Ball, has turned dozens of teenagers toward school and career and away from street life. The challenge, he points out, now that we know what works, is to “bring it to other blocks.”

Neighborhood Health and Safety Initiatives -- During 2012, and into 2013, LISC Chicago organized a series of neighborhood assemblies with Dr. Bechara Choucair, commissionerof the Chicago Department of Public Health.

More than 50 community leaders have relayed health-related concerns and suggestions, ranging from violence suppression techniques, to elimination of “food deserts,” to changes in city regulations that prohibit, for instance, the transport of organic compost from one community garden to another.

“We cannot move the needle on our own,” Dr. Choucair told a recent gathering in the North Park neighborhood. “We have to be working with community partners, and a key strategy is working with the LISC New Communities.”

No health issue stirred the city in 2012 – or prompted more discussion at meetings with Dr. Choucair – than youth violence. A major new LISC effort in 2013 will be the Neighborhood Safety Initiative, a three-year pilot with the Chicago Police in two communities. Initial funding is from Allstate Insurance. The idea is to use LISC’s Neighborhood Network in an intensive effort to spur community cooperation with, and dispel mistrust of, the police as they work to prevent and solve violent crimes.

Real Estate Development -- And while real estate investment doesn't by itself "turn around" troubled neighborhoods, it's a key ingredient in many redevelopment efforts. In 2012, LISC Chicago completed $4.67 million in real estate lending, incluiding $640,000 for the 72-unit historic Strand Hotel in Woodlawn; $300,000 for development of LGBT housing in a former police station on the North Side; and $382,000 for new veterans housing in Auburn Gresham.

Photo: Gordon Walek

Thirteen neighborhood teens from seventh through 10th grades tended to the Junior Green Youth Farm last summer, an initiative of LISC Chicago's Elev8 program at Reavis Elementary School.

On to 2013!

The above is but a slice of what LISC Chicago was doing in 2012 … and what we’re planning for the remainder of 2013. Suffice it to say, our Neighborhood Network is in place; it has been tested, it works and it is ready to leverage new investments to deliver measureable results.

“For neighborhoods and cities to remain strong,” urges Lori Healey, chair of LISC Chicago’s Board of Advisors, “they must constantly innovate. That innovation often comes from the grassroots. Strong neighborhood networks are often the first to recognize problems, spot opportunities and forge creative solutions.”

It’s what we do.

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