Thursday, February 26, 2015

Six More Weeks

by John Sirek, Director, Democracy Program

Chicago’s political groundhog woke up to see its shadow giving us six more weeks of campaigning. The race for mayor, and alderman in a surprising 19 wards, will now be decided on April 7. This is the first time the city will see a runoff race for mayor since non-partisan elections commenced in 1999.

A sad fact of this election is that a paltry 34% of the Chicago-electorate turned out to vote. One wonders how, given the challenges faced by this city, so few people voted. The city is awash in red; both ink and blood. Is there a relationship between low voter turnout and the sorry state of our finances, schools and levels of crime and violence? I think there is. Is there a relationship between how this campaign was run and the embarrassing level of voter turnout? I think there is. 


Chicago’s voters and elected officials are responsible for the current state of affairs.

Elections are fundamental to our system of government. Voting is the easiest act of citizenship we have. With early voting and the recent addition of Election Day registration it’s getting even easier. Elections are times when candidates should put their ideas on the table and engage in vigorous debate. There was far too little of this in the lead-up to yesterday’s election. Our candidates did a poor job of engaging the electorate and the voters responded by staying home.

Low voter turnout is a simple measure of our civic health. Are people informed and engaged? Are our elected officials responsive and deserving of our respect? Are citizens discussing important issues, contacting their elected officials and volunteering? Are our institutions transparent and responsive? Some are, but far too many in this city are not. In a democracy, these things make a difference. 


The runoff races are an opportunity for the city to change this dynamic. With a focused head-to-head race for mayor, Chicagoans will hopefully be given a substantive debate on the issues. Will we listen to this debate? Participate in it? Will we turn out in greater numbers to vote? And even more importantly, will we actively join with our mayor (Rahm or Chuy) and aldermen and hold one another accountable as we try to revitalize this great city? For our sake, I hope so.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ensuring Success

by Lesley Kennedy, Senior Program Officer, Communities

We have all read the dismal statistics that urban public school districts across the county report that the 4-year college degree attainment rate is 38 percent. For African-American male students, that rate is a staggering 23 percent nationwide (Consortium on Chicago School Research, 2014). There is clearly work to be done.

I am very passionate about making college a reality for all students. This issue impacts me on both a professional and personal level.

My role as a program officer at the McCormick Foundation allows me to work with a variety of organizations that prepare students from low-income communities to make successful transitions to college and provide them the support they need to earn a degree. 


As a mother of three (10, 7 and, 5), my husband and I are determined to build a college- bound culture within our home. Even more acutely, I am helping my 21 year-old nephew navigate the rocky terrain of young adulthood. He is a young man who has the capacity to elevate the mood of a room simply by being in it. He graduated high school with strong grades, an average ACT score and the potential to graduate with his Bachelor’s degree in four years.

That didn't happen.

In the fall, following his senior year of high school, my nephew enrolled at the local University in his home town, took on a small course load of remedial classes and eventually dropped out toward the end of first semester. What happened to dim the dreams of this shining star?

The sheer lack of support.

Research suggests that low-income students, particularly first generation college-bound youth require a menu of comprehensive support services while still in high school in order to make a successful college transition. While my nephew benefitted from a high school college counselor, he lacked the support he needed once he found himself in a culture not inherent to his own.

Research also suggests students benefit from programs that develop a “college-going” culture by providing comprehensive support service from junior year through college graduation.

Thankfully there are wonderful programs out there that provide these ongoing services to students and their families. Organizations such as OneGoal, One Million Degrees, Chicago Scholars and The Resurrection Project are just a handful of programs that provide on-campus coaches, financial literacy, professional skill development and connections to on-campus social support networks.

Socioeconomic background should not be a factor in who gains access to a college degree. It is imperative that we effectively respond to the needs of low-income students as they make their way toward a bright future.