Friday, March 28, 2014

The New Greatest Generation: Helping Veterans Return Home

by Don Cooke, Senior VP of Philanthropy

Our nation is at a critical crossroads with our veterans. We can follow the post-Vietnam approach and turn our backs on those who fought an unpopular war, yet who were forever affected by that conflict and by their homecoming. The Vietnam approach led to soldiers’ shame, disaffection with society, and to the startling and unacceptable fact that some 25% of those homeless in America today are Vietnam veterans.

Or we can take a different road – we can welcome our military people back to our communities with gratitude and with essential help re-integrating into their communities where they can be invaluable assets. I have been asked many times where the responsibility of the government (which sent young men and women into harm’s way) ends and our collective community responsibility begins. This is a very good question, but veterans are not different from others in our communities we help with jobs, education, healthcare, and housing. Communities already work to help those most in need, and veterans are our neighbors too.

Veterans need jobs when they come home. They have unique wounds – some physical and some invisible such as post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. Also, more warriors have families than in previous conflicts, and multiple and lengthy deployments have put enormous pressure on spouses, children and the family unit. It is not only the warriors who serve; their families serve also.

A growing number of foundations and corporations are committed to the mission of helping veterans with the difficult transition from military to civilian life. The issue is one of national proportion and the numbers are enormous (estimates, for example, of 300,000 returning warriors with Post Traumatic Stress), but our work over the past few years has demonstrated that the solutions are delivered locally. Each community is different – some have large active-duty bases, other regions are home to Reservists and National Guard personnel – and the challenges faced by our warriors are complex. Many do not sign up for their benefits when they leave military life. Many try to sign up but are frustrated by the complexities of the bureaucracy. Many are too far from VA offices and services.

We have demonstrated that regional public-private partnerships are essential in making a smooth transition for the veteran. These partnerships include federal, state and local government agencies, non-profits, philanthropies and the business community. And there are lessons learned that can be applied in communities across the country:
  • We need to employ peer-to-peer support and mentoring models that work with each veteran, building their trust and providing ongoing support and advice as each navigates a new world outside of the military.
  • The challenges of vets are interconnected and cannot be dealt with in silos. For example, having meaningful employment and supporting the family are essential in ongoing mental health. We need to look at the “whole” vet and wrap them in the systems and support that make their transition successful.
  • In order to reach the large number of returning veterans, we need a collaborative and coherent network of nonprofits providing services from health to education and jobs, to family counseling and legal issues. This network must function in concert with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense to provide the best results for our veterans.

Regional systems that attract, engage, and help veterans can be established in every community.

Many veterans have unique challenges, but they are unique people who can bring great value to our workplace and to our communities. They have a commitment to service, and they will continue to serve after their military life. They have skills in organization, logistics, and teamwork that many people never develop, and they have exhibited leadership at an early age.

It is in our best interest as a country that we invest in the veterans’ transition from military to civilian life so that these unique assets help our neighborhoods, our communities, and our businesses.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Let's Play Taps for the Old Maps

by David Hiller, President and CEO

Yes for Independent Maps recently posted a great YouTube video that uses comedy to illustrate the farce of the current methods for establishing voting districts in Illinois.


Hopefully this “backroom redistricting” video can help bring greater visibility to an issue that has needed reform in the Illinois legislature for a long time. The essence of this piece shows how a small group of elected officials gathers every 10 years to draw their own voting districts, ensuring the status quo remains in effect indefinitely. The video nails just how cynical this practice is and shows a pathway to reform.

There is strong, growing bipartisan support to create an independent commission to draw fair district maps within Illinois. The McCormick Foundation is supporting this important work, and I am doing so personally as well. We need to end this hidden practice that serves only politicians trying to keep themselves in office, and contributes to the polarization and grid-lock we see in Springfield.

Map reform in Illinois can take this out of the hands of the politicians like many other states have done. It creates an independent commission, with open and transparent processes that will help us keep “communities of interest” intact, rather than politicians in gerrymandered districts.

But to begin making these needed changes, we’ll need your active support. This ballot initiative needs 300,000 petition signatures by May 4 to get a proposed amendment to the Illinois constitution onto the November 4 ballot.

What can each of us do?

I am carrying the petition form with me, collecting signatures from folks I encounter in the course of the day.

We are going to face opposition from those who enjoy things the way they are. Nonetheless, I’m truly hopeful that this effort will allow us to live in a state with voting districts that look less like “toenail clippers” and “manatees,” and more like areas defined by citizens and communities.

Monday, March 17, 2014

In Memoriam: Staff Sergeant Walter D. Ehlers

by Paul Herbert, Executive Director, First Division Museum

On Saturday, March 8, 2014, Staff Sergeant Walter D. Ehlers, an honorable man, soldier, mentor and Medal of Honor recipient, was laid to rest at Riverside National Cemetery near Los Angeles, CA. Among the many dignitaries who came to pay their respects were about a dozen Medal of Honor recipients. Staff Sergeant Ehlers received his Medal of Honor for conspicuous service above and beyond the call of duty on June 9 and 10, 1944, in Normandy, France, just past deadly Omaha beach, which he had crossed on D-Day, June 6. Walt was a devoted veteran of the 1st Infantry Division and a friend of our First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Illinois. We owed him this final farewell. The weather was beautiful, the setting sublime, the eulogies touching, the 1st Division honor guard perfect.

The day was not about the Medal but the man. Walt fought in many campaigns besides Normandy, and was wounded and decorated many times. Walt was proudest of getting his squad over Omaha beach without losing a man. His Medal was awarded in part for placing himself between the enemy and his troops. He carried one of them, wounded, to safety. After the war, his long life was exemplary – humility, faith, patriotism, devotion to family, service to fellow veterans, good humor, kindness and generosity, decency in large measure. We owe so much to men like Walt. His courage, their courage, ensured that our lives have been free of the terrible dangers of their day. We must do likewise in our day. There is no adequate “Thank you” beyond striving daily for our best ideals, to be a people, a community, and a country worthy of such service. Walt’s life was like that – living out his “Thank you” to his brother Roland, also a 1st Infantry Division soldier, who was killed in action on D-Day on that same Omaha beach. Rest in peace, Walt. Roland is proud of you, and we’ll take it from here - we promise.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Medill Launches Reporting Collective

by Mark Hallett, Journalism Program Officer

They include a Palestinian film maker, a Puerto Rican actor, a Venezuelan broadcast reporter, a Colombian community journalist and the long-time editor of the journal written by Chicago public housing residents. Others are reporters from Catalyst-Chicago, Austin Weekly News, Univision and WBEZ. They produce in all media forms and collectively have won an impressive array of Lisagors, Emmies and other awards for their work.

Meet the inaugural class of the Social Justice News Nexus, an experimental program launched in January by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications with a two-year grant from the McCormick Foundation’s Journalism Program. The social justice reporting fellowship is an effort to harness the talents of community reporters and Medill faculty and grad students to report collectively on critical issues facing Chicago neighborhoods.

“Chicago’s news ecosystem is vibrant though fragmented and the ability of in-depth series or exposés to set the agenda for engagement and action is frustratingly elusive,” says Medill Interim Associate Dean Jack Doppelt. “The strategy behind the News Nexus is to marshal both journalistic and community-based resources to serve as catalytic agents to address social issues.”

This first round includes an eager team of 14 community reporters and eight Medill grad students. They’ll report independently during the next six months and will come together frequently for skill shares, coaching, tutorials and editing. When the stories are ready to go, they’ll be published by the reporters’ respective websites and media outlets as well as on a special platform Medill is designing for the initiative. In addition, the team is exploring other avenues for public discussion of stories and perhaps even some surprises such as live events that will bring the stories into the communities they involve. Then a second round will begin with a new, related topic.

Leading the initiative at Medill are Doppelt, who stepped down from his post as Medill interim associate dean to be principal investigator on this project, associate professor Louise Kiernan as student fellowship director, Kari Lydersen as community fellowship director and Winnie Wang as News Nexus coordinator.

The 22 Fellows came together in late February for a two-day symposium on the topic of the program’s first round: “Rethinking the War on Drugs,” presented by the Seventh Circuit Bar Association Foundation and co-sponsored by NU’s School of Law and the Harvard Club of Chicago. The high-level symposium featured local and national experts on drug policy, and delved into the impact of mandatory sentencing, the social and economic costs of incarceration, the hemispheric drug trade and lively debate over the consequences of legalization of marijuana. Afterwards, Fellows gathered for a workshop on what they had heard and learned.

Community Fellow Adriana Cardona Maguigad, editor of The Gate, is reporting on the effectiveness of local rehab centers, active drug users in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and the illegal drug market in the New City area. “This Fellowship will help me bring to light untold stories of local residents who have been victims of an illegal industry that continues to have a strong presence in our communities,” she said.

Another Community Fellow, Sam Vega of the Spanish-language daily Hoy, is excited about being part of a network of reporters but also the skills he’ll be honing. “Being part of this Fellowship will allow me to continue my growth as a multimedia producer as I tap new skills like data analysis and investigative reporting,” he said.

“What surprised me was how many of our fellowship applicants had been directly affected by the first issue we are examining: drug abuse,” said Kiernan. Among the student fellows are a young man who worked as a juvenile probation officer in Los Angeles, a young woman whose family was torn apart by her father’s cocaine addiction and another whose interest in social issues was sparked by what she encountered teaching on a reservation.

How does the Medill faculty leadership team view the term ‘social justice’ within a reporting context?

Not a problem, says Doppelt. “We decided to be unabashedly affirmative about our investment in ‘social justice journalism,” he says. Doppelt defines the term as “a concerted effort to drive collective engagement and impact on issues that matter in the lives of Chicago’s communities".

"It is advocacy to the extent that we advocate for a constructive and sustained airing of those issues,” he said.

Lydersen agreed: “I’ve always been drawn to stories with a strong social justice angle both because they are so important and because they are often truly great stories,” she said. “They feature complex elements, strong and inspiring characters and information or wrongdoing that begs to be uncovered or exposed.”

Plus, Doppelt says, when he originally polled grad students on a new program built around ‘urban affairs’ reporting, there was no interest. But when the exact same program was described as a ‘social justice reporting fellowship,’ “every hand in the room went up.”

Stay tuned for some provocative reporting.

The Community Fellows Are:
  • Naeesa Aziz, freelance writer and journalist
  • Angela Caputo, Chicago Reporter
  • Adriana Cardona Maguigad, The Gate
  • Joshua Conner, creator of Newsgentpost website
  • Rafael Franco Steeves, journalist, photographer, actor and author
  • Ze Garcia, the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign and Radio Arte alum
  • Ahmed Hamad, Columbia College grad student and filmmaker
  • Bill Healy, WBEZ
  • Sarah Karp, Catalyst-Chicago
  • LaRisa Lynch, Austin Weekly News
  • Erika Maldonado, Noticias Univision Chicago
  • Mary C. Piemonte, Residents' Journal
  • Jackie Serrato, Vocalo and founder of Little Village Facebook community
  • Samuel J. Vega, Hoy

The Medill Grad Student Fellows are:
  • Caroline Cataldo
  • Kevin Clifford
  • Alexandra Hines
  • Will Houp
  • John Kuhn
  • Mauricio Peña
  • Stacia Smith
  • Elizabeth Wang

Monday, March 3, 2014

Giving at Home: Local Philanthropy is Key to Recovery

by Don Cooke, Vice President of Philanthropy

Over the past few years, we have witnessed some of the darkest times in our nation’s history. We have heard a relentless stream of stories about layoffs, fraudulent investment schemes, broke and broken governments, and corporate bailouts and unfathomable excess.

Yet one important sector that is in dire straits and is too often overlooked is the nonprofit sector—the one part of our community with the principal purpose of helping transform communities by providing access to programs and resources that improve lives. The sector is struggling, not because of greed or mismanagement, but because each nonprofit organization depends upon a uniquely American culture of generosity and of helping others. Unfortunately, charitable giving is often the first thing to be scaled back in households, foundations, and corporations that must tighten their belts in tough times, and it is often the last thing to rebound as the economy improves.

As our economy struggles to rebound and government agencies are short on resources, the demands on the social services continue to skyrocket.

Nonprofits are essential to our country’s recovery. They supply goods and services to those least fortunate. They are the keepers of our country’s history and our society’s creativity, and they are a vital part of lifelong learning and formal education. Just imagine your community without a human services safety net, without culture and the arts, and without nonprofits in education and healthcare.

So as nonprofits suffer, we all suffer. When nonprofits are forced to scale back their operations, it is not just a few more widgets that don’t reach the market. It is the host of basic needs of our own neighbors that go unmet. It means fewer meals dispersed at food banks; fewer beds in shelters; fewer hours for wonder and discovery in our museums; fewer mentors for our troubled youth; and fewer safe havens for kids to play. This is happening at a time when the number of people in need is growing at an alarming rate.

All together the nonprofit community accounts for about 6 percent of the nation’s GNP and represents more than 10 percent of the country’s workforce. This is a vital economic engine as well as the essential lifeline for many people and link to our heritage. Another way to look at it is that if the nonprofit community were its own country, its economy would rank 13th in the world!

This is a wakeup call for all of us. As the economy slowly improves and the plight of our most disadvantaged neighbors is pushed ever farther off the front page, we must not forget about the local nonprofit organizations in our communities and what they do for our society. For those of us who can help, we must not let the “out of sight out of mind” mentality takeover. And for those who cannot yet help, perhaps when things improve you will quickly jump back on the American tradition of reaching out to your fellow neighbors most in need.