We All Have a Stake in Strengthening Democracy

by David Hiller, President and CEO

At its recent meeting our board of directors approved several grants in our Democracy Program to support organizations committed to strengthening democracy and enhancing civic engagement in Illinois. The program, representing an $8 million annual investment, addresses a critical issue we face — sustaining our democracy in an era of great political polarization and lack of trust in our civic institutions.

The Mikva Challenge's Mayoral Youth Commission works to bring youth voice to the 
Mayor and other city officials on key issues that affect young people in Chicago.

Several of our partners are working to strengthen civic education and civic engagement among our young people. This is aligned with the state-wide effort to bring quality civic education back to all Illinois high schools, and to improve civics, history and other social studies in all the K-12 grades under the new Social Studies Standards. Mikva Challenge, Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, Illinois Center for Civic Education, Golden Apple Foundation, and WE Charity are all champions of this work.

Speaking of civic education, we are also excited to be supporting the education programming based on the musical Hamilton. The program combines curriculum and classroom instruction based on the storyline of the musical, with the opportunity for 20,000 Chicago Public School students to attend Wednesday matinee performances.

Hamilton reminds us that our democracy was founded by immigrants and refugees from persecution, and that new arrivals have enriched and sustained our country ever since. The work of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has never been more needed. ICIRR New Americans Democracy Project, a non-partisan voter registration and education program, is aimed at engaging and strengthening the immigrant community. The Interfaith Youth Core supports engagement and public discourse across religious and ethnic divides.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom, Jr., and Christopher Jackson, White House, March 2016
The original cast of Hamilton performs at the White House, March 14, 2016.

Current events also underscore how essential a free and vigorous press is to our democracy. We are proud to support the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Illinois Press Foundation, and the Student Press Law Center in their defense of the First Amendment.

Charges of “fake news” besiege us each day, but there is important work ongoing to build news literacy – the critical thinking skills to assess the credibility of news and information. The News Literacy Project and Stony Brook University are doing extraordinary work in this area.

With traditional media being challenged, there are new and non-profit journalism organizations stepping up. The City Bureau, a grass-roots investigation unit connected with communities on Chicago’s south and west sides, is doing some great work in these historically under-served and under-reported areas. The Chicago Reporter, WBEZ, and Medill’s social justice and investigative reporting initiative are also leading important community journalism work.

Chicago is also fortunate to have numerous youth journalism organizations, creating important opportunities for raising youth voice in our media, and developing the next generation of journalists. Free Spirit Media, Street Level Youth Media, True Star Foundation, and the National Museum of Mexican Art are among the leaders.

Finally, the hard and unending work of government reform and improvement remains critical. We are honored to work with the Better Government Association, Change Illinois, Citizen Advocacy Center, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, and our other partners on this civic mission.

I’ve included a listing of all the fine organizations receiving recent grants at the end of this blog. All of them need engaged participants and supporters to carry forward their work. I encourage you to get involved with them, or with other groups in your communities. A healthy democracy needs all of us, and for all of us to remember that we are all in this together.

In these times, we are inspired and given hope by the extraordinary work of these champions of our democratic freedoms.

Here’s a list of the recent Democracy Program grants approved by the McCormick Foundation:

Grants for Civic Education:

Grants for Journalism:

Grants for Good Government:

"Immigrants, we get the job done."

Logo courtesy of Broadway in Chicago

For those of you who are fans of Hamilton and may have been fortunate enough to see the Chicago or New York productions, you will recognize this line from the song “Yorktown (The World Upside Down).”

The song is an energetic exchange between statesman Alexander Hamilton and French military officer Marquis de Lafayette during the last major battle of the Revolutionary War. And while it’s an artful interpretation of events from more than 235 years ago, this lyric from the song rings true today with great relevance and hope.


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