These brief profiles tell stories of the impact the Civic Leadership Academy (CLA) at the University of Chicago has made on its fellows.
The Civic Leadership Academy three-year evaluation, from which these profiles are drawn, was funded by JPMorgan Chase and conducted by Outlier Research & Evaluation.
INCREASING INTENTIONALITY: A.D. Lewis, ’17, Director of Public Policy and Legislative Affairs, City of Chicago Civilian Office of Police Accountability*
A.D. Lewis ’17 has spent his professional career in government oversight in Chicago, first as an auditor in the Office of the Inspector General, and later as a director in the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
Reflecting on the impact of his Civic Leadership Academy experience and the increased intentionality with which he now leads, A.D. says, “My standards for myself as well as the office, I think, fundamentally changed because of CLA.”
Within the newly created Civilian Office of Police Accountability, A.D. began his work as director by developing data-driven policies and operations, including an approach to identifying patterns in police misconduct.
A.D. focused on potential location-based trends in misconduct, to identify officers who needed intervention or support and the neighborhoods in which they worked. From people in the field, he learned that he couldn’t truly understand how officers interact within communities by examining data alone—he and his colleagues needed to go out into the community and listen.
Engaging community members required his office to gain community trust. It needed thinking strategically about how to translate community feedback into policy, action, and impact.
To prepare for community conversations, A.D. applied a CLA method—“trying on a new self”—to push himself to be curious about others’ ideas and treat others as experts in their own lives and experiences. His CLA experience also made A.D more confident in understanding others’ perspectives, a skill that has proven invaluable in his work with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
*A.D. is currently attending Stanford Law School, Class of 2021.
INCREASING SELF-EFFICACY: Alia Bilal, ’17, Director of Community Relations, Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN)
The Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) is a nonprofit community-based organization that fosters health, wellness, and healing in Chicago. IMAN works across three areas: community organizing, the arts, and culture.
Alia Bilal grew up at IMAN—first as a participant, later as a youth leader and volunteer, and for the past eight years as an employee. In her current role as Director of Community Relations, she cultivates and maintains relationships with donors and coordinates some of IMAN’s most significant initiatives.
Alia saw the Civic Leadership Academy fellowship as an opportunity to increase her self-efficacy—to “flex her leadership muscles” and become “more confident in [her] own experience.” She was eager to begin generating her own transformative ideas and investing the time and effort into making them happen. Through CLA, she committed to exploring a new, bolder version of herself: the creative initiator.
As she became more comfortable in this role, Alia also began relying on her judgment and experience to make decisions. Through CLA’s daily reflection activities, she realized that when colleagues came to her with questions, she could help them devise solutions instead of going immediately to the organization’s director.
As a CLA fellow, Alia also learned that increased self-efficacy and creativity can be particularly valuable when other resources are scarce—as is often the case for nonprofits. “We need to think about ways that we all can be trying to be more creative with what we have,” Alia notes, “and doing more with less.”
INCREASING AWARENESS & UNDERSTANDING: Ben Dieterich, ’16, Deputy Budget Director, City of Chicago Office of Budget and Management
Ben Dieterich has worked for the City of Chicago Office of Budget and Management (OBM) since 2012. As the Deputy Budget Director, he works with 14 City departments, helping them manage existing programs and create new ones. Located within such a large, complex organization, Ben’s is a job where the Civic Leadership Academy focus on understanding others’ viewpoints is of real value.
Ben knows well that OBM has historically been recognized less for the strategic support it provides than for its financial monitoring and oversight of City departments. When he began the Civic Leadership Academy program, Ben envisioned transforming the perception of OBM.
An essential first step was communicating a simple message to other departmental leaders: “Yes, we want to save money, but our primary purpose is to make sure that the departments have the resources that they need to do their job well.”
During his CLA fellowship, Ben focused on developing leadership qualities that would help him communicate that message.
He started practicing active listening by taking the time to focus on, clarify, and understand what others were saying before considering how he would respond. He also began to form more personal connections with others by striking up casual conversations before meetings and getting to know people he had never spoken to before.
Thinking about his development, Ben credits the CLA for encouraging him to become more aware and understanding of others’ viewpoints. He notes, “I really do think it's changed some of the ways I approach interactions, especially in a work setting, for the better.”
INCREASING SELF-REFLECTION: Tenisha Jones, ’15, Director of Education, Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation*
The Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC) is a nonprofit organization on the South Side of Chicago that focuses on comprehensive community development, addressing basic needs such as housing, senior services, education, and transportation. Tenisha Jones manages GAGDC’s education initiatives. Her portfolio includes advancing innovative collaborations and bold plans and fundraising to sustain and build the organization.
Over the course of the Civic Leadership Academy, Tenisha learned how to reflect on the effects of her own behavior in any given situation. In conversation, she now listens to what others are saying rather than speaking over them. Even when she might disagree or feel offended, she pauses, rather than immediately reacting.
Since 2015, GAGDC has been awarded several grants. Tenisha attributes her success in securing this funding to leadership qualities—patience, perseverance, and “really sticking with the plan and being able to pivot when you know it’s time to pivot”—that she developed as a CLA fellow.
Of her development through the program, she says, “I’m more confident in my approach to my work and how I handle myself. I don’t let things get me discouraged as much because I know that I have the capacity to change things and to understand when things can’t a .”
Being part of the Civic Leadership Academy has been transformative for Tenisha. She says, “The way I approach my work right now is totally different than how it was before.”
*Today, Tenisha is chief program officer at Chicago Child Care Society.
ALIGNING STRATEGIES: Kia Coleman, ’16, Director of Juvenile Justice Programs, City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services*
Kia Coleman had been Director of Juvenile Justice Programs at the Department of Family and Support Services for a little over a year when she began her Civic Leadership Academy fellowship.
As a CLA fellow, Kia had time and faculty guidance to support her work leading two new initiatives: the Strong Futures pilot, a job placement and community wraparound service program for young adults with criminal histories, and the redesign of the Juvenile Intervention Support Center, an alternative to youth incarceration that supports community reengagement.
Kia learned to negotiate with key partners by identifying, communicating, and building consensus based on a shared vision, reflecting, “We're never going to always see eye to eye, but there's always that Venn diagram, and that's the piece that you have to focus on.” Kia also learned from her CLA peers doing similar work, who offered her perspective and advice.
Through ongoing conversations with fellow CLA alumnus Patrick Murphey at the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD), Kia came to understand the landscape of urban economic development in Chicago. Inspired by DPD’s ongoing economic and community development projects, Kia was able to improve the employment connection strategy of Strong Futures. Kia observes, “Now we’re seeing how to create this program where we can get to people, get them ready, and then put them to work.”
Reflecting on her CLA experience, Kia believes the program has made her more comfortable with the idea of strategically networking—“this idea of really thinking about people and mapping them to what needs to happen for the outcomes and the goals, and then making those strategic alliances.”
*Kia has been promoted to deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.
MAKING NEW CONNECTIONS: Maureen Lopez Fitzpatrick ’16, Associate Dean, City Colleges of Chicago – Wilbur Wright College*
As Associate Dean of Wilbur Wright College in Humboldt Park, Maureen Fitzpatrick oversees personnel and programs and supports undocumented students by providing them with new pathways to educational opportunities.
Being a Civic Leadership Academy fellow enabled Maureen to become more confident in pulling together colleagues within and outside Wright College for a common purpose.
As part of her CLA capstone, Maureen worked on improving undocumented students’ experiences of transferring from the City Colleges system to a four-year higher education institution. She identified Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) as a key partner: “There are a lot of parallels, we serve similar geographic areas, similar communities and families.”
Six months after Maureen’s CLA graduation, in July 2016, Wright College and NEIU, in collaboration with National Partnership for New Americans and National Immigrant Justice Center, worked together to design a five-hour “Undocumented Student Navigator” training program to ensure that staff were sharing information with undocumented students about their rights and connecting these students with local legal services and resources. This training was launched at Wright and then expanded to the other six City Colleges. By spring of 2017, over 500 staff members were trained.
Maureen has continued to apply CLA lessons as she works to strengthen the partnership with NEIU and explore future points of synergy. “I think so much work is about relationships,” she says. “So that's something that will always stick with me long after CLA.”
*Since completing CLA, Maureen has been promoted to associate vice chancellor of adult education at City Colleges of Chicago.
ACTIVATING NEW COLLABORATIONS: James Rudyk, Jr. ’15, Executive Director, Northwest Side Housing Center
The Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC) is a grassroots, community-based organization that specializes in housing support and offers a variety of programs to serve parents, youth, seniors, and community members.
In early 2012, James Rudyk joined as Executive Director. Taking on this role as a 24-year-old Chicago transplant, James had a lot to learn. He saw the Civic Leadership Academy fellowship as a chance to become a better leader and more a part of Chicago’s civic landscape.
As a CLA fellow, James took the opportunity to “stop, slow down, take inventory, and figure out what I was doing and why.” The CLA program transformed the way he leads.
James brokered a partnership with representatives from Microsoft Chicago, whom he met during a CLA course session on “civic tech” and data analytics. Microsoft developed a pro bono custom client management system for NWSHC. According to James, “It saved our organization so much time and energy…it would have never happened without CLA.”
Over lunch with CARA Chief Program Officer and fellow CLA alumnus Bob White, James launched a collaboration between NWSHC and CARA. The organizations joined forces to develop a 10-hour, one-week workforce training program for NWSHC members, several of whom have since landed full or part-time employment.
According to James, when his CLA fellowship began, what he needed was to access a larger professional network and to “activate” that network to enact positive change. James believes “that network continues […] to be the single greatest benefit.” He says, “Two years later, I have changed. I have been activated as a result of CLA.”
INFLUENCING CIVIC CHANGE: John Yonan ’16, Superintendent, Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways
John Yonan spent the first 15 years of his professional career as an engineer for the City of Chicago Department of Transportation, working his way up from entry-level to deputy commissioner and chief engineer. In 2012, he was appointed Superintendent of the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways. In this new position, he was charged with overseeing the planning, design, and construction of the countywide transportation infrastructure. An important piece of this work involved contributing to the county’s first long-range transportation plan in 76 years.
Though John had a great deal of technical expertise, he felt less skilled at communicating the long-range plan to the “doubting public” concerned about where their tax dollars were going. He realized that he needed better ways to convey to a lay audience why the department was prioritizing specific types of work, and better ways to transform messages about his decisions into “stories” for real people.
During his Civic Leadership Academy fellowship, John was challenged to select an “action skill” to develop over the six-month program. He chose storytelling, which involves three things: better understanding of the viewpoints of one’s audience, greater focus on the desired outcome of a communication, and the right timing.
Participating in the CLA global practicum in Delhi, India, John also advanced his goal to be a better communicator. In particular, the concept of “cultural intelligence,” defined as seeing through others’ eyes and understanding the different ways others process things, resonated with John.
Looking toward his future as a leader, John says, “The understanding that it's not about projects, it's people…[is] a legacy I hope to leave behind when I move on.”
Civic Network Impact
EXCHANGING RESOURCES: Alex Wilson, ’16, Executive Director, West Town Bikes
Alex Wilson founded West Town Bikes in 2005. Over the years, he grew the organization by building a dedicated mechanics workshop space, expanding course offerings, developing after-school programs focused on bicycling advocacy, opening a retail bike shop, and partnering with City departments and community organizations. West Town Bikes now serves more than 1,000 youth per year.
The potential for a bigger professional network motivated Alex to apply for the Civic Leadership Academy fellowship. He was eager to find a community of like-minded leaders who he could turn to for advice and feedback.
Because his executive director experience had all been “on-the-job,” Alex also looked forward to the opportunity for a more formal educational experience to learn how nonprofits operate and what makes them successful.
Through the CLA coursework, Alex learned practical strategies for addressing a number of key issues facing civic leaders: risk management, delegation, strategic planning, articulating a clear vision, and personnel management. This came at a time when he was also facing major organizational decisions, including making personnel changes, developing a board of directors, applying for funding, and obtaining and developing property.
The CLA experience offered Alex the leadership community he had always hoped to find. In the course of discussions with his CLA peers, Alex learned how others had handled leadership challenges like the ones he sees every day. Observing how his CLA connections have helped him as a leader, he notes: “being able to have a constituent, a contemporary, that understands that position, is really valued and sought.”
COLLABORATING ACROSS SECTORS: Baronica Roberson, ’15, Deputy Commissioner, Chicago Public Library
Baronica Roberson is a champion of the Chicago Public Library (CPL) system, which includes 80 libraries across the city. As Deputy Commissioner, Baronica oversees areas of administration and management, including finance, staff development, hiring, procurement, building repair, and maintenance.
Baronica saw the Civic Leadership Academy fellowship as an opportunity to widen her professional network. She was excited about the possibility of a diverse peer group she could call on for information or resources and for whom she could also provide support.
One pivotal connection was to CLA fellow Bob White, Chief Program Officer for The CARA Program, a nonprofit organization focused on job placement, training, and coaching for people affected by poverty and other life challenges. Because of their CLA relationship, Bob sought Baronica’s help in creating an initiative that could offer employment training to homeless individuals who had come to the library looking to escape the elements.
Three years after CLA, Baronica reports the CPL-CARA partnership is going strong, accomplishing the library’s goal of serving patrons effectively while also bringing patrons critical workforce development assistance. The program is also having an impact. Baronica notes, “Now people are actually getting jobs as a result” of the program.
Baronica reflects on the kinds of connections she has made through and since her CLA fellowship: “Where you might not have seen or thought about synergies between organizations, they do actually exist if you dig a little deeper.”
CAPITALIZING ON CONNECTIONS: Darlene Oliver Hightower, ’15, Associate Vice President, Community Engagement and Practice, Rush University Medical Center
Darlene Oliver Hightower has dedicated herself to civic service for more than 20 years, first as an attorney and then as a leader in the nonprofit sector. A year after her Civic Leadership Academy graduation, Darlene joined Rush University Medical Center, where she now oversees community engagement initiatives.
Her CLA experience prepared Darlene to set the strategic direction for multiple programs at Rush, including school-based community health services, K-12 mathematics and science education outreach, and a community service learning program.
Through CLA, Darlene had an “epiphany”: she learned that an organization could move from “striving” to “thriving” by looking at the end goal first, prioritizing, and using data to make decisions.
For advice on the redesign of Rush’s existing education outreach program, Darlene collaborated with fellows from her CLA cohort, including Darnell Shields, Executive Director at Austin Coming Together. Darnell’s sense of what was “happening on the ground” in the Austin neighborhood helped Darlene identify promising strategies to improve Rush’s community health needs assessment.
While three years have passed since she completed CLA, Darlene frequently connects with her CLA cohort, capitalizing on their resources, expertise, and passion. “There are times when you just need a little bit of inspiration or a reminder of why you're here… to hear other folks talk about their work and why they do it and what keeps them going is really inspirational and motivational.”
COMMUNICATING ACROSS SECTORS: Julio Paz, ’16, Vice President of Institutional Advancement, The Resurrection Project*
As Vice President of Institutional Advancement at The Resurrection Project, Julio Paz works to secure financial resources needed to grow and sustain the organization. After almost a decade in this role, Julio considers himself a passionate “lifer” with an eye toward continued development and improvement.
According to Julio, the Civic Leadership Academy’s lessons on mutual understanding have been critical on a small and a large scale, helping him communicate and collaborate between the nonprofit and government spheres.
Julio reflects that CLA was about breaking down barriers, challenging misconceptions, and finding common ground. Through his CLA cohort, Julio got to know government leaders personally and discovered that they were driven by many of the same motivations as he is. Likewise, he believes fellows from government agencies came to see that “the flexibility and creativity that nonprofits can bring to the table…can be an asset for the City in deploying its different programs.”
The Resurrection Project interfaces with the City of Chicago to deliver a range of community-based support services, including home ownership guidance, financial planning advice, and programs focused on education, health, and safety. Having trusted personal relationships with government leaders has led Julio to have more effective interactions with local agency partners who also address these needs for Chicagoans. Julio notes, “It added a lot more confidence in the process.”
*Julio is now chief development officer for Chicago Commons.
Cassata, A., Talbot, M.E., & Century, J. (2018). Civic Leadership Academy Final Evaluation Report. Outlier Research & Evaluation, UChicago STEM Education, University of Chicago.