Past and Future As Community Allies Hailed at Annual Awards Ceremony
When the University and the South East Chicago Commission (SECC) came together recently to celebrate the SECC’s 65th Annual Awards and Holiday Reception at the Quadrangle Club, they were also celebrating a new chapter — the SECC’s new role as an independent, community-based nonprofit focused on economic development initiatives.
They recognized new leaders as well. Former SECC Executive Director Wendy Walker Williams is joining the University’s Office of Civic Engagement as Executive Director of Community Partnerships. Diane Burnham, formerly Senior Program Manager, Community and Economic Development at SECC, becomes the independent group’s Executive Director.
For 65 years, the SECC was integrally connected to the University of Chicago. The University funded the SECC’s activities, and the community development group acted as a sounding board, often with input from members of the community—as the University sought to constructively interact and work with the community on projects of mutual benefit. The two groups announced in January 2017 that the SECC would transition to become a fully autonomous, self-governing entity.
The change reflects a relationship that has evolved in a number of ways in recent years, said SECC Board Member Roger R. Fross, JD’65, who was recognized with the Don Michael Randel Community Service award for serving as the organization’s informal in-house counsel.
“For the last 65 years we’ve had a great partnership with the University of Chicago, and we’re looking at this new phase with the same spirit of mutual support, focused on our common goals,” Fross said. “The SECC is taking this opportunity to consider how we can best serve our communities and make the most of the great potential that exists on the South Side.”
While SECC once primarily focused on Hyde Park, its efforts now include four additional surrounding communities: North Kenwood, Oakland, Washington Park and Woodlawn. The organization, which receives funding from the City of Chicago and private donors in addition to the University, also has shifted its focus from enforcement of building code violations and keeping a watch on crime, to economic and community development initiatives such as business district improvements and beautification projects.
“FOR THE LAST 65 YEARS WE’VE HAD A GREAT PARTNERSHIP WITH THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, AND WE’RE LOOKING AT THIS NEW PHASE WITH THE SAME SPIRIT OF MUTUAL SUPPORT, FOCUSED ON OUR COMMON GOALS.” - ROGER FROSS, SECC BOARD MEMBER
"The SECC is excited to begin the next chapter in our organization's history as we remember the past, celebrate the present, and explore the future. We are thankful for the University's past and present support and look forward to cultivating a new partnership as we move forward into the next 65 years." said Burnham.
During the awards ceremony, University President Robert J. Zimmer reflected on the productive history of the University’s partnership with the SECC. “Over 65 years, the opportunities have changed, challenges have changed, the city has evolved, and the culture has evolved,” he said. “Those changes have, at various times, demanded different things from all of us. It’s a reflection of the strength and depth of that partnership that it’s been effective through all the changes that have taken place.”
Derek Douglas, the University’s Vice President for Civic Engagement and External Affairs, said he looks forward to working with Burnham and Williams in their new roles. “I know the SECC will be in tremendous hands in its next phase,” he said. “Wendy Walker Williams has been an outstanding leader, really elevating the work of the organization.”
In the Office of Civic Engagement, Williams is focusing on building strong connections and making sure that key community stakeholders play an integral role in guiding the University’s direction in such areas as local entrepreneurship, community safety, and neighborhood development.
In presenting an award to Shirley Newsome, recognizing her work as SECC’s Board Chair, Williams described her as “a mother, a leader, a sister, our North Star. Shirley has been a voice of reason.” She added that the SECC Board Members are the people who are constantly asking what other communities the organization should be serving. “That’s what the South East Chicago Commission does; it makes sure that every community is adequately represented.”
In returning the favor and presenting a parting award to Williams, Newsome acknowledged her work in leading the SECC’s Neighborhood Enhancement Grant program, the birth of Special Service Area 61, and the branding of Downtown Hyde Park Chicago. “She’s been a very, very busy executive director. We’re going to miss her,” Newsome said. She also joked, “If it doesn't work out and you want to send her back one day, you can do that.”
Aside from Fross, Williams and Newsome, the awards ceremony celebrated individuals who have been leaders in the five communities that the SECC serves. They were:
Hyde Park: George Rumsey, President of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference for nine terms, a commissioner for SSA#61, and a board member at HP Dare who formerly worked at University of Chicago.
North Kenwood: Mae Wilson, Chair of the North Kenwood-Oakland Conservation Community Council, which ensures that developers respect the community's historical character and the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, and produce quality housing stock.
Oakland: Khari Humphries, Senior Manager of Community Life for The Community Builders, Inc., in Bronzeville for the past seven years, who works to improve education, financial services, youth development, community leadership, and senior engagement.
Washington Park: Jessica Biggs, Principal at Edmund Burke Elementary School, a Chicago Public Schools neighborhood school that has doubled its enrollment and improved its academic standing during her tenure.
Woodlawn: Felicia Dawson, Director of Partnerships and Community Engagement for the Preservation of Affordable Housing, where she develops and implements a community engagement strategy to create opportunities.
According to Newsome, "While it's a new day in the life of the SECC, its focus and work will always be community-based and centered on its present five community footprint. We are not closing our doors to taking on new and productive work to provide technical assistance and capacity building efforts to others who seek our help."
By Ed Finkel
Photos by Kaye Cooksey