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100 Years in the Making: Social Impact Through Leadership

By Professor George Wu

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The Chicago Urban League’s theme during its centennial year is “Building on Our Legacy.” That theme perfectly reflects the long and continued relationship between the League and The University of Chicago.

Robert E. Park, a renowned sociologist at the University of Chicago, was the first president of the Chicago Urban League 100 years ago. Today, a century later in 2016, I am honored to serve as the faculty director of the IMPACT Leadership Development Program at the Chicago Urban League. The IMPACT program is a partnership between the League and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business that was established to develop and inspire the next generation of culturally engaged African American civic leaders.

We’ve now graduated two classes of IMPACT Fellows. And, needless to say, the program is working.

More than 20 Fellows have obtained positions of greater responsibility, and have even advanced to joining nonprofit boards. From Fellow Brian Sleet’s recognition in Crain’s Chicago Business for his new position at Kivvit, to Halleemah Nash and Chris-Tia Donaldson’s nominations for WVON/Ariel Investments 40 Under 40 Game Changers award this year, the IMPACT program is already closing the gap that results from racial inequity in the workplace. [1]

But, as Park recognized at the beginning of the twentieth century, it takes the coming together of multiple institutions to dismantle the structural factors that have held back African Americans.

Arvarh Strickland’s History of the Chicago Urban League acutely summarizes the League and Robert Park’s attempt to mitigate social barriers in the Black experience:

[The Chicago Urban League] branch emphasized its intention to coordinate existing agencies, to engage in research, and to undertake ‘all kinds of work in improving the industrial, economic, and social conditions, among Negroes’… The immediate concern of both groups, [Park] felt, were matters dealing with ‘work and wages, health and housing, the difficulties of adjustment of an essentially rural population to the conditions of a city environment, to modern life…The League would assist employer’s in utilizing and at the same time ‘widen the industrial opportunities of the colored man and woman’[2]

Park aimed to expand employment opportunities for communities of color in Chicago. Almost 100 years later, a similar vision motivated the creation of the IMPACT Leadership Development Program in 2014. In an article entitled “Why We created IMPACT,” I summarized the beginnings of this remarkable program:

It all started with a phone call from Andrea Zopp, former CEO of the Chicago Urban League (CUL). She saw a need within the black business community for leadership education that spoke to the particular challenges faced by high-potential African-American professionals. I agreed and joined my Booth colleagues Linda Ginzel, Heather Caruso, and Harry Davis to partner with Zopp in creating the IMPACT program. We put together a curriculum that covered some of my favorite topics—negotiation and decision making—and also power, influence, ethics, values, and learning from experience. Zopp and her colleagues at the CUL assembled a class of 34 of Chicago’s best and brightest black professionals, coming from nonprofits, start-ups, the C-suite, law firms, and government.[3]

“The University of Chicago is in the DNA of The Chicago Urban League.” I greeted the third class of IMPACT fellows with these words. Of course, The City of Chicago, the Chicago Urban League, and the University of Chicago have each changed dramatically since 1916. But the mission of the IMPACT Leadership Development Program is a modern incarnation of Park’s vision, a program committed to the social and professional progress of African American leadership. We all know that we have a long way to go at all levels. Today, only 4 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are African American. And the unemployment rate for African Americans is three times the national average of 5%.[4]

But the program doesn’t exist just to make our Fellows leaders in their organizations.   Education, crime, economic opportunity, and health are all issues that impact communities of color, and therefore we need leaders in our communities.

When we evaluate programs or initiatives, we inquire about the “value proposition.” “Value” usually connotes worth in terms of something monetary or measurable. But there is a second sense of “value” that strikes me as exactly what this program is about — value as defined as “the principles and beliefs that influence one’s behavior.” And the value proposition in this second sense is so self-evident: This program is about transforming the communities in which we all live and care so much about. Social impact through leadership.

I am proud of the century-long partnership between The University of Chicago and The Chicago Urban League. I feel like I am taking the baton from Robert E. Park. And I am honored to be part of IMPACT. But mostly, I am excited about the power of this program to transform the communities in which we all live and care so much about.

[1] In addition to Halleemah Nash and Chris-Tia Donaldson, WVON/Ariel Investments 40 under 40 Game Changers recipients include Fellows from previous years Brian Sleet, Dominique Jordan turner, Constance Jones Brewer, and Kam Buckner.

[2] Arvarh Strickland, History of the Chicago Urban League, (Urbana and London: University of Illinois Press, 1966), 39.

[3] Professor George Wu, “Why We Created IMPACT, “https://research.chicagobooth.edu/sei/about-sei/news/2015/august/george-wu-impact, 2015.

[4] Andrew Wells, “Whoever Said Black’s Don’t Want to Work Was Wrong,” http://www.thechicagourbanleague.org/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=1&ModuleInstanceID=368&ViewID=047E6BE3-6D87-4130-8424-D8E4E9ED6C2A&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=1099&PageID=1, 2016.