Doubling Down on Mission

Chicago is struggling to a heartbreaking degree.  The New York Times ran a series of articles on the violence in Chicago and sent a team of reporters to cover the violence over Memorial Day weekend.  The Chicago Tribune runs a summary every Monday of the number of shootings over the previous weekend. Alongside this violence come unprecedented fiscal challenges that are threatening our social service agencies and schools.  I am concerned as a parent, a CEO of a growing nonprofit that serves inner-city children, a property owner and taxpayer, and most of all as a human being who believes that every child deserves access to the opportunities and environment that will enable them to reach their potential.

Chicago saw the greatest population loss in 2015 of any urban area in the country.  It is the responsibility of city’s leaders and institutions to provide a reason to stay, and to eliminate reasons to leave.  Our future depends on all of us working together.

The conditions in Chicago and Illinois may make some of us want to pull the covers over our head.  And I am the first to admit that I read all the news coverage and often get bogged down questioning how we got here. But rather than shrink in fear, I think it’s time to double down on mission.

Mission. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning.  It’s what keeps us excited about life.  Perhaps it’s feeding the poor or perhaps building homes in Appalachia.  Traveling with doctors to Haiti.  Finding a cure, building a business, or any number of things.  Often times these missions don’t make sense to onlookers and bystanders who may have a different perspective.  Other times, these missions are cause for crowds to jump on board and join in. 

Through my work at Big Shoulders Fund, I am lucky to work towards a mission that is central to the fabric of the city. The schools we support have incredible outcomes – high graduation rates, high college enrollment and graduation rates, etc. – but it is the stories of how they support their communities that make me and so many others believe in doubling down on mission…

These are some stories from schools where I know mission is alive and well…

One of our schools, located in one of Chicago’s most challenged neighborhoods, worked out a volunteer plan with a parent who could no longer afford the tuition to ensure that her daughter could stay in the school.  This same parent had seen another daughter murdered and her thirteen year old son, who was a great young man with a bright future, shot to death in front of their family’s home.  The parent became an invaluable staff member and key part of the community. Rather than turning away a family in need, the school reached back to its core mission and figured out a plan to help her. 

Recently, that same school experienced a horrific tragedy when one of its four year old preschoolers was shot.  The school has rallied behind the family, bringing them as much support as possible during this difficult time.

Another school has a large population of homeless students from a nearby shelter. They work in coordination with the shelter to ensure that basic needs are met while minds are also nurtured.

I see a reason to stay when I look at the Big Shoulders Fund schools…mission schools.

As time has rolled on since the height of Catholic school enrollment some decades ago, the schools still are at the heart of communities and continue to be critical to the educational and life prospects of their students. Perhaps this is most apparent in schools that are thriving without parishes, places like St. Ethelreda in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham community and St. Angela in Austin. These schools not only serve their students, but also impact the surrounding community.  Research demonstrates that if these schools close, the community suffers with increased crime and disorder and reduced social cohesion.

Neighborhoods and school communities may change over time, but the mission to ensure high quality, values-based educational options are available to all is a constant.

The Catholic Church, like Chicago, faces changing demographics and financial challenges. However, this is a critical mission that is alive and well in its schools, essential to the Church’s own work and to the City as a whole.  Big Shoulders is focused on this mission that we don’t want to lose, what I would argue the city can’t afford to lose – the set of schools we support.  82 schools serving 21,000 students of all races and creeds, 80 percent of whom are minority, 66 percent low-income, and nearly one-third not Catholic. 

No matter what the particular mission may be that drives you, now is the time to engage rather than retreat. We need to forge ahead without fear and look at the needs and believe that this is exactly the time to invest.  To invest in people, programs, and missions across all sectors – public and private.  To give people a reason to stay.  To make sure that everyone – particularly our children – reaches their full potential.