Helene Gayle, President and CEO, Chicago Community Trust

Helene Gayle, President and CEO, Chicago Community Trust

In Chicago, recovery from the Great Recession was uneven, the lingering economic impacts of the downturn most keenly felt by low-income individuals and Black and Latinx communities. A dozen years on, the COVID-19 pandemic has been equally as devastating for many of those communities, exacerbating disparate economic and health outcomes that all too often are the legacy of structural racism and decades of disinvestment.

To ensure that a post-pandemic recovery does not leave low-income and Black and Latinx communities even further behind, the Chicago Community Trust recently launched Together We Rise: For an Equitable and Just Recovery. Having received more than $37 million in commitments to date, the initiative is working to bring partners from philanthropy, business, government, the nonprofit sector, and local communities together to ensure that those hardest hit by the pandemic are able to build back better and stronger.

PND spoke with Chicago Community Trust president and CEO Helene Gayle about the initiative, some of the lessons we've learned from the pandemic, and what the trust is doing to ensure a more equitable post-pandemic recovery in Chicago and beyond.

Philanthropy News Digest: Tell us about Together We Rise? What is your vision of what success looks like?

Helene Gayle: If you look at the recession of 2007-08, communities of color and communities that were financially fragile and insecure never fully recovered; indeed, they were left further behind. With Together We Rise, we want to make sure those communities don't get left behind this time and that we have a more equitable approach to recovery post-pandemic. We also hope it will be a model for other cities.

Looking at the issue of unemployment, for instance, we are looking at how recovery dollars get distributed to Black and Latinx households and communities, which have been especially hard hit, and at things like small businesses, which, as is painfully clear from the number of business closures in the city, have been disproportionately impacted. Making an impact in these areas means working with communities to build back better than before and helping them develop resilience so that they're better able to weather the next crisis, whatever it might be.

Our vision is to facilitate change that will be noticeable across the community. We want people to see businesses coming back, we want families to be more financially secure and Chicagoans to be able to get jobs that pay well and help them support their families, and we want to stimulate investment in neighborhoods where disinvestment has been the rule. And we hope that we achieve those things in a way that shows members of the community and public officials and other stakeholders that, as a result of the initiative, communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic were able to bounce back in a way that they would not have without our focus on these issues.

PND: What kind of role did the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd play in the decision to develop and launch the initiative?

HG: Although tragic, COVID and George Floyd's death have been pivotal in raising people's awareness of the legacy of racism in this country. The pandemic clearly highlighted race-based inequities in access to jobs that pay a living wage, in access to affordable, quality health care, in the many structural factors underlying poor health outcomes in this country. And the killing of George Floyd and the sense of racial reckoning it catalyzed have amplified people's commitment to doing something tangible about racial inequity, particularly the economic consequences of the pandemic and issues like the racial wealth gap.

Clearly, one of the things to come out of this whole situation is a much greater awareness of systemic racism in the United States, how it's embedded in institutions and policies, and why it's so hard for individuals of color to get beyond all that. I mean, so many of our systems were set up to keep some populations of color back while giving a leg up to others. With Together We Rise, we're trying to tackle some of these issues, recognizing that while individuals are part of the equation, the real problem is at the institutional and systemic level.

PND: In a recent op-ed, you outlined some of the ways we could begin to address historical race-based inequities — for example, by enforcing and strengthening the Community Reinvestment Act, investing more in public transportation, investing in job creation in low-income communities, and expanding eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit. What can CCT and other philanthropic organizations do to make sure the Biden administration is listening and acts on your recommendations?

HG: We've been working on these issues for a long time, but they are also issues that are important to the new administration. President Biden and his team have put economic recovery post-pandemic at the top of their list of priorities, and we're going to continue to push them to move on things that we think will make a difference in closing the racial wealth gap, help close the gap in household wealth, increase investment in communities that have been ignored, and give communities a greater voice in deciding how federal dollars are allocated. All of these are things we'll continue to focus on, and we know they are priorities for the new administration as well.

PND: With coronavirus vaccines being rolled out in communities around the country, what do you think we might be overlooking in our fight against the virus, and what do you think needs to be done over the coming months to address the continuing damage caused by the pandemic?

HG: What was most lacking in the country's response to the virus in 2020 was a clear, consistent national strategy that gave people the information they needed to protect themselves. That would have gone a long way to getting us all rowing in the same direction and saving an untold number of lives. It's one of the things I expect to see under the new administration, and we're starting to see it with vaccine distribution, that kind of all-hands-on-deck effort coordinated at the national level, in partnership with state and local public health officials. That kind of coordinated effort is critical in rolling out vaccines effectively, and it will also help us in our overall COVID prevention efforts.

PND: What are the lessons we should take away from the pandemic? What have we learned that we shouldn't forget?

HG: We've learned a lot about how to engage communities that are hard to reach. We've learned a lot about how to work with community organizations to build trust and get the support of communities that are used to being ignored or neglected. Building trust is incredibly important if the vaccine rollout is to be effective. We know that 58 percent of African Americans nationally say they won't take the vaccine, even though African Americans have been among the hardest hit by the virus. So we really have to focus on and lean into how we are working with those communities and make sure we're doing so in a way that builds trust, not only for the duration of this pandemic, but for the next crisis and the one after that.

— Matt Sinclair

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