Land of Opportunity

Many people seem to have forgotten that America was built by immigrants and refugees. Throughout history, they’ve contributed to the fabric of this nation. But today, in the media and in public debate, refugees are routinely portrayed as a burden and, on many occasions, as a threat.

Listen to three thought-leaders share their stories of struggle and hope, and a belief in a moral compass that is still alive in the hearts of all Americans.


Alexander Betts, Sayu Bhojwani, Tan Le

How about a New Year’s resolution to preserve our humanity?

I’ve realized that we gain wisdom and compassion when we let people tell their own stories. I invite you to pause in the next few days remaining in 2016 and listen to a moving, heartfelt and at times funny talk by someone who has walked the path. I hope it will give you as much new insight and inspiration as it had given me, or even more.

Brené Brown: Human Connection
“…Religion has gone from ‘I believe in faith and mystery’ to certainty–‘I’m right. You’re wrong. Shut up.’ This is what politics is today. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame. We try to perfect, most dangerously, our children. They’re hardwired for struggle when they get here. Our job is not to make them perfect. Our job is to tell them that they’re worthy of love and belonging…”

Andrew Solomon: Identity and Meaning
“…We don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities, but we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences. We cannot bear a pointless torment, but we can endure great pain if we believe that it’s purposeful…”

Bryan Stevenson: Justice
“…We love innovation. We love technology. We love creativity…There is no disconnect around technology and design that will allow us to be fully human until we pay attention to suffering, to poverty, to exclusion, to unfairness, to injustice…Ultimately, our humanity depends on everyone’s humanity…”

Breaking the Silence

On Saturday, October 15, I volunteered to help raise awareness for suicide prevention. People gathered in the mist at 6:00 a.m. to set up for the Out of the Darkness Chicagoland Community Walk by Grant Park in Chicago. As daylight came, so did the people wearing colorful t-shirts to remember loved ones they lost to suicide. There were 4,300 registered walkers and the event raised more than $700,000 for vital research and programs.


Suicide is a serious public health problem that takes an enormous toll on families, friends, classmates, co-workers, and communities, as well as on our military personnel and veterans.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014–the most recent year for which full data is available–someone in the United States died by suicide every 12.9 minutes. This makes it the 10th leading cause of death for Americans, but unlike many other leading causes, suicide continues to claim more lives each year.

To know the reason for someone’s suicide death is challenging. Research has shown that most people who die by suicide have a potentially treatable mental disorder at the time of their death. The disorder has often gone unrecognized and untreated. What we know about the causes of suicide is lagging behind that of other life-threatening illnesses because the stigma surrounding suicide has limited society’s investment in vital research.

Having heard the stories of volunteers made me realize that even when our lives appear fine from the outside, locked within can be a world of quiet suffering, leading some to the decision to end their life. During his TEDTalk in March 2011, JD Schramm asks us to break the silence surrounding suicide and suicide attempts, and to create much-needed resources to help people trying to fully reclaim their lives after escaping death.

Since its founding in 1987, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has connected tens of thousands of people who have lost a family member, loved one or friend to suicide and help them cope. AFSP has reached thousands of individuals who are at risk for suicide, as well as those who love and care for them to make prevention possible. In order to help people understand the facts, AFSP has gained the participation of members of the scientific and clinical communities, who conduct groundbreaking research on suicide and its prevention. To fully achieve its mission, AFSP engages individuals and families, scientists and legislators, and community organizations in essential dialogue to increase awareness, understanding and support for those impacted by suicide.

It is a journey in which everyone must participate because the stories surrounding suicide reflects what’s happening in our homes, our schools and our communities. The more we openly talk about it and listen, the better we can see and act.

To find out more, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at

The Power of Story to Preserve our Cultures and our Species

Since the beginning of human history, stories have shaped culture and people’s way of life. It’s where their identity is deeply rooted. It’s how families, tribes and communities keep their legacies alive.

Listen to three storytellers, each with a compelling case inviting us, as individuals, to seek the truth about cultures outside of our own. For it is through listening to the personal stories of others that we can fully understand the world around us, realize what truly matters, and get clarity on how to preserve our own humanity.

Elizabeth Lindsey, Chimamanda Adichie, Dalia Mogahed

Elizabeth Lindsey, Chimamanda Adichie, Dalia Mogahed

Redemption Song

In the midst of all the unrest sparked by the victimization of black men in the hands of police and police being a target for violence, there is so much opportunity for real dialogue. Long overdue are the essential conversations about how community policing must change. Long overdue are the times when citizens and law enforcement come together and listen to understand.

I invite you to take the first step and listen to these voices with an impassioned plea for understanding. Their stories give insight into the truth that could lead us on a new path—a path that will require our courage to think differently, to speak openly and to act toward justice.

Clint Smith, Melvin Russell, John Legend, Adam Foss

Clint Smith, Melvin Russell, John Legend, Adam Foss

America, Americana, and the price we pay to be Free

Happy Independence Day! In my neighborhood of Rogers Park in Chicago, we’ve got cool summer weather perfect for enjoying the outdoors and some great grilling. For the entire country, it’s a time to celebrate our victories as a nation, to celebrate our freedom, and to express our patriotism. But what does this all mean? What is freedom in today’s context?

What does it mean to be an American, to value our liberties and at the same time, recognize that others share that same freedom with us? Today we will hear STORIES that reveal the truth about the men and women who fight for our country’s freedom, not romanticized, not idealized. It’s what most of us don’t see, or don’t know about, or sometimes, even choose to ignore.

On this 4th of July, the American holiday of all American holidays, I’d like to introduce you to the music of Rolfe Neigenfind. Rolfe describes his music as embodying the spirit of Americana with roots in the Blues. A native of North Carolina, Rolfe recently found his home in Rogers Park. I’ll be playing songs from his latest album entitled Chicago now available on iTunes.

Listen. Reflect. Celebrate.

Wes Moore, Rolfe Neigenfind, Sebastian Junger

Wes Moore, Rolfe Neigenfind, Sebastian Junger

Bringing Voices to the Table for Education in the Inner City

cropped-on_the_table_logo_blue_RGBTrust_logo_horizontal_dark_grayOn May 10, 2016 the Chicago Community Trust held its third On the Table, an annual forum designed to elevate civic conversation, foster new relationships and create a unifying experience across the region. Barkada Circle® hosted a dinner where participants talked about the current state of education for urban youth. This continued the conversation we started in May 2015 when we hosted our first On the Table in Evanston, Illinois.

Co-hosting was Valerie Groth, founder and executive director of Ryan Banks Academy, a nonprofit initiative building Chicago’s first boarding school for inner city youth. Named after one of Valerie’s former students who was gunned down in 2012 at the age of 12, Ryan Banks Academy’s mission is to provide Chicago’s at-risk students with an exceptional education as well as a supportive, safe, and loving living environment. Valerie is a former school social worker and had a compelling story to share.

Our discussion revolved around the question:

“What missing conversations could make quality education a reality for kids in Chicago’s urban neighborhoods with high crime rates?”

The group generated ideas and more questions to be addressed at future gatherings:

  • Schools today are working in silos? What can we do to change that?
  • How can we impact children differently if they stay in the same community? What happens if we take them out of there to change their surroundings?
  • Kids need an environment where they can focus on being a student. How can we use the model of a boarding school to achieve positive outcomes?
  • How can we leverage crowdsourcing to fund specific projects for education in underserved communities?
  • Why doesn’t equity funding work?
  • We need to change the structure for how we pay for education.
  • In the first year of On the Table, the concept of Sister Neighborhoods was formed–an initiative that instigates cultural exchange and creates hospitality and openness across communities. Can this be applied as a model to elevate the state of education for neighborhoods that are struggling?
  • We need a new curriculum that values social & emotional wellness.
  • Learning must be experiential. How do we design programs around the students’ real experiences so they can learn directly from adversity and build their resilience?
  • We need to take students away from a system that puts them in debt before they enter the workforce. What else is viable outside of college?

Who were at the table? Val and I are grateful to all of our guests who gave so generously of their time to engage in this essential conversation.

speaker-bw_MartinAtkinsMartin Atkins is a musician best known for his work in groups including Public Image, Ltd, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Pigface, and Killing Joke. He currently teaches music and social media at Columbia College. Martin is also an honorary board member of the Chicago-based nonprofit organization Rock For Kids.

speaker-bw_PattyCooperFor nearly 20 years, Patty Cooper has had the time of her life coaching and facilitating groups across the country with The Second City of Chicago and as a corporate trainer for LVMH, the largest luxury group in the world. She is a recent graduate of the Newfield Network, a transformational coaching program that focuses on why we do the things we do, how to find new paths of learning and being able to do things that were once thought impossible. She is currently publishing her first children’s book and novel.

speaker-bw_MeggieCramerMeggie Cramer is an award-winning writer and storyteller who has worked with Oscar®-nominated directing team Carl Deal and Tia Lessin on documentary projects since 2008; including Trouble the Water and their most recent film, Citizen Koch. She has worked for multi-national film and television companies Showtime Australia and HBO on shows including Satisfaction, Mildred Pierce, Game of Thrones, and Cinema Verite. Meggie spent time at Tribeca Productions and, overseeing series and commercial productions airing around the world. She has collaborated with nonprofits and social impact productions to broaden their influence across social media platforms, connect like-minded activists to a common goal, and write grants to support community projects in which she believes.

speaker-bw_FeliciaDavisFelicia Davis is the Executive Director 
of the Public Building Commission of Chicago. She previously served as the first Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement. Davis also served as the First Deputy Chief of Staff for Mayor Emanuel from May 2011 to June 2012. Before returning to public service, Davis served as the Vice President of Administration at Kendall College. Prior to Kendall College, she served the Chicago Police Department (CPD), with distinction for 10 years. During her tenure at CPD, she worked in many roles, completing her law enforcement career as a Detective in the Department’s Violent Crimes section, where she also oversaw the Community Policing Strategies.

speaker-bw_MesminDestinMesmin Destin is an Assistant Professor of Education and Social Psychology at Northwestern University. He grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, completed his bachelor’s degree at Northwestern, and completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at the University of Michigan before returning to Northwestern as a faculty member about six years ago. Mesmin directs a lab group where they conduct experiments aimed at identifying factors that improve academic motivation and outcomes for students from low socioeconomic status back-grounds from middle school through college. His spouse is a Chicago Public Schools high school teacher and they enjoy living in Andersonville.

speaker-bw_LanettaTurnerLanetta Haynes Turner currently serves as the Cook County Justice Advisory Council Executive Director. Prior to this role, Lanetta served as Executive Director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cook County. She has served as a co-chair of the County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center Advisory Board and on various juvenile justice-related organizations.

speaker-bw_MichaelKoskoMichael Kosko is the Career and Technical Education Coordinator and Science Co-Chair at Al Raby School for Community and Environment in Chicago Public Schools.  He completed his graduate work and earned his teacher leadership certification at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. His master’s project focused on how digital feedback on student writing affected their performance and engagement during the writing process. When he is not teaching environmental science to his freshman students, you can find him coaching new teachers or working in the school’s new hydroponics lab. Outside of school, you can find Michael at the gym, in his garden, or checking out new restaurants with his husband, Mesmin.

speaker-bw_DavidMagillDavid Magill is the former Chief Executive Officer of the Lab School in Chicago. Before coming to Chicago, David worked as a superintendent in Pennsylvania. He currently works as an educational consultant at the Academy for Global Citizenship. David has also served as a member of the Newberry Library Advisory Board in Chicago, the program consultant at Princeton Day School in New York, and a member of the Board of Trustees at Community Development Corporation in Pennsylvania.

speaker-bw_BradPaulsenBrad Paulsen is the Senior Vice President at Wight & Company. In addition, Brad also serves as the Practice Leader for Wight’s PK-12 Education Practice. Brad is a member of the American Institute of Architects and the Council of Educational Facility Planners International. He has authored articles on school planning, been cited by numerous national publications on issues relevant to school facility planning and design, and has spoken at several educational conferences in recent years.

speaker-bw_DometiPongoDometi Pongo is the morning news anchor for talk station WVON 1690AM where he also writes and produces radio features and special programming. His community work as a speaker and analyst have been featured in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, The Huffington Post, and several location publications. He is also a program director at Illinois Media School.

speaker-bw_MaricarRamosMaricar L. Ramos is Senior Manager for Workforce and Partnership Development in Chicago Public Schools. She spear-heads and manages partnerships between the school district (CPS) and other public sector entities such as the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership (CCWP) in order to increase workforce development and youth employment opportunities for all Chicago public school students. Maricar manages a team of partnership development liaisons who create, grow, and maintain external partnerships with corporations and other business entities in order to provide job shadows, site visits, guest speakers, and work internships for over 17,000 students enrolled in CPS Career and Technical Education programs.


speaker-bw_ValGrothValerie Groth is the founder of Ryan Banks Academy, a nonprofit dedicated to building the first residential school for underserved youth in Chicago. She worked for many years as a social worker in Chicago Public Schools, providing individual and group counseling to students and their families. Valerie has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, a Masters degree in Social Work, and a second Master’s degree in Educational Administration. Valerie was recently invited to join the Clinton Global Initiative for her work with Ryan Banks Academy. Additionally, she was awarded the honor of being chosen to be featured in the I Am Chicago campaign. The campaign will spend the next two years profiling six dynamic individuals who embody the power and innovation of Chicago.

speaker-bw_PonAngaraPon Angara is Director of Barkada Circle®, a team of artists mentoring nonprofits on how to tell more compelling stories about their missions. Pon helps their leaders use the power of storytelling to spark bold and innovative ideas that will bring their organizations to the next level. He has delivered keynotes and workshops on storytelling at several association conferences and foundation seminars.  When he’s not working with stories, Pon searches for his next great foodie find! He’s always ready to take you to the best Filipino restaurants in Chicago.