Place Matters: How Collective Impact and Place-Based Investment Can Empower Communities to Lead
Place matters. For as long as I can remember, my identity was defined by my Chicago neighborhood. Growing up, my neighborhood was everything to me. It meant walking to the lake; the fire hydrant opening in the summer; the flurry of kids playing in the water; buying a bag of chips and a pop at the corner store, eating paletas; and waiting for the red line train on cold winter days.
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, 77 to be exact, each with its distinct look, feel, food and people. Despite the beauty of our neighborhoods, there is a deep history of segregation, systemic racism, and disinvestment that shapes and manifests Black and brown communities’ societal issues across the city. I’ve seen what happens when you strip a community of the resources needed to prosper. I’ve also seen the impact of empowering communities to chart their own path through place-based investment.
The Urban Institute defines place-based investing as “the local deployment of impact capital — that is, investments made with the intent to yield both financial and social and/or environmental returns — to address the needs of marginalized communities.”
In philanthropy, a top-down approach and lack of lived experience has often led to funder-driven decision-making that lacks authentic community expertise and inclusion. The place-based approach gives the communities that funders work with the authority to identify their own greatest assets and needs, and to articulate their own priorities. To understand why it is so important, we need to step back to acknowledge the historical context.
In Chicago, we see a tale of two cities. Much of the city’s South and West sides reflect a stark difference in housing, resources, and investment from their North side counterparts. These differences can be attributed to decades of disinvestment tracing back to the 1930s and a government-led neighborhood grading system known as redlining. Redlining set the stage for housing policies that deemed mortgages and economic investment in communities with large populations of minorities as “high risk.” As a result, private lenders, banks, real estate agents and landlords created discriminatory housing practices.
Compounded by “white flight,” these practices led to the economic and racial segregation in American cities, and none more apparent than Chicago. Despite policies passed to end discriminatory redlining practices in the mid to late 1970s, developers continue to prioritize projects in downtown and North side neighborhoods. Chicago's redlined neighborhoods of the 1930s are the same neighborhoods facing the most challenging socio-economic issues 90 years later.
To undo the damages created by redlining and other racist policies, a place-based approach must be central in improving the quality of life for residents that have borne the brunt for generations. And this is why place matters — philanthropy and the non-profit sector must commit to a long-term, community-centered, place-based approach that includes: resident voice, social service alignment, policy, advocacy, economic development, and the built environment in a hyper-local geographic location. The work is daunting, but the results will help create thriving communities that our most vulnerable populations deserve.
The Neighborhood Network initiative was launched in 2012 as a neighborhood-centric collective impact model. Collective impact is an approach adopted by many in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector that addresses social issues by bringing together a group of actors from different sectors to align services and resources through structured collaboration to ultimately achieve a common goal. While this model has proven effective, especially in issue-based collaborations, i.e., educational outcomes, it quickly became apparent to achieve large-scale community-wide goals, the collective impact approach needed to be place-based vs. issue-based. The place-based approach moves beyond social issues to holistic community-led plans that incorporate economic development and considers the built environment.
In the nonprofit sector, it's our job to build rapport and trust with individuals in communities to best serve them. The Neighborhood Network Initiative is United Way’s place-based strategic approach to addressing local challenges by supporting focused, community-led collaboration. Networks are led by the Community Quarterback, a role that helps bring to the table all the people, resources, and ideas needed to execute community plans. Quarterbacks lead stakeholder coalitions to identify broad-based community visions that incorporate social service delivery, investment in the built environment, and resident leadership development. United Way provides unrestricted funding and technical assistance, and shares best practices to support the networks and partners.
Our partners live, work and intimately know their community's biggest challenges and greatest opportunities. They are working in unison with communities and their leaders, primarily Black and Latinx individuals, toward the common goals to strengthen their neighborhoods in the areas of economic and workforce development; education; housing; safety and more. We’ve been able to make this place-based approach work for Chicago residents in a number of ways:
- United Way of Metro Chicago and the Chicago Community Trust (CCT) together launched the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund. We raised $35 million that went to nearly 400 frontline nonprofits, with a focus on organizations that serve BIPOC communities in Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods. Some community leaders wanted to focus on building COVID testing sites, others emphasized their need for rent and cash disbursement support — each neighborhood strategy had tailored, evolving needs that we strove to meet.
- The Brighton Park neighborhood in Chicago was one of the first Neighborhood Networks in Chicago. In a neighborhood that lacked mental health programs, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Network (BPNN) assessed community health with surveys, connected residents to health providers and offered educational resources and counseling for parents and youth. By learning exactly what families needed most, BPNN created wraparound services for families that support their most urgent needs such as mental health support.
- In a neighborhood that many residents consider a food desert, the partner lead in the Auburn Gresham Neighborhood Network, the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, was awarded $10 million in 2020 by the Pritzker Traubert Foundation for their vision to reimagine the neighborhoods food supply through a Healthy Lifestyle Hub and a renewable energy and urban farming campus. The space is expected to produce more than 26,000 pounds of food each year. Once it’s up and running, the farm and its greenhouses will supply food to a newly constructed marketplace, an existing mobile food-market program and local restaurants.
These are just a few examples of how a place-based approach and listening to community members can strengthen a neighborhood, but we’ve got more work to do. Internally, we are now working on a program that would create a more equitable, just Chicago by supporting small Black and brown led organizations located on Chicago’s South and West sides through $25,000/year grant awards. They know the needs of their community best so our intention is to listen, be an ally, and provide the resources they need to serve their stakeholders. Grantees will also network within a cohort-based program, engage in a capacity-building curriculum to strengthen their organizational infrastructure and develop relationships with corporate partners. This will be a small step in helping our communities take back their neighborhoods through place-based investment.
When I think back to my childhood, I’m reminded of the pride I felt when I walked through my neighborhood and the amazement I had when exploring others. In Chicago and many cities like it, disinvested neighborhoods risk losing their identities if we don’t act now. Let’s put the resources in the hands of Black and Latinx communities and support them as they set their own path for the future.
As the director of community engagement for United Way of Metro Chicago, Jackie guides grant making initiatives and collective impact planning for 10 Neighborhood Network coalitions. She mobilizes government, nonprofit, small businesses and community leaders around common community goals. Additionally, she oversees United Way’s AmeriCorps program, which places 12 AmeriCorps members across the 10 Neighborhood Networks for a year of service addressing critical community needs.
Jackie has more than 10 years of experience in community and civic engagement. Prior to joining United Way in 2015, she worked for Chicago Public Schools and Mikva Challenge. She was the recipient of the 2016 Hispanics in Philanthropy Next Generation Fellowship and holds a bachelor’s degree in communication studies from DePaul University.