Amplifying New Voices: How Chicago Funders Are Investing in Diverse Leaders for Racial Equity



As we have been exploring over the past several years, more funders are engaging issues of racial equity. Foundations are taking different approaches, including examining their own internal practices and staffing, rethinking grantmaking priorities, and investing in leaders of color. A recent example of the latter strategy can be found in Chicago, where a push has emerged to elevate new leaders and diversify which voices are shaping civic life in the city.

A couple of the biggest players in Chicago philanthropy—the MacArthur Foundation and the Field Foundation—have teamed up to launch a racial equity initiative, the Leaders for a New Chicago awards, which is aimed at expanding the definition of leadership in the city and recently announced its first cohort of winners.

Thanks to a $2.1 million MacArthur Foundation grant, the Field Foundation was able to give these leadership awards to 14 individuals who bring a range of perspectives to shaping the city’s future. This is an important commitment in a place like Chicago, which is made up of more than 60 percent African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American communities. Although Chicago’s population is diverse, its leadership is not. Field and MacArthur are looking to change that with Leaders for a New Chicago awards to work across boundaries and raise up voices that have been unheard or even suppressed.

The inaugural cohort of awardees come from a wide range of local organizations, such as the Westside Justice Center, Latinos Progresando, City Bureau, and Open Television. They are visual artists, executive directors, youth organizers, museum liaisons, and champions for social justice. Some are well known, while others are up-and-comers just getting started on their missions.

Each of the awardees personally receive $25,000 with no strings attached, while their affiliated organizations receive an additional $25,000 for general operating funds. This is the kind of flexible funding that nonprofits have been desperate for, and now emerging local leaders will have some leeway to try new approaches and expand efforts that are already working on modest scales.

Chicago has defined and redefined itself as a city many times in its history. Lately, though, a growing number of funders have come to believe that the city’s future depends on more proactively embracing its wide diversity of backgrounds and bringing those diverse experiences to civic debate. As we’ve reported, similar conversations are under way among funders in other cities—some of whom are being asked, and asking themselves, hard questions about which voices they’ve been elevating in public life. Increasingly, the heat is on to “pass the mic” to leaders from historically marginalized communities.

While this particular leadership-focused initiative is brand new, it fits in quite nicely with the Field Foundation’s grantmaking model of empowering the local community through justice, art, media, storytelling, and leadership investments. In addition to its Leaders for a New Chicago involvement, Field awards grants to organizations that are focused on leadership advancement and also offers a graduate leadership fellowships to students pursuing master’s degrees at Chicago universities.

Individuals interested in getting in on this push for more diverse leadership in Chicago should know that to be eligible for a Leaders for a New Chicago award, you must be a part of an existing grantee organization (within the last two years) of either the Field or MacArthur foundation. Individuals must also be nominated for the award via Field’s online nomination portal. Across all programs, racial equity remains at the center of the Field Foundation’s current giving strategy.