I organized a dinner earlier this week in Chicago for Pastor Corey Brooks, founder of Project Hood, which serves youth in the challenged neighborhood of Englewood. Attendees included executives from Chicago area companies. The goal was to interest the companies in supporting the programs of the NGO.
Pastor Brooks started his remarks with a heart-wrenching tale. One of his mentees just recently committed suicide after dealing with the pressures of the possible consequences of some of his dark actions. "When I heard the news of his suicide, I wanted to quit. What's the use of my work?" Pastor Brooks asked. But later in the day, a friend of the deceased spotted the Pastor and hugged him saying, "Thank you for saving my life. Without you, I would have been dead." With new resolve, Pastor Brooks carries on.
We talked about the continued gang activity in the area and threats to individual safety. There is a very low vaccination rate against COVID due to lack of trust in government. Schools lack extracurricular activities due to budget cuts so that youth has too much spare time. Business needs to be a part of the solution.
There was an important reckoning at the table. The companies are willing to support programs, not capital campaigns. They want return on their investment in a tangible sense. For example, Barilla might support a test kitchen experimenting with new recipes or ConAgra would fund a program aimed at healthy eating or Walgreens a pharmacist training effort. There was also recognition of the potential for mentoring of the local youth; that this would be an impactful experience for the youth, and the mentors would better understand the profound challenges of inner-city Chicago. The HR budget of companies could be tapped.
It also was clear that companies are reticent about locating factories in Englewood. A neighbor in my rental building in Chicago is a food broker and maker of pork rinds. He was quite definitive about not building in unsafe areas; why jeopardize my personal safety?
Pastor Brooks is training hundreds of young people to go into food service, gardening, construction and programming. He employs former convicts as docents; they are role models in reverse, having served time in prison, aiming to prevent the next generation from following that path. He is the eternal optimist, now ten years into a life mission of changing the neighborhood. He is succeeding through sheer effort; from the highest crime area in Chicago to number 20 today.
The future for Project Hood depends on its ability to go beyond the classic donation model reliant on the wealthy. It is to connect the mission to corporate Chicago, to get food research labs and test kitchens built in the new center. The aspiring corporate leaders should be part of a junior board, called upon to mentor and to bring students downtown to see what is possible. I am 100 percent in for this challenge. Who will join me?
Richard Edelman is CEO.