Channeling Civic Leadership in Chicago

 |   Shelley Stern Grach

Several months ago, we announced that Microsoft is partnering with the University of Chicago for their new Civic Leadership Academy (CLA).  Developed by the University of Chicago, in partnership with LISC Chicago and the Civic Consulting Alliance, CLA is designed to develop a pipeline of high-potential government and nonprofit leaders, advance the missions of their organizations, and grow the civic infrastructure of Chicago.

Channeling Civic Leadership in Chicago

Classes and modules are taught by University of Chicago faculty, guest lecturers from other major universities and civic leaders from across the nation such as, Kerwin Charles, Ph.D and the Edwin & Betty L. Bergman, Distinguished Service Professor at Chicago Harris & Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and Rayid Ghani, Director of the Center for Data Science and Public Policy and Chief Data Scientist at the Urban Center for Computation & Data.

When we learned that Kerwin and Rayid were planning a CLA module on data analytics, we thought this would be a great place to incorporate a discussion on civic tech — to help data analytics come alive for the student Fellows as well as showcase Chicago’s leadership in this movement.

On March 26th, we had the pleasure of hosting a panel on civic tech and data analytics featuring: Lane Becker of Code for America, Derek Eder, Founder of DataMade and Open Gov Hack Night, Demond Drummer, formerly of Teamwork Englewood and now the Managing Director of Connect Chicago Challenge, and myself. The goal of the discussion was to provide the students an overview of the many “faces” of Civic Tech, share why this knowledge is important to them in their leadership role and to stimulate interest and participation.

Channeling Civic Leadership in Chicago

Like most evening classes and panels, this discussion was lively, “unplugged” and full of debate. Lane provided a global and national perspective of the growth of the civic tech movement, and also added insight on the personality of the stakeholders who participate—stating there is a “fear of technology” by many people and a corresponding “fear of looking incompetent in the face of true data”. He talked about using technology to push solutions to social problems and led the discussion by urging students to stay true to: “what is your problem, what issue do you need to solve and how can you use the data as a tool to solve your problem.”

Derek spoke about the diverse set of people who participate in civic tech and how they have come together to solve problems. His Open Gov Hack Night started with just 10 people–now hundreds attend the Tuesday night meet up at the Merchandise Mart. “It’s a community, it’s a way to solve problems, and it’s a way to make new friends,” stated Derek.

Channeling Civic Leadership in Chicago

It was really fun to see Derek and Demond (our local panelists) recognize several of the CLA cohort—a testament to the intersection of civic tech and tomorrow’s leaders. Demond reflected on his start as a community organizer and how he discovered technology as a solution for neighborhood problems. He gave the backstory on the now nationally famous Large Lots initiative, which is fully supported and managed by the City of Chicago. For a moment there, I thought he was going to run for office, he got so excited.

The somewhat surprising and most interesting part of the discussion was the Channeling Civic Leadership in Chicagounanimous agreement on the power of civic tech engagement for Chicago’s citizens. Another area of pride and harmony was Chicago’s premier reputation in the national civic tech community as a leader and innovator. This was validated by Lane who said, “It’s just a fact and we should celebrate!”

The panel received many questions from the Fellows—and very few were softballs. Most focused on how to get other business colleagues actively engaged in the process; some expressed frustration with pulling others into the process; and a small number expressed their personal trepidation with “data”. Full circle back to Lane’s original assertion—that the data should be used as a tool and a “hammer” for decision making.

Special thanks to Kerwin and Rayid for laying the academic groundwork and framing the conversation in their lectures. Many thanks to Lane, Derek and Demond for their candor and guidance to the Fellows. And special kudo’s to Derek Douglas, Joanie Friedman, Kristie Weliver, and the entire University of Chicago team for investing in our future leaders.

To follow along with the conversation around these topics, be sure to follow @Uchicago, @UchiEngagement, @MSFTChicago and #UChiCLA!

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Shelley Stern Grach
Shelley Stern Grach

They say that great work stems from a combination of passion and commitment, something that Shelley certainly possesses when it comes to her life and career. She currently serves on the boards of the Women’s Business Development Center, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Thrive Chicago, Year Up and LISC Chicago. At Microsoft Chicago, she’s the Director of Civic Engagement, working at the intersection of computing and community, promoting STEM programs and using Microsoft technology to spur growth in the community. So no matter if it's work, play, or giving back, Shelley always makes sure her drive and professionalism help her complete her life's goals.