Friday, January 21, 2011

Tom Tresser Calls NPO Leadership to Action in Chicago's Mayoral Election

I think it’s time Chicago’s mentor program leadership got together and demanded some real investment by political leadership. With the coming mayoral elections on the horizon, the time is now. Bear with me as I explain.

When I signed on three years ago as GIS Specialist for non-profit Tutor/Mentor Connection (T/MC), I was finishing my M.Ed and working in a Chicago Public School (CPS) on Chicago’s high-poverty, crime-riddled west side. I believe that the majority of CPS students I have met these past years are talented with academic upside (and if you don’t agree, I have to doubt you have actually met any of them).

Unfortunately CPS students are often underprepared at an early age, in comparison to students I have worked with in “better” suburban schools. Many of them read at a lower grade level. Many do not have optimal parental support. The schools they attend are often poorly equipped in general.

While this inequity itself is well-documented, it seems sometimes, no matter how much empirical research I cite, I struggle to guide the discussion away from finger pointing and toward an understanding that poverty (and the poorly-equipped students that are often raised in poverty) are everybody’s problem, no matter how far away from Chicago you move, or who is at fault.


Across bipartisan lines, most would agree I think that underprepared students grow up to become adults that are underprepared to be workers, parents, and citizens. In worst-case scenarios, the costs of crime, prisons, and welfare affect taxpayers everywhere. So for me the question is, do we want to look for solutions to help at-risk students take care of themselves now, or do we prefer to have to take care of them later, with a continued cost of poverty?

Here’s the good news, as I’ve come to learn: Contrary to what the media too often shows (and far too many people I talk to in casual conversation believe), many CPS students are actually... smart. As a teacher whose job was to provoke critical thought among inner-city social studies high school students who were often reading at an elementary level, I constantly marveled at how many of these students had creative, outside-the-box approaches to complex historical and civics-related problems. They often have the ideas but not the tools, if you will.

Many of these same students are also willing to take on additional tutoring and commit to long-term mentors, when such opportunities present new tools, and new hope of a brighter future. Indeed, as a teacher then, and as a volunteer now, I continue to meet students with the initiative to enroll in optional school-based tutor programs like AVID, as well as non-school tutor/mentor programs like Cabrini Connections.

That’s half the battle, right? Finding large numbers of at-risk students who are willing to take the extra step to receive supplemental academic and decision-making support, bridge the gaps they face in their development, and put themselves on paths to college and career, versus continued poverty?

They’re out there, and I know for fact that mentoring programs can work. My personal stories aside, I recently wrote a blog that featured the story of Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, a high school in the notorious Englewood neighborhood that employs full-time mentors, and in four years has put more than 2/3 of their incoming freshmen into four-year colleges, despite the fact most arrived reading at a sixth-grade level or below.

But back to the point. Three years ago, I signed on at T/MC, a program that has been trying to organize resources that support mentoring programs and encourage new "Urban Prep"-like case studies in neighborhoods everywhere.

All I was being asked to do was use my skill as mapmaker and GIS professional to show how T/MC program data could be visualized – in map form – to the advantage of political, business, or other community leaders whose goals included safer communities, better schools, workforce development, and tax relief.

I jumped at the chance to work with an organization that was trying to take the lead, organizing bi-annual conferences designed to bring mentor program leadership together, and stockpiling data and information in a centralized hub for these same leaders to use and share.

To me, it all made so much sense. Help build it, I thought… and as sensible people, they would come.

Well, three years later, politicians are still talking about crime and schools and workforce malaise.

People are more freaked out than ever about crime and schools and workforce malaise.

Reports continue to show that mentoring helps address crime and schools and workforce malaise.

And yet somehow, there’s still little unity among the city’s mentor programs, and it’s still not fashionable for political leaders to include mentoring as a part of a proposed solution to the items on their agenda.

For me, I continue to work in obscurity. And while I’m told by some to remain patient, I can’t help but lament that my efforts have been overlooked... with no indication this will change. After all, attendance figures at mentoring conferences I attend aren’t really soaring, we have seen a virtual freeze in donations and other investment in our technologies, and my web analytics tell me that very few people will probably even read this, honestly.

But maybe that's just the nature of the blogosphere beast. Maybe I'm not really alone in any of this, and am instead just a single fractured voice, lost at sea trying to find others with similar concerns and ideas – others who are out there but are also failing to find a unifying force.

Last week on Outside The Loop Radio, WLUW Chicago, host Mike Stephen interviewed Tom Tresser, an instructor at DePaul University and IIT, a former candidate for Cook County Board President, and a non-profit veteran since 1980.

Tresser recently issued a rallying cry of sorts in the Beachwood Reporter, which he then echoed during his interview on the Outside The Loop program. He too sees a lack of unity among non-profit leadership across the board, and is urging Chicago’s non profit leaders to “take advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity [to] get involved in the 2011 election for Chicago's mayor.”

I felt a shiver of hope (misery loves company, I guess) when he pointed out that, while all non-profit sectors are suffering with familiar disunity and dwindling funding, NPOs do employ hundreds of thousands of workers in Chicago. In other words, they remain a vital source of employment and a potentially powerful constituency for a politician looking for votes.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the unity, clout, or power at this point to take advantage of our numbers in the political arena, he says.

Tresser explains, "Elected officials have a reptilian brain.” They size up an interest group and determine “can this entity help me or hurt me” and if it can do neither, it ignores them and moves on. He says, “You've got to show how you can help or hurt a candidate in order to be taken seriously.”

We’ve seen how mentoring can help politicians. My recent blogs have cited issues our mayoral candidates are employing in their campaigns, and how mentoring can help them achieve their specific goals.

So my question to the leadership at T/MC and mentoring programs everywhere is: Who is going to step up in the name of mentoring, and forge the politically powerful “vast constituency” Tresser insists is necessary to secure the ears and support of those in power; politicians who have the influence to make mentorship a fashionable component of any political platform, while encouraging volunteering, new leadership, and new investment in mentoring everywhere?

This is the reason I got involved with T/MC in the first place – its mission is one of community and unity among program leaders everywhere, as evidenced by T/MC's commitment to their bi-annual conferences, and their mission “to help [programs] already operating, then help new programs form by borrowing from ideas of existing programs.” There’s is a clear commitment, from the top at T/MC, to the unification of mentoring leadership throughout the Chicago area.

So who is going to step up?

And by the way – for those leaders who are hoping Tresser backs up his call to action with an explanation of how this can work (after all, non-profits are forbidden by law to engage in politics directly), Tresser does lay out a strategy for working around this little hurdle, if anyone cares to read or listen about it.

And I hope he is onto something tangible, because it stands to reason that if non-profit leaders fail to organize and obtain real influence, they will continue to be ignored and eventually disappear. Tresser points out that even in a solid economy, 60% of non-profits struggle to make ends meet, but that in this crippled economy, the state of Illinois now owes 1.4 billion to non profits, while the government continues to bail out the "banks, insurance companies, General Motors and Goldman Sachs to the tune of trillions of dollars.”

I signed on three years ago to make maps on a part time basis. I am a foot soldier in this war on poverty. Three years (of watching T/MC struggle) later, I impatiently wonder if an alliance of non-profit leadership can happen in time to influence this mayoral election.

Or if it will ever happen.

1 comment:

Tutor Mentor Connections said...

I echo Mike's call. I've sent invitations to political leaders and NPO leaders to use the maps and other information the Tutor/Mentor Connection provides to help the city have a universe of high-quality, non-school tutor/mentor programs reaching more kids in high poverty areas. So far, too few are responding to this invitation. We'll keep sending it as long as we can find a few people who will provide time, talent and dollars to help.

Dan Bassill
Tutor/Mentor Connection