An interview with Valerie Leonard

The nonprofit and development expert talks state of social services, nonprofits in 2018

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By Bonni McKeown

As gentrification issues burst into the 2018 election campaigns for Illinois Governor and Cook County assessor, West Siders wonder: in 10 years, can I afford to live here? What jobs and businesses will be here? What public facilities?

To Valerie F. Leonard, fiscal analyst and community economic development consultant, positive answers to these questions are found in well-working nonprofit organizations and community planning that directly involves citizens. 

Valerie grew up in North Lawndale, the daughter of the late Theodis Leonard and Essie Leonard, both educators and community leaders who came to Chicago from Mississippi in 1957. A Spelman graduate in economics, she earned a master of management degree in finance and marketing from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.

She helps nonprofit organizations strengthen their capacity in strategic planning, proposal writing, management training and program evaluation, always with the goal of serving the larger community. Her internet radio podcast, Nonprofit "U," which can be heard on her website valeriefleonard.com, is now downloaded in 62 countries around the world. She teaches online courses for the University of Illinois at Chicago's Certificate in Nonprofit Management program and conducts grant writing workshops in Chicago and Springfield. 

Ms. Leonard was one of the first financial analysts to discover that the city of Chicago was directing much of the city's Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district monies away from poor communities, contrary to the purpose for which they were created. As a result of her advocacy as leader of the Lawndale Alliance in the mid-2000s, the Ogden Pulaski TIF Redevelopment Plan was revised to minimize the potential for displacing local residents.

To translate policy into politics, in 2004, she helped spearhead North Lawndale Votes, a voter registration and education initiative. She ran unsuccessfully for alderman of the 24th Ward in 2011. She also opposed the closing of local public schools and pushed to get an advisory referendum on the ballot in certain West Side precincts to establish an elected city school board.  The measure passed with 86 percent of the vote.

Today she is vice-chair of the social capital committee of the Cook County Commission on Social Innovation, which researches and reports to the Board of Commissioners on such diverse issues as high speed rail, re-investment in manufacturing, jobs for ex-offenders and better food purchasing for public institutions. 

In 2015, as a founder and member of the executive committee of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council (NLCCC), she spearheaded a groundbreaking comprehensive planning process engaging hundreds of citizens.

Last year, Leonard directed the Loving Lawndale to Life Campaign, a project sponsored by Carey Tercentenary AME Church and the Chicago Westside Branch NAACP, which grew out of the Chicago Community Trust's "On the Table" initiative. She's now expanding her consulting practice to include one-on-one and group coaching for nonprofit leaders, and plans to launch an online community for leaders of emerging nonprofit organizations the first quarter of this year. 

Leonard sat down recently for an interview with Austin Weekly News about her work and some of the community's most pressing needs. 

AWN: What's the state of your neighborhood economy and how has it changed since you grew up?

VL: My mom recalls that parents were much more involved in schools in those days and schools were overcrowded. We haven't recovered from the 1968 riots after King's death. Many manufacturers have left. Now we have many vacant lots, which is a problem but also an opportunity.

My parents saw my generation's role as carrying on a legacy of service, volunteering in church and community. Chicago used to be a mecca for black business. We had WVON, Ebony, Johnson Publishing — none of which are Black-owned now. We had our own insurance companies, media, banks, savings & loans. All of that has been dismantled. I have not studied all the factors. But in many ways we were better off before integration. In the 1930s, we were 7.5 percent of the population contributing 15 percent to the GNP [gross national product]. In 1981, we had grown to 12 percent of the population but contributed only 7 percent to the GNP. We are consumers as opposed to producers!

Statistics from NLCCC's North Lawndale planning process show our neighborhood has an unemployment rate of 25.4 percent, double the city average. North Lawndale's average household income is $22,400, less than half the city's $48,500. As of 2014, several major health care and social services provided almost 27 percent of the neighborhood's 6,600 jobs surveyed, with 19 percent of today's local jobs still in manufacturing. 

We're vulnerable also because so many people depend on government programs like Medicare, Medicaid, SSI, SSDI, and TANFF. Mt. Sinai Hospital depends on state government reimbursements for 80 percent to 90 percent of its income. So when the state has a financial problem or cutback, it impacts both our jobs and our community services. 

AWN: What do you see next for the West Side?

VL: The West Side, particularly, North Lawndale and Garfield Park, have clearly been on the drawing board for redevelopment for quite some time. The plans are for new development, the likes of which have not been seen since the 1950's.  

In a poor community, many people don't have opportunities to take advantage of new jobs and entrepreneurships from new development. In 2015-16, in the NLCCC planning process, I was trying to put the mechanisms in place to strengthen our existing people and businesses. If we are not intentional in our planning, the people who live here will be left out.

Rank-and-file community residents need to be engaged in community planning processes, with a spirit of self-determination, and the effects of displacement minimized.  As community residents, you must find your own voices. You are best at representing your own interests.

Nearby In Humboldt Park, Blocks Together is working with residents and neighborhood businesses to advocate for changes in education, housing and economic development policies that truly benefit local residents while preparing them for change.  Every community should have an organization that does this.

AWN: What kind of conditions are nonprofits facing right now?

VL: Nonprofits have worked with the government sector to provide a safety net for theleast of these. Unfortunately, that safety net is broken. President Trump's new tax law doubled the standard deduction, which gives taxpayers less incentive to itemize deductions. This could cut down on individual giving, the greatest source of donations to nonprofits.  

Nearly three years ago, Gov. Rauner cut social service contract dollars; implemented policies that favor large nonprofits over smaller nonprofits; held up payments owed to nonprofits; and terminated contracts with other nonprofits, causing them to cut services, go out of business or operate at a minimum.

To become sustainable, nonprofits will need to raise money from a variety of sources, including fees for services, to reduce their dependence on grants and donations. They may create social enterprises that generate unrestricted income to be used as the organization sees fit. Nonprofits also need to learn more about these issues and lobby for laws and policies more beneficial to their organizations, their clients and the communities they serve.  (Nonprofits are permitted to spend a certain portion of time lobbying for laws and policies — they just can't support political candidates).

CONTACT: bonni@barrelhousebonni.com 

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Valerie F. Leonard  

Posted: January 25th, 2018 8:34 PM

Clarification: The Lawndale Alliance circulated petitions for an elected school board referendum in the entire 24th Ward, and not just selected precincts in 2012.

Valerie F. Leonard  

Posted: January 25th, 2018 8:08 PM

Bonni, I want to thank you for taking the time to interview me for this story. I thank Michael Romain and the Austin Weekly News for their editorial support, as well.

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