Long-time North Lawndale community activist and community development consultant Valerie Leonard received the first-ever Game Changer in Community Service Award on the evening of Oct. 27.
This was one of the several awards that were given out by the Homan Square-based New Covenant Community Development Corporation at its third annual Game Changers for Economic Impact gala.
The event was held in Austin’s Columbus Park Rectory, 5701 W Jackson.
The awards usually go to innovative North Lawndale businesses, but this year, the NCCDC decided to add an award to recognize those who work hard to improve the community. As the NCCDC officials readily admitted, there was never any real question as to who this year’s recipient would be.
Leonard has been working to help North Lawndale for the past few decades. According to the bio on her official website, she founded the Lawndale Alliance, which has advocated for school improvements, fairer Tax Increment Financing fund usage and aid to homeowners affected by the 2008 mortgage crisis, among other initiatives.
Most recently, Leonard became one of the three co-founders of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, which is working to create a comprehensive development plan for the North Lawndale community.
Dennis Deer, a fellow NLCCC co-founder, serves as a NCCDC’s president. As he explained in the opening remarks during the gala, the organization has been around since 2012. The money raised from the gala, Deer said, will allow NCCDC to offer classed provided by its Small Business Development Center for free.
“[The center] provides small business consulting services, business advisory,” Deer said. “We teach people who desire their own businesses how to have them. [The program includes] entrepreneurship classes, one-on-one advising [and] consulting services.”
NCCDC also launched the North Lawndale Chamber of Commerce. Deer said it wasn’t the first time someone tried to create one, but this one has survived the challenges so far, and he was optimistic about its future.
“We have 15 to 20 members already who are having a unified voice in the development of the community,” he said.
As NCCDC director Angelique Orr explained during the gala, the Game Changers awards are meant to do more than recognize local businesses.
“Every year, we have an opportunity to celebrate exceptional entrepreneurs,” she said. “They’re there to change game and they’re game-changers. You stepped out of nothing and made something happened – you changed the game.”
Deer said that NCCDC wanted to give Leonard an award to recognize how she changed the community, even though she isn’t a business owner.
“[We gave her the award] because of all the work she’s done in community organizing and community advancement, all of the work she did in order to [create] a better community,” he said. “She is very, very deserving of those accolades, even though she doesn’t like them very much.”
NCCDC Vice-President Rodney Brown offered his own praise.
“She has the hart and passion for making sure things get done for the people who need it,” he said of Leonard. Deer said that Leonard wasn’t told she was getting the award until she arrived at the gala. When she came up to the podium, she found herself at a loss of words.
“I’m having an Oprah moment,” she said. “I’m speechless.”
The procession of honors for Leonard, however, won’t end with NCCDC. On Nov. 2, she’ll be recognized by the Chicago Chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance for her work in social enterprise during a session held from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at Sankofa House, 4041 W. Roosevelt Rd.
Entrepreneurs who won the awards this year included Katros Consulting firm founder and CEO Lynn Sutton; Landon Williams and Jason Diggs, co-owners of Against the Grain Designs accessories maker; Elliot Porter, owner of the Grade A Car Spa car wash; and Michelle Sharp, owner of the It’s-Sooo [sic], an all-natural clearing products company.