When Darius Ballinger went looking for ways to advance his professional life, he did not have to look far from home to take advantage of the opportunities at the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy. Ballinger is the founder and executive director of Chasing 23 Youth Empowerment Group, an organization working to build unity and introduce life-skills to Chicago’s young people. He knew that in order to go further with his organization, he needed to learn new leadership frameworks and build upon his skills in persuasion, negotiation and goal-setting. Ballinger was accepted into CLA’s fifth cohort and recently graduated from the six month program.

Ballinger said he has always had a burning desire to create real change. “Growing up in the states, growing up in a global city like Chicago, you’re really influenced by social movements and for-profit ventures that could really benefit the community at large,” he said. “I think there’s been moments of obligation along the way that have made me really step into the space that I’m in now.”

These “moments of obligation” were instances where his desire to lead was affirmed, such as when studying his grandparents’ history migrating to Chicago or losing a friend to domestic violence. These moments called him to bring positive change to his community and the world – and Chasing 23 allowed him to pursue this challenge. 

University of Chicago's Civic Leadership Academy

The direct service work done within Chasing 23 helps individuals with soft skills and technical skills navigate larger society. One of his goals is to build and create infrastructure within the community that can be sustained organically. 

Ballinger’s work seeks to instill value in diversity across gender, race, and sexual orientation. “If we start to look at our lives and our world as a beautiful bed of flowers, that each thing, though it’s different, has beauty, then our society and our communities will thrive,” he said.

This ideology carried into his interactions with other CLA fellows. As the youngest member of the cohort, Ballinger had a different lived experience than others in the group. He said he brought some diversity of thought to discussions, while also arresting and challenging his own assumptions and biases. 

“There’s folks that work within the criminal justice system, I work with folks who are impacted by the criminal justice system, so we’re having conversations about what does this system look like for both of us and what does our work look like,” said Ballinger.

As the executive director of a nonprofit, Ballinger found value in learning how to navigate interactions and partnerships with government. CLA improved his ability to network with and understand those who work in other sectors. The program provided an opportunity for fellows to converse with each other outside the context of being pitted against each other as their positions at work sometimes required, bridging the divide that often develops between the government and nonprofit sectors. The networking between Ballinger and representatives of the criminal justice system helped him further understand his own work as an advocate. 

Through these conversations, Ballinger identified two important factors to keep in mind: clear outcomes and understanding of capacity. First, he said if governments clarify how the empowering of organizations in turn helps them, and if nonprofits clarify the role they see government playing in their civic or social policies, both will be better off. 

The second factor was capacity. He said the government is very stringent in terms of budgeting, so obtaining funding of projects requires careful maneuvering. Organizations have capacity in terms of how much they can accomplish with the space and resources they have. These two points aided Ballinger in measuring the ability of nonprofits and governments to collaborate.

In addition to the external networking and experience Ballinger received from CLA, he also took time at each module each week to reflect on himself and how the work he does now will aid him in the years to come. 

Darius Ballinger and Rosa Ortiz (CLA'19)

“Each week caused me to really have a deep reflection because I’m at a point in my career where, while mistakes and failures are a part of the process, I really want to make the most of opportunities,” he said. “I just really want to be mindful of my proximity in relation to social movements, in relation to government, so it benefited me a lot to really be thinking critically about growth and my leadership capacity.” 

One of the greatest impacts CLA had on Ballinger came from the faculty. “When you ask people about experiences that they had, jobs that they work, programs that they went to, they always identify that one individual who lifted it up, the coach, the assistant, the person who took out the extra time,” he said. For Ballinger, this exceptional faculty member was William Howell, Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and a professor in the Department of Political Science and the College, who serves as faculty director of CLA. Howell was able to affirm his early questions and doubts which helped him to thrive within the program.

Darius Ballinger and Professor William Howell

Ballinger said as an alum he hopes to always be connected to the program. He continues to think of how it can grow and be more impactful for future cohorts. The experience taught him much about being a young leader emerging in the field, and challenged him to try and answer his own big question: “What does it look like for us as a nation at large to take up our own piece of what it is that we have to do?”

Darius is a recipient of the Field Leader Award, a highly selective honor given to visionary individuals to partake in robust leadership development programs given by The Field Foundation of Illinois. Field Leaders are recognized for their incredible leadership qualities, their vision for our city, strong work ethic, and immense talents that are making powerful impacts on the city and their communities.