Brian Fabes

Brian Fabes has built a career out of bridging divides. Now, as Senior Advisor, he is sharing that worldview at the Harris School of Public Policy, collaborating with faculty, staff, and partners – and helping students move “from policy to action.”

Fabes is the managing director of the Corporate Coalition of Chicago, a group of companies focused on reducing regional racial and economic inequities, and for 15 years was CEO of the Civic Consulting Alliance (CCA), a nonprofit organization which has played a crucial role in educational, public safety, health care, and economic development initiatives in the Chicago area through a variety of public-private partnerships.

That through-line of collaboration continues at the University of Chicago, where Fabes – who holds a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – is also executive in residence at the Booth School of Business and a senior fellow at NORC at UChicago.

We sat down with Fabes to discuss his work at Harris, the issues he cares about, and the path he’s taken to get here.

What is the scope of your role at Harris?

I hope that I can bring some degree of experience and perspective to students as they think about projects, classes, and even careers. I've had a few careers and I've worked on a lot of projects – and I think I have a perspective, not the only one, but a perspective on how one can move from policy to action, how one can choose what areas to work on. I hope I can be helpful to the faculty, as well, as they think about collaborations with leaders in Chicago, be they public sector or private sector. I’m excited about the possibilities. 

What’s on your Harris agenda this year?

First, I want to get to know the students, talk with them, and learn about them and how they want to make a difference. I’ll be partnering with staff across Harris on a number of initiatives, including possibly leading seminars for students on how to look for a job. I’ll be engaged with the Obama Foundation Scholars on civic engagement opportunities, and hope to explore new ways for Harris to connect to it. I'll meet with people across the campus and Harris communities and then we'll figure out where and how we can do more. 

How did your collaboration with Harris start?

At CCA, we worked with the University of Chicago in a number of ways.  The University is  such a leader in understanding that complex problems require different ways of knowing, different ways of thinking, and different ways of solving problems. I'm very proud of helping to develop the Civic Leadership Academy (CLA). I’ve always been interested in the power of cross-sector interaction, and the CLA model has proven that it makes a real difference. We've been working with Harris on CLA for quite a while, so it was very natural for me to reach out to Dean Katherine Baicker, and see how else I might be useful. 

You’ve had a very interesting career path — calling yourself “an engineering professor turned management consultant.” Can you elaborate?

The CliffsNotes version is I was an engineering professor at the University of Arizona and then went to McKinsey to learn something about the business world, which was funding all my work, with the idea, ultimately, of combining those worlds. After eight years at McKinsey, I went to National Louis University to run a financial turnaround, then became interim provost, and then worked on merging National Louis with other institutions.

Afterward, I spent 15 years building and running the Civic Consulting Alliance, work I'm incredibly proud of. CCA does its work in a unique way, looking for public sector leaders and other leaders interested in making a big difference. If you are interested in revamping the community college system, or you want to address the death gap on the West Side of Chicago, those massive challenges are not about a single project, they’re not even about a single strategy. They’re about how you link strategy and operations and finances and community engagement, all of these things together over time across power structures, across sectors to make real change. 

Now I am working with a group of companies called the Corporate Coalition that are committed to using their assets and capabilities to address inequities in the region, work that became, frankly, more important after 2020 and continues to be as we look to the future.

With such a varied background, are there issues that you are especially passionate about?

One is addressing a labor market that isn’t working for too many Americans and trying to cut through the politics to find solutions.  Longstanding issues are playing out right in front of our eyes with unemployment benefits. Is an extra $300 per week keeping people out of the labor market or are the jobs so poor that it no longer pays to work? There's this fascinating dichotomy of what people think of as solutions. Do we have to fix the people or do we have to fix the jobs? Of course, the answer is both. So what are the most important answers about the jobs and what are the most important answers about the people and how do we bring those things together in a policy way?

What about the city of Chicago? How are the various institutions and sectors working to address these kinds of issues?

Public and private sector collaboration is a really positive story in Chicago in how they work together to address the myriad issues and inequities that exist. At the same time, that collaboration does not extend across power structures, across economic strata, or across racial strata and this is to our collective detriment. Harris’ CLA is actually one of the threads that's trying to build that fabric across power, racial, and economic strata by investing in leaders who are younger – but there’s still a need for all of us across the city to do more. That's a big priority for CCA as we look ahead.   

One thing frequently said at Harris is how public policy can change the world. You’ve said you too want to change the world. Are you optimistic about what’s ahead?

I have this memory of when I was at the University of Arizona, listening to an interview with an attorney who had gotten off the law firm path and was instead running a nonprofit that tried to protect forests. 

He said, "You know, I get up every day, and there are good days and there are bad days. But I know that if I have a good day, someone's life, somewhere at some time in this world is going to be better, because I happened to get up and go to work today."

This has always stuck with me. I realized that at the Civic Consulting Alliance, that some student at CPS, some person on the West Side of Chicago, their life is going to be incrementally better if we do a good job today. And there's something incredibly special about getting up and knowing that your role can have that kind of an impact.  People come to me all the time who say "I've had this career but I've always wanted to do something that matters. I know it sounds sappy, but I want to make a difference." There's nothing sappy about it at all. There's an incredible thing about being human that is fulfilling if what you're doing is trying to help others. I see students and UChicago and people at all stages of their careers who are trying to make the world better, and that makes me incredibly optimistic about the future.