In 2019, the City of Chicago entered a new era with the historic landslide election of its first female African-American mayor, Lori Lightfoot. In assembling her transition team and cabinet, the political outsider turned to a number of rising stars in Chicago nonprofits and government.

Sybil Michelle Madison (CLA’19) joined the Civic Leadership Academy seeking a way for “nonprofit and government leaders to rethink how they connect and create change.” Then educator who worked with school administrators and who served on a police accountability task force, Madison recognizes that educators and law enforcement cannot solve problems alone. New solutions require collaborations among intersecting systems. At CLA, she noted, “each fellow is deeply connected to their field; CLA creates opportunities with people you’d never know. If you don’t know or can’t connect with someone in the field, you don’t think of these opportunities.”

Madison now serves as Chicago’s new Deputy Mayor for Education and Human Services.

Sybil Madison CLA'19

Madison’s testimony reflects the experience of CLA fellows from the first class in 2015 to recent graduates. For the nearly 150 fellows who have completed the program since 2015, it has served as a dynamic, aspirational learning environment that combines practical leadership development strategies with a supportive professional network. Forging strong personal bonds of respect and trust encourages exchange and testing of ideas that foster professional growth and the capacity for change—for individuals and, ultimately, for the institutions and communities they serve.

CLA alums tell remarkable stories of the program’s profound and enduring effect on their ability to cultivate personal strengths and their capacity to create new models of civic engagement. Many like Madison credit the lessons they learned and lasting relationships they forged at CLA with achieving career and personal goals.

Character & Communication Strategies

“We all contain a host of leadership strategies that we deploy in different situations,” said Sadia Sindhu, director of the Civic Leadership Academy. “At the CLA, we’re constantly challenging the fellows to determine what kind of leader they should strive to be in any given situation – as Professor Harry Davis would say, what character they should bring to center stage.

Jermaine Harris CLA'19

Jermaine Harris (CLA’19) took this to heart. He was promoted to Sergeant at the Chicago Police Department’s 15th District Community Policing Office in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. With knowledge he acquired at CLA about community-based nonprofit agencies—how they function and where they get funding—Harris acts as an empathetic partner with organizations to build bridges between CPD and residents frequently distrustful of the police. He asks himself what dramatic role or strategic role, is required in a given situation: should he be the leader, follower, or coach?

Darnell Shields Jr. CLA'15

The police weren’t the only ones represented from Austin. Though he never expected to take on such a leadership role, Darnell Shields (CLA’15)  stepped up to become the executive director of Austin Coming Together. “I needed to lead,” Shields said. “And CLA helped me become the leader I was seeking to be.” For Shields, CLA conveyed that leadership development isn’t primarily about acquiring a toolbox of external resources. It is, first and foremost, about cultivating the leader within: “who you need to be to have the greatest impact on what other people do.”

Tenisha Jones CLA'15

For Tenisha Jones (CLA’15), CLA supported a segue on her career path from a community-based director of education to an independent consultant. When she was selected to serve on Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s internal education policy transition team, Jones was charged with shepherding a policy agenda formulated by many passionate, outspoken professionals, dealing with complex, sometimes contentious issues. Jones credits CLA with fostering her ability to negotiate, to convince people of the value of doing things they might not, initially, be inclined to do, of “leading beyond authority.”

Relationship Building

Fellows talk about the foundational importance of building strong, lasting relationships of trust that enable them to reach for the phone or send a message to a colleague for information and advice; to float an idea or make an introduction; to take a risk. Relationships among CLA alumni have created a platform for establishing or elevating networks of support for entrepreneurial alumni like Angela Hurlock (CLA’15) and Jason Coleman (CLA’15).

Angela Hurlock CLA'15

Angela Hurlock, an architect by training who co-chaired Mayor Lightfoot’s Housing transition team, has served as executive director of Claretians Associates in South Chicago for 15 years. For Hurlock, CLA was the one sphere with crossover from the nonprofit to government sector. She learned how government operates; how to solicit the right perspective; how to get things done. Hurlock says CLA encouraged her to be “unashamedly bold” about what she believes to be right.

Jason Coleman CLA'15

Jason Coleman, an engineer by profession and a member of the Mayor’s Education transition team, left the corporate sector in 2008 to start the nonprofit Project SYNCERE, one of the largest STEM organizations in Chicago, for youth from under-resourced communities with talent for and interest in careers in engineering. In starting Project SYNCERE, “they were building the boat as they were on it,” and Jason joined the inaugural class of 2015 to learn about the nonprofit sector. He describes CLA classmates as life-long friends; and their quarterly social gatherings—from bowling soirées to family picnics—as celebrations for deepening their relationships. It’s the personal relationships, he notes, rooted in trust and caring, that make possible the professional synergies he has come to count on.

Manny Perez CLA'16

Manny Perez, at age 26, was the youngest member of the 2016 cohort. His CLA experience paralleled a dramatic career trajectory—from managing Jesús “Chuy” Garcia’s mayoral and congressional campaigns in 2015 and 2018, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign in 2019, to his position in the new administration as Managing Deputy Director for Intergovernmental Affairs. He learned practical skills and strategies for crisis management; heard stories about tough issues of governance his colleagues faced with courage, discretion, and compassion; and gained tremendous respect for individuals of integrity who dedicate their professional lives to government service; to making the world a better place–starting here, in Chicago.

Data-Driven Analysis

Data informs decisions made at every level of government, as Randall Blakey (CLA’15) found during a particularly charged debate over school facilities.

The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, which houses the Civic Leadership Academy, prides itself on its commitment to data-driven public policy. Developing evidence-based strategies requires data collection and analysis; data informs decision-making at every level of effective public policy development and implementation. “If there’s no data behind it, it doesn’t exist,” remains a watchword for CLA alumni.

Randall K. Blakey CLA'15

Collecting data enabled Blakey, executive director of Near North Unity Program, to prevail during a pivotal moment in his career, and for his community. The campaign to merge Jenner Elementary School, which primarily served students from Cabrini Green, an area formerly dominated in the public imagination by public housing projects, and Ogden Elementary School, which served Gold Coast students assumed to be more well-to-do, met with resistance from Gold Coast parents who cited safety concerns.

Crime statistics gathered by Blakey demonstrated higher evening and weekend crime rates in the Gold Coast, which shattered preconceived notions and enabled him to overcome a significant obstacle in advocating for the merger.

CLA Impact

Professor William Howell, CLA Faculty Director

“In the Civic Leadership Academy, we demonstrate our commitment to training emerging civic leaders to rethink opportunities for systems change in Chicago and Cook County: a region with world-class assets, as well as entrenched challenges that require systemic transformation,” said CLA faculty director William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor of American Politics at Harris Public Policy.  “We focus on building skills and fostering networks among mid-level, nonprofit and government professionals, with a goal to shift dynamics of leadership from wielding political power to harnessing personal power. Bridging a traditional divide between nonprofit and government sectors, CLA creates a forum for individuals in diverse fields to initiate idea- and resource-sharing with potential to identify the best available options, and solutions, for change.”

CLA’s impact on a new generation of civic leaders who will fundamentally alter the civic sector landscape is on dramatic display in Chicago: more than a dozen CLA alums were recruited to serve on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s transition teams and appointed to positions in the new administration.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot JD'89

Allison Arwady (CLA`18) has been appointed Acting Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, and Eleanor Gorski (CLA`18) is First Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development. Manny Perez (CLA`16) has been tapped for the position of Managing Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs. Anel Ruiz (CLA'16) is Lightfoot's Press Secretary. And Sybil Michelle Madison, a new CLA graduate, serves as Chicago’s new Deputy Mayor for Education and Human Services.

Join the Civic Leadership Academy

Applications for the Civic Leadership Academy are now open. Apply by October 1st for a January 2020 start.