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Community leaders puts their concerns, ideas ‘On the Table’

Denise Crosby
Denise Crosby

My wish of the week: That Springfield politicians could have sat at our table on Monday morning.

There were eight of us who pulled up chairs to break bread (more specifically, large frosted rolls) and share ideas. But we would have made room for some high-up legislators, for sure.

Why? To show them what can happen when people with diverse backgrounds and experiences — yes, even agendas — all have one goal in common: to make our communities better places in which to live.

This event was one of hundreds of similar gatherings taking place all day Monday as part of The Chicago Community Trust’s “On the Table” initiative to bring together diverse and passionate voices for discussions on our future. Researchers will survey participants later to gather ideas.

This breakfast dialogue I moderated, hosted by Sun-Times Media, included Naperville Chamber of Commerce President Nicki Anderson; Naperville Loaves & Fishes CEO Charles McLimans; Elgin activist Danise Habun; Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain; Aurora Police Cmdr. Kristen Ziman; VNA Outreach Coordinator Nidya Garcia; and Kane County Director of Transportation Carl Schoedel.

I purposely chose guests from divergent backgrounds, including business, health, law enforcement, transportation, non-profits and social services. And yes, there was even one elected official thrown in because Kaptain, in his third year as Elgin mayor, is a firm believer in these small discussions, and that “to move a community forward, the whole boat must float.”

Yet no matter what agenda defines them, these passionate guests agreed the best way to bring about change is to stop living in our individual silos and begin tackling issues as a whole group.

“We need to do what we are doing here,” said Ziman, who also is involved with United Way and sits on the board of the Aurora YWCA. “Let’s get more of us to come to the table, begin building positive relationships and get the creative process going.”

And because so few have faith in Springfield, they insist it really does have to happen at the local level.

“We need to move away from the state, they will fail us,” insisted Kaptain. “Our needs are increasing but our funding is decreasing. We need to work together as a community to find more efficient ways to meet those needs. There’s no more money, so let’s figure out how to pool our resources.”

Habun, who among her myriad roles serves on the Coordinating Care Alliance and Elgin’s Human Relations Commission, says one of her main goals is finding ways to get rid of the competitiveness that builds divisiveness and bitterness between organizations working for the same results.

“It’s about putting right-minded people in the same arena, about putting connections together for the right reasons,” she said.

And it is happening.

In Elgin, by bringing groups together, Kaptain said the city was able to reduce the number of city-sponsored events from over 100 to five. Some didn’t like it. Many thought it would fail, he added. But in the end, bigger sponsors were brought in. And it proved “cooperation and efficiency really do work.”

At the county level, Schoedel revealed how the transportation department is working closely with community development and the Public Health Department to forge a holistic vision for a healthier Kane County.

“It’s about building roads and houses that are more accessible to public transportation, to healthy food … and places to exercise,” he noted. “We need to share with other departments and figure out how we can collaborate to take advantage of a team effort.”

In Naperville, McLimans, who heads one of the largest food pantries in the state, insists that non-profits must also have an equal voice in high-level decisions.

“Yes, education is important, for example,” he said. “But if you are hungry, then there is not going to be much learning going on.”

And in Aurora, Ziman, who began her career in community policing 20 years ago, knows first-hand how dialogue breaks down walls and builds trust that, over time, can make dramatic differences in the safety of our neighborhoods.

Trust was a word used repeatedly by those at the table, including Naperville Chamber leader Nicki Anderson, who says for too long small businesses have been ignored. When they know someone is listening, she added, doors begin to open to other partnerships that benefit an entire community.

And in order to attain that trust, leaders at all levels need to step out of those silos to engage in discussions.

“Those in a position to connect the dots need to start making that a top priority,” said Kaptain, who has even taken to walks in neighborhoods, where he says residents are more inclined to come out and talk to him than take a drive to city hall.

While those at the table agreed that change must start at the top, it’s also important to get everyone in the community involved.

“And that has to come through awareness,” noted Garcia. “We have to show people what is happening” outside their own worlds “so they begin to care.”

McLimans’ words resonated with the group: “We need to connect the community to compassion,” he said.

Anderson is convinced that, after years “of a disconnect and throwing money at things,” people are beginning to figure out what matters.

Habun also believes the pendulum is swinging.

“It is happening,” she said. “The resources are there, there is really no need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to find more ways to make them efficient.”

“We need to talk about it more, and others will begin paying attention,” Ziman said. “Small steps really can change the world.”

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