Reflections from A Better Chicago’s Founder Liam Krehbiel
It’s been just over a month since I stepped out of the CEO role at A Better Chicago and transitioned to chair our board of directors. It’s been a bittersweet move in many ways. On the one hand, I’m so proud of what we have accomplished over the past nine years and am excited to stay engaged as a member of our board. That said, I do miss working on a daily basis with the staff at A Better Chicago, who are such an inspiring, capable and fun group of people. While I’m still processing my reflections of the past nine years, I’m ready to share some thoughts on why I started A Better Chicago in the first place, where we currently stand as a city and what it’s going to take for Chicago to rise above its challenges and reach its potential in the coming years.
To start, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how A Better Chicago came to be. It might seem odd to say this, but I haven’t deeply reflected on that topic in a while, mainly because I have been so focused on looking forward rather than backward. While I founded the organization in 2010, I can trace its origins back to 2001—September 11, 2001 to be precise. At the time, I was a 25-year-old who had just moved to New York to start a new job. On the morning of 9/11, I was on my way to work when I overheard two people on the subway talking about how a small plane had accidentally run into one of the Twin Towers. I didn’t give it more thought until our train emerged from under Manhattan and began to make its way across the Williamsburg Bridge toward Brooklyn. From there, I saw that both towers were ablaze and within minutes I watched both towers fall. While I was a safe distance away, it was the first time I truly feared for my life. Like so many people that day, I was terrified and shell-shocked. I was upset, angry and confused. And, in the immediate aftermath, I almost moved back to Chicago. But, after much thought, I decided to stay. And, like many New Yorkers in one way or another, I began to rebuild.
9/11 brought the city— and the country— together in a way I had never experienced before or since. There was a profound sense of “we’re in this together.” Even though I had very recently moved to the city, I felt like a New Yorker. I wanted to do something that would help the people who had been affected, but I didn’t know how. Enter Robin Hood, which was a new and innovative philanthropic option. It used a rigorous, data-driven approach to find and invest in the most effective programs that were eradicating poverty. This was music to my ears, as it combined my passion for social justice with my belief in hard data, and it gave me a concrete way to make an impact. In the days after 9/11, Robin Hood launched a fund to support New Yorkers who had been affected by the attacks. I made my first donation to Robin Hood shortly thereafter and have been a proud donor ever since.
Nine years later, when confronting the challenges in my hometown, I asked myself, “Why doesn’t Chicago have an organization focused on leveraging philanthropy toward measurable impact?” That question eventually led to A Better Chicago.
Fast forward to 2019. As I think about “the state of Chicago” and what it will take to overcome many of our challenges, four things stand out:
First, I believe more than ever in the potential of Chicago. It’s easy for all of us focus on what’s wrong with Chicago. But let’s also pay attention to what’s right about our city. World-class universities. A strong, dynamic and diversified economy. A hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. A booming downtown. The restaurants. The lake. The museums. The parks. The music. The Cubs. And most importantly, an abundance of extraordinary and diverse talent—from every local neighborhood and from every country around the world.
Second, I am more concerned than ever about the levels of poverty and inequity in our city. As of 2018, there are nearly 1 million people in the Chicago region who are living below the poverty line, and another 1.3 million living just above it. That’s over 2.3 million Chicagoans who are struggling just to make ends meet. What’s more, the level of inequity in our city is growing, as we have yet to truly address the persistent racism and discrimination that underpin these problems and keeps life-changing opportunity out of reach for the young people and families who need it most.
Third, I am more inspired than ever that we can win. I have seen first-hand that talent is everywhere, and that the right mix of innovative and impactful schools, programs and supports enable our city’s youth to reach their enormous potential. We increasingly have the hard evidence to know what solutions are working and why.
And fourth, I am more convinced than ever that the only way we are going to truly solve our city’s biggest challenges is by working together. More specifically, we need to create solutions that go beyond what’s possible in any one organization if we are going to truly move the needle for Chicago’s youth. No single funder or organization has all the answers, yet we often continue to work in silos. We need to develop deep partnerships across different organizations and sectors—and break down the barriers that often divide us—if we are going to have a shot at solving our biggest problems.
That’s where A Better Chicago comes in. Almost a decade into our journey, I believe that the need for our organization is greater than ever. The challenges we face in Chicago are incredibly complex, intertwined and entrenched. While I don’t believe in silver bullets, I do believe that our outstanding team’s strengths in creative thinking, analytical rigor, bold action and active collaboration position us to be catalysts for change in our region.
Above all else, I am filled with a profound sense of gratitude. Thank you to everyone—including our staff, board members, grantees, donors and partners—who has invested their time, energy and resources to help build a more thriving, equitable and better Chicago.