Why I spent my birthday sleeping on a cold Chicago rooftop

I was there because of Pastor Corey Brooks, who called on CEOs to join him camping out to bring attention to disinvested communities.

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CEO William Stilley, right, with Pastor Corey Brooks of New Beginnings Church.

CEO William Stilley, right, with Pastor Corey Brooks of New Beginnings Church.

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Recently, I had the honor of spending my birthday in freezing temperatures on a Chicago rooftop. There’s nowhere else I would have wanted to be.

I was there because of Corey Brooks, the pastor of New Beginnings Church of Chicago and the founder and CEO of Project H.O.O.D. I had heard his message in the media, calling on CEOs to join him during his 100 days of camping out on a rooftop in West Woodlawn on the South Side. He’s working to bring attention to disinvested communities and to raise funds for a Leadership and Economic Opportunity Community Center in the area. I reached out to his team, expressed interest, and soon made the trip from my home in Virginia.

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Like Brooks, I believe that CEOs have an obligation to make a difference for communities in need. True leadership means doing the right thing, even when it’s difficult. That’s a message I learned as a captain in the Marines, and it’s one that all leaders should hear. We must learn about the challenges and struggles people face, and contribute to solutions.

When I arrived, we immediately started talking, and I met other visitors as well. Our conversations opened my eyes to many experiences — heartbreaking tales of people just trying to make it through the day in very difficult circumstances. Stories of children being unable to make it to safer schools because gangs could go after them along the way, even on buses. Stories of hopelessness and struggle.

It also became clear that Brooks, and others like him working to improve the community, are sources of hope. And their actions can make a difference. After all, Brooks’ similar effort 10 years ago led to the tearing down of a dilapidated motel that was known to be an epicenter for drugs and prostitution.

Since it is the focus of my work, part of our talk was about addiction. Brooks and others discussed how addiction has ravaged their communities and fueled crime. I explained how my team is working to be part of the solution by creating genetically targeted medicines that could help some people with alcohol use disorder, a medical condition often colloquially referred to as “alcoholism.” 

I shared how I know what it’s like to face seemingly insurmountable odds. After all, alcohol addiction has existed for thousands of years, so people are constantly telling me that we will never make a difference. But I believe new solutions are possible. Any situation can be made better if ingenuity, resources, and hard work are applied. And you don’t have to solve the entire problem in order to be helpful.

A small group stayed late into the night as we talked of hope and making the world better. As midnight approached and after a bear hug from the pastor, the others left and he and I headed to our small tents. Sure it was frigid, and the wind relentless. However, in the Marines I had slept with no tent in the freezing mountains of South Korea, where our sleeping bags turned into icicles. So by comparison, I knew I’d be fine. I also knew that I was going home the next day, unlike Brooks, whose commitment to his mission is making this a months-long exercise. So how could I complain?

As I shut my eyes, I thought about how much I had just learned. I was inspired by Brooks’ form of leadership — filled with mutual respect, love, and a belief in the innate goodness of people. I felt reinvigorated to pursue my work and to find new ways to help, which Brooks and I continue to discuss. 

So perhaps it is no surprise that it was the best night’s sleep I have had in a long time.

William Stilley is CEO of Adial Pharmaceuticals, based in Virginia.

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