Departing Chicago Community Trust CEO wants city to think big to close growing wealth gap between Black and white Chicagoans

Dr. Helene Gayle is leaving Chicago to become president of Spelman College in Atlanta. But she’s not leaving quietly.

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A portrait of Dr. Helene Gayle, CEO of The Chicago Community Trust.

Dr. Helene Gayle is leaving the Chicago Community Trust to become president of Spelman College in Atlanta.

Provided by the Chicago Community Trust

The wealth gap between Black and white Chicagoans is growing, and “big programs” are needed to close it.

That’s the parting advice from someone in a unique position to know what Chicago needs to solve one of its most vexing challenges.

During five years as CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, Helene Gayle has been laser-focused on leveling the playing field between the city’s haves and the have-nots.

During Gayle’s tenure, one of Chicago’s oldest and best-endowed philanthropies unveiled a 10-year strategy to grow household wealth, close the life-expectancy gap between Black and white Chicagoans, and catalyze development in South and West Side neighborhoods with a history of disinvestment.

Now, Gayle is leaving Chicago to become the 11th president of Spelman College, the historic Black women’s college.

But she’s not leaving quietly: She’s prodding movers and shakers in her adopted city to think big.

“We’re not closing the wealth gap. The wealth gap is growing. It’s growing because people who have wealth — it gets compounded. People who have lack of economic wealth — that also gets compounded in a negative way,” Gayle, 66, told the Sun-Times Friday.

“What is it going to take to have populations that have been left out of economic opportunity get the start that they need? What are the possible options that could … break that cycle and give people the opportunity to start getting an economic foothold?”

Gayle acknowledged “the word `reparations’ has scared people.”

But she argued it shouldn’t. What it means is “creating programs that target those who are most financially unstable so we can, in fact, break the cycle of the growing wealth gap.”

“It doesn’t need to be in the form of every person of African descent gets a check. There are many ways in which we can address financial instability and be able to give people a brighter financial future,” she said.

It might be in the form of so-called “baby bonds.” An account would be created for every Black newborn that would grow over time for later use to buy a home, pay college tuition or start a business.

That could be done at the federal, state or city level — or all three — and perhaps be bankrolled, in part, by “luxury taxes,” Gayle said.

Yet another possibility would be guaranteed basic income — a monthly check to cover basic necessities.

The Chicago Community Trust has signed on to help Chicago evaluate a year-long, $31.5 million pilot program that calls for giving 5,000 needy families $500 each month, no strings attached. Cook County is launching its own $35 million version of the program.

Once those assessments are in, Gayle would like to see yet another guaranteed basic income program targeting residents of communities where the wealth and life expectancy gap is greatest.

“Let’s start talking about big programs that could actually have impact at a population level because so often we think about the individual level interventions, which can make a huge difference for individuals. But it doesn’t ultimately change systems,” Gayle said.

The “one-two punch” of a pandemic that had a disparate impact on communities of color and the civil unrest that followed the death of George Floyd created a “sense of urgency” that is impossible to sustain, Gayle said.

But the trust has still managed to convince more than 25 companies to pledge to take specific actions to put their money where their mouths were two years ago.

Proposed actions include increasing annual spending with Black and Latino firms, hiring people with criminal records and investing in a $25 million “EPIC Fund.”

The trust’s website described the EPIC Fund as a “new vehicle for providing equity capital for catalytic real estate projects in under-invested communities.”

“I’m incredibly heartened by what I see. The big banks here in Chicago … putting huge amounts of dollars into disinvested neighborhoods. Organizations that are coming together and working in partnerships in ways that they hadn’t been before. I think there’s something going on here,” Gayle said.

There is a moment where we can have some real positive change here in the Chicago region. The phrase, the best way to tell the future is by creating it. It’s in our hands. We have the ability to make change happen.”

As for the move to Spelman, Gayle called it a “continuation” of the work she did here to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap.

“What better way to make sure that people have what they need than to make sure that they have an education that gives them the skills to have a career where they can contribute to society?” she said.

“It spoke to a passion. It spoke to who I am as a person.”

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