Parental advocacy group gets $2 million donation

Last week, billionaire MacKenzie Scott donated $2 million to Chicago’s Community Organizing and Family Issues to keep training parents in community advocacy.

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Members of Community Organizing and Family Issues attended a #CareCantWait rally downtown. Two parent leaders spoke in support of making childcare more affordable for all.

Members of Community Organizing and Family Issues attended a #CareCantWait rally downtown last summer. Two parent leaders spoke in support of making childcare more affordable for all.

Community Organizing and Family Issues

When Liliana Olayo immigrated to Chicago 30 years ago, she was a young wife and mother. She’d had dreams, but they took a backseat as she focused on caring for her children. Without those dreams, her confidence began to plummet as well.

But six years ago, Olayo began to regain that confidence — when she took a class with Community Organizing and Family Issues.

Founded in 1995, the group focuses on parents in low-income areas and communities of color. They help those parents determine goals for themselves, their families and their communities. They also encourage them to help achieve their community goals by pushing for changes in public policy. They call this “The COFI Way.”

Olayo, for instance, used what she learned from the group to advocate for school buses for all students living more than a mile and a half from school in District 131, where her children attend. Previously, buses were used only for special-education students.

“They gave me the tools that I needed to be a better parent,” Olayo said. “I kind of learned that [politicians] cannot really know what are my needs if I don’t raise my voice, if I don’t let them know what we need for our communities.”

The group also has focused on ways to help people avoid debt and build up assets. Among other things, they pushed for lower fees and fines on city vehicle stickers.

Last week, that training and advocacy was recognized with a $2 million donation from billionaire MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Scott has given millions of dollars to organizations nationwide and in the city, including City Colleges of Chicago, the YMCA of Chicago and United Way of Metro Chicago.

The $2 million donation is the largest single donation ever to Community Organizing and Family Issues. The group’s normal annual budget is $3 million, funded by donations and grants usually ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 — and maybe the occasional $100,000, according to Ellen Schumer, co-founder and executive director.

So it was a complete surprise to Schumer when she got a call from Seattle about the huge gift — they hadn’t even applied. 

“I’ve never asked for a grant or dollars anywhere near this amount of money,” Schumer said.

That donation brought tears to Olayo’s eyes. 

“We want to do more things. We want to reach out to more communities. We want to organize more. There’s a lot of things that we still want to do. But we didn’t have enough money.”

Schumer and her team are thinking along the same lines. They’re brainstorming different ways to use the funds in a “sustainable” way, such as by expanding their training program to new neighborhoods around the city and state.

While the pandemic saw some turnover in participants, about 400 Illinois parents currently attend monthly meetings. The group’s main office is in the South Loop, at 2245 S. Michigan Ave. They also have offices in Elgin and St. Louis. 

Most of programs take place on the city’s West, South, Northwest and Southwest sides, as well as in Evanston.

Schumer also wants to resume in-person training sessions. 

For individual parents, the training is free. Organizations and groups usually pay a fee; an in-person training session coming in April will cost $850 per person. Thanks to Scott’s donation, though, Schumer and her team may start offering scholarships.

She wants “The COFI Way” to become a national model for parental leadership, and some of that work has already begun. 

“There’s a group in Houston and Grand Rapids that we’ve trained over the years — we want to continue to do that and scale that up,” Schumer explained.

For Olayo, expanding nationally means ending inequities everywhere. 

“When we hear about the Black and Brown communities not being listened to or being ignored, not being treated the same as other communities, it’s not only in Illinois,” said Olayo. “This money expands our possibilities to reach out to so many other places that before, we couldn’t even dream of.”

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