When Arne Duncan got back to Chicago after stepping down as head of the U.S. Department of Education, he couldn’t believe how bad the murder rate had become in his hometown during his seven-year absence.
So he’s taking a private-sector job with the venture fund founded by billionaire Steve Jobs’ widow. In a new Chicago-based office, he hopes to create “real jobs” in disinvested neighborhoods and also connect young men who are out of school and out of work with those jobs, Duncan announced Thursday.
“I felt like I owed it to the city to try,” Duncan told the Sun-Times by phone. “I couldn’t look away, I couldn’t ignore this.”
Duncan and a small staff will open a Chicago office for the Silicon Valley-based Emerson Collective LLC, formed in 2011 by Laurene Powell Jobs, who inherited her husband’s $14 billion fortune. Emerson has worked on immigration and education policy.
“The goal for me is, if you could create a real training that leads to real jobs, if you give kids a reason to have hope, in the long term that’s the best way” to stave off violence, Duncan said. Especially in neighborhoods where many young people haven’t finished high school, have criminal records and can only make a living working for gangs, he continued.
As happy as the former CPS chief and college basketball player is to be home, he said he was struck by the “the murder rate that’s the highest in a long, long time” and by a recent study by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute that identified about 47% of young black men in Chicago are disconnected from work and from school.
“That’s staggering, half our city’s black men,” Duncan added. “I just think the violence is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.”
As for the instability of schools in those same neighborhoods, which have been plagued by massive school closings in recent years — a practice Duncan engaged in at CPS on a smaller scale — Duncan would blame only insufficient state funding and CPS’ revolving door of leaders.
And he offered few concrete details about his plans. He would not share how much money he’d have to launch the office, nor would the Emerson Collective, though Duncan said he wasn’t worried about resources thanks to Powell Jobs’ commitment.
“She is attracted to these intractable problems,” he said of her.
Though known for its philanthropy, the Emerson Collective is a privately-owned company so it doesn’t have to disclose many details of its giving, said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor at Michigan State University who studies education philanthropy.
The group has done the bulk of its work so far in Silicon Valley, where Powell Jobs lives, but also recently launched XQ: The Super School Project, a $50 million national grant competition to create new kinds of high schools.
But since it’s not a non-profit organization, the company also can and does make political contributions, Reckhow said. Powell Jobs is “very politically engaged,” a significant political donor to Democratic politicians as well as to candidates for schools boards nationwide, and an “extremely important figure” in the education reform movement, Reckhow said.
“A lot of this is what makes her a little different from the traditional philanthropist,” Reckhow said. “Arne Duncan is not surprising when you connect those dots.”