The South East Chicago Commission has increased its staff to address evolving needs of the Hyde Park community.
Brandon Evans has been tasked with administering the local Special Service Area, Downtown Hyde Park. Tiffany Mikell, the Program Director of Arts and Culture Initiatives, will run new SECC programs that respond to the locally ascendant creative industries.
Executive Director Diane Burnham says they are long-term hires and mark the continuing evolution of the decades-old business and community development organization.
"Under my tenure for the last two years, it's really been about a transition from the University of Chicago, restructuring the organization, and now we're starting to enter a growth mode," she said. She would like to continue growing the SECC, which serves a number of organizations in Washington Park, Woodlawn, Kenwood, Hyde Park and Oakland and runs events like the Woodlawn Summit, Small Business Saturday, 4th on 53rd Street and the Hyde Park Farmers Market.
Mikell lives in Hyde Park and has worked in software engineering. Her childhood was split between Evanston and Chatham, and it strongly influenced her world view.
She identifies as an autodidact. The realization that quality of life is driven by ZIP code and income did not seem fair to her, and she dropped out of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, after finding that it was not preparing her to change those inequities.
Instead, Mikell discovered self-directed learning and said that the beautiful thing about software engineering is that understanding computer systems yields understanding about all systems, whether of oppression or of finance, and how they are developed.
"It's not just magic. It's not just things that happen," she said. "It's intentional, created by humans who bring to their roles all of their lived experiences, and so implicitly biased."
Mikell previously worked in consulting for Accenture and in Chicago's tech entrepreneurial scene, with the since-defunct Dev Bootcamp company and the ZaMLabs incubator, 7857 S. Woodlawn Ave., which focuses on closing wealth gaps for marginalized communities by linking venture capital to entrepreneurs.
Of the 120 accelerators, incubators and co-working spaces in Chicago, less than 3% are within a 5 miles of a predominantly African American neighborhood, she observed, and much of the capital made available specifically for underrepresented entrepreneurs is being funneled through nonprofit organizations.
"Even though I was an entrepreneur and I have all of these ideas around business models and how to leverage capital markets for social impact, it was really important for me to be a part of an established nonprofit organization," she said. "Where capital lives is where the impact happens. I've helped to start a school, I helped to design multiple programs, and I've realized just pure impact — just doing good things — does not mean that it will be sustainable. The only way to have sustainable impact is to have capital behind those projects."
At her new role, Mikell will launch the Creative Entrepreneurship Initiative and an art grant program geared around problem-solving and wealth creation — "artrepreneurship," she called it — marking arts and culture as a new priority for the SECC.
Burnham agrees. "Two years ago, we started seeing a lot more creative entrepreneurs and serving a lot more artists as entrepreneurs, as well as people who make things, create things, bake things — have a need for some business coaching," she said. "Through that need, I started kind of shopping around proposals to try to get individuals interested in funding this, because I think the more we invest in those creative entrepreneurs on the South Side, we can help create a second level of economic investment in the communities."
Mikell brought up a 2017 study that found 18% of Chicago's cultural groups focus on low-income or communities of color, but only 6% of all arts foundation funding goes to them.
"It's exciting for me to do a lot of thinking and studying around how we design a granting program that can more equitably disperse funds to art space organizations," she said, remarking that a third of the local business people who come to SECC for a one-hour free consultation — 30 last year — identify as creative entrepreneurs.
A new curriculum will help with marketing, social media, follow-on funding and other issues. After the consultation, entrepreneurs are referred to additional resources. Milestones will include entrepreneurs' income and revenue growth and whether they have met specified goals like getting a brick-and-mortar location or a contracting goal.
She said the SECC is building its art seed grant program around its neighborhood enhancement grants, which averaged $4,000, for 12 external projects.
"Property that is a certain number of blocks away from an art project that has been funded, the overall value of that property goes up something like 9%," Mikell said. In Washington Park, she observed, business owners have a problem with people "hanging out" in lobbies or outside establishments. Rather than call the police, a public gathering space could be designed with benches, gaming tables and street art that encourages people to move.
"The one thing that we're really focused on is art in the way that solves a problem and helps remove some kind of economic friction in the community," she said. In the next four to six weeks, SECC will begin information sessions about the next initiatives with information about what kinds of projects the organization wants to fund and support.
Evans was born in Chicago, attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, lives in south suburbs and has worked in business development for the past 12 years, most recently at the Small Business Development Center at the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago and as a South Side instructor with Sunshine Enterprises, 503 E. 61st St., which aims to establish five business hubs in under-resourced Chicago neighborhoods. With friends from college, he also founded a business that linked corporate sponsors to events and nightlife venues in Chicago, particularly focusing on Black urban professionals.
"One of the things that I stand on, and unapologetically so, I'm pretty ethnocentric," he said, citing an upwardly mobile family background that moved from Mississippi to Chicago. "Most of the issues that our communities face are are socioeconomic in nature. Sure, there are other things that affect why certain communities, particularly on the South and West sides, are marginalized, but looking at how and what is at the core of that, it comes down to money most times."
Drawn to work that supports and develops locally owned businesses that contribute to the neighborhood tax bases — he also works as a South Side instructor for Sunshine Enterprises — Evans said this work needs to be done in order to change communities. At the YWCA, he helped write a grant to become a state- and federally designated small business development center, with access to database-building and networking resources.
At SECC, Evans is tasked to handle the contractor-vendor relationships of the Downtown Hyde Park SSA, which is funded by a 1% of the real estate taxes ($270,000) from businesses in the district, composed of the 55th and 53rd street corridors connected by Lake Park and Woodlawn avenues. The city chartered the SSA in 2013, with the SECC its agent-of-record. The contractors handle power-washing, trash collection, beautification initiatives (i.e. flower boxes and "Downtown Hyde Park" banners) and its web presence.
The next meeting of Downtown Hyde Park commissioners, composed of local business-owners and landlords, will be on Tuesday, March 24, at 7 p.m. at the Polsky Center for Innovation, 1452 E. 53rd St. It is open to the public; Evans welcomes additional local input from the public at email@example.com. Down the road, he is interested in ways to benefit business owners within the SSA through training and information sessions.
Other recent personnel changes at the SECC include a new board chair, attorney Elvin E. Charity, who started in June 2019, and Rebecca Bretz, a former AmeriCorps workers who has been hired as a part-time program coordinator