Friday, May 6, 2011

Lessons from Lawndale

Last week my NUPIP seminar visited a free health clinic, Lawndale Christian Health Center, which serves over 119,000 patients in the Lawndale community of Chicago. Dr. Wayne Detmer, the passionate and dedicated Medical Director of Medical Operations, gave us a tour of the impressive facility and told us more about the Lawndale community.

Lawndale is a neighborhood in the working poor West Side of Chicago. As Dr. Detmer described, it is among the most dangerous and impoverished communities in the entire country, and businesses will scarcely operate in the area. Several years ago, a Starbucks opened in the community as part of a joint venture between Starbucks and Magic Johnson Enterprises. This store was part of a strategy to open urban businesses in order to bring upward mobility and business and employment opportunities in struggling areas. As this
July 2008 Chicago Tribune article describes,"
For communities such as Lawndale, where vacant lots alternate with graystones, Starbucks became shorthand for the promise of better days, a neighborhood on its way up." However, a short time after opening, this shop closed its doors.

The only remaining sit-down style restaurant in the community is the gourmet pizzeria, Lou Malnati's. This restaurant has lost well over $1 million since opening, however it
continues to operate as part of the owner's personal dedication to providing safe places and employment opportunities in the Lawndale community.

This type of mindset and community investment on the part of a business is rare, but it is an incredible example of how a company can truly partner with a community. In an era where Departments of Corporate Social Responsibility are all but expected of major corporations, it is clear that businesses DO realize that social responsibility is in their best interest for building brand loyalty and visibility.

Although operating a business at a loss is not a feasible model for most to follow, it is worth considering how businesses might partner more intentionally within their communities. While annual employee service days may be worthwhile for the individuals involved, they are not productive in terms of a sustainable contribution. Likewise, short-term giving and sporadic monetary or product donations are certainly put to good use, but long-term investment in an organization demonstrates far greater commitment to creating change within a community. Mobilizing long-term volunteers or long-term funding requires a heightened level of commitment from a business, yet it also demonstrates a company's cohesive identity and well-thought-out corporate responsibility strategy. In fact, an entire section of Tutor/Mentor Connection's online resources is dedicated to explaining "A Case for Business Involvement" and the benefits of businesses partnering with tutoring and mentoring programs.

While empty lots and closed storefronts indicate the challenges of a neighborhood, tutor/mentor programs indicate a neighborhood's promise and a concrete investment in a community's future. As this map shows, there are fifteen known tutoring and mentoring programs in the Lawndale community making the ratio of sit-down restaurants to tutor/mentor programs in Lawndale 1 to 15. That's a whole lot of potential!

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