February 2, 2023
My first year as Executive Director wraps up right as Cabrini Green Legal Aid is turning 50! It is quite humbling indeed to be serving in this role at an organization that was founded in 1973 to serve the needs of the residents in the Cabrini Green housing projects. Especially because I grew up experiencing similar barriers in a community on Chicago’s south side, hoping someday to be part of efforts to combat them.
It is also quite serendipitous that our birthday, so to speak, falls during Black History Month, considering the community we were created to serve and the reality that our clients, those who have been disparately impacted by the criminal legal system, are majority African American. We also just participated in the kick off of IGNITE’s inaugural cohort. IGNITE, a program of the University of Chicago Booth Business School’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, Golub Capital, and the Chicago Urban League, aims to support and amplify the work of organizations serving majority Black communities.
CGLA is the oldest and most far reaching of the cohort. Indeed, CGLA has grown tremendously since the initial days of our Founder, Chuck Hogren, handling cases on his own, to serving thousands yearly. Our holistic direct service work has grown to span the entire city of Chicago and Cook County. Our brief services criminal records mitigation work has helped serve communities that span Illinois. And our policy work has helped significantly expand Illinois’ expungement and sealing law and allowed us to help cultivate criminal records mitigation work in other legal aid organizations across the state.
Right as I was coming on as Executive Director, our board approved new mission, vision, and purpose statements. The development of these statements was done intentionally and collaboratively with directly impacted community members, members of our Leadership Council, as well as staff, governing board, and associate board members. The resulting statements better articulate our position of solidarity with the communities we serve, clarifying that CGLA exists to help remove barriers to equity for those who have been negatively impacted by the criminal legal system.
As we turn 50, we are viewing it not only as an opportunity to celebrate the impact CGLA has had over the last five decades, but also to evaluate how we are living up to our new mission, vision, and purpose. To reflect on the experiences not only of CGLA, but the communities we serve, and to envision and enhance the impact we hope to have for the next 50 years!
In the coming months, we will be collecting stories of impacts and milestones. We hope to identify and lift up at least 50 Champions of CGLA, clients who courageously navigated the criminal legal system, staff and organizational leaders who helped drive the organization forward, and partners who helped us expand our work and our reach. We plan to honor those champions at our annual gala, to take place this fall.
We are also converting part of our office space to showcase organizational archives as well as art work by artists lifting up the experiences of communities we serve, images of connection and of separation, pieces that reveal insights into the process of navigating the criminal legal system, visualizations unpacking the history of criminalization, and inspirational pieces envisioning a brighter future. These artists have direct lived experience, or family and community experience, and are lifting their own voices to express that experience.
We will be inviting our stakeholders to view the archive and art exhibition, from clients to board members, from community partners to funders, to help us celebrate, reflect, envision, and resolve.