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Forming a New League

Cheryle Robinson Jackson is transforming the Chicago Urban League's focus from social services to economic development in the city's African American community.

by Cate Plys

Ed Paschke quietly pulled aside student Cheryle Robinson Jackson (WCAS88) one morning during a painting class in the mid-'80s.

"Did you know class starts at 8 o'clock?" whispered the famous painter and professor.

"Yeah," answered Jackson, who now admits she usually walked into class around 9, after staying up until 5 a.m. painting and then crashing for a couple of hours.

"OK, just checking," said Paschke.

Jackson still pulls all-nighters. After becoming the Chicago Urban League's first woman president last year, she took a mere four months to announce that the 90-year-old institution will drop its longtime social service programs to focus exclusively on economic development in the African American community. The statistics explain why: Out of 64,000 black-owned businesses in Cook County, only 4,000 have more than one employee, according to the U.S. Census 2002 Survey of Business Owners. The National Urban League's 2007 State of Black America report asserts that African American men's median income is less than three-quarters of white men's.

Simultaneously, Jackson unveiled a strategic plan to empower African American workers and businesses — projectNEXT. BP America will donate $6.2 million over three years to help fund projectNEXT, which includes a $25 million venture capital fund and an Entrepreneurship Center run in partnership with the Kellogg School of Management.

Kellogg faculty will teach training seminars that will include visits to the entrepreneur businesses for evaluations. In addition, several Kellogg students will mentor each entrepreneur.

Jackson settles back on the couch in her office at the league's headquarters. It's a long way from her last job as deputy chief of staff for communications for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (WCAS79). The floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Michigan Avenue — but in the South Side's historic Bronzeville neighborhood, now reviving from decades of blight since its days as Chicago's Black Metropolis.

"This shift in focus is really a shift back to what the Chicago Urban League was created for," she points out, "to provide economic opportunity for African Americans moving from the rural South to the North and provide them with a social network."

Jackson says she's putting a 21st-century model on that mission — entrepreneurship, venture capital, networking and job training. The league's social service programs will be taken over by an Illinois state agency yet to be determined.

The National Urban League put economic development first on its agenda in 2003, says president and CEO Marc Morial, and some other local chapters have followed. Still, he says, Chicago "is the first big-city affiliate to embrace economic development as its sole plank." Jackson is continuing the great tradition of Chicago Urban League leaders "and taking it to a new level," he adds.

"Social services are necessary, but at the end of the year they just manage us in the problem, they don't manage us out of the problem," says Jackson. "I just think there ought to be one organization that dedicates its sole purpose to creating the kind of society where fewer and fewer social services of any kind are needed."

That change "created some waves among some in the civil rights African American community," says Laura Washington (J78, GJ80), a journalism professor at DePaul University and a former editor of the Chicago Reporter, an investigative bimonthly magazine that focuses on urban and racial issues.

But, says Washington (see "Chicago's Crusader," winter 1999), Jackson revived the Chicago Urban League "by virtue of getting the job. She's a new face, she's a woman, she doesn't come out of the civil rights model, and

I think a lot of people had forgotten the Urban League was there."

So how does an art theory and practice major get into corporate and government communications and then wind up a prominent face in the new generation of civil rights leaders?

First, Jackson got some sage advice from Paschke. Before thinking about grad school, he said, just live life for a couple of years.

Eventually Jackson became art director at WKNO-TV, the Memphis PBS affiliate.

Soon she moved to Washington, D.C., with her new husband, Charles Jackson (C87), where she pitched herself to National Public Radio. In quick succession, Jackson became art director, then communications director and then sold NPR's president on rebranding the entire organization. She oversaw the rebranding process and became vice president of communications.

Jackson's next move brought her back to Chicago as Amtrak's vice president for communications and government affairs. She recalls her first junket with a high-ranking Amtrak official, who spurned her for the entire trip because she didn't have a technical railroader's map.

"I could feel myself spiraling out of control," she says. "All of a sudden — stop. I heard this voice in my head: 'Calm down. This has nothing to do with you.' At that moment I physically calmed down, and I was fine."

Immediately, she says, she remembered when she was 16 years old, "the first time I was called a nigger. ... I was crossing the street to meet my mother. Two guys in a pickup truck yelled out, 'Hey, nigger girl!'

"I had every opportunity coming up, and it rattled me," says Jackson, who was born in Chicago and raised in Memphis. "I cannot imagine the impact that would have on a child who had less than I had.

"I don't know why I linked the two experiences in my head," she muses. "But it was that same sort of shame and guilt and inadequacy and being embarrassed. In that instant I was able to let them both go at the same time."

Jackson says she slowly became an activist while working for Blagojevich. Her most prominent project became Brothers and Sisters United Against HIV/AIDS, a statewide outreach awareness campaign in the African American community to combat AIDS and encourage testing. She was in the state capitol rotunda when someone asked her to sign off on a press release reporting HIV numbers. At that time, in 2004, African Americans, though only 15 percent of the population, accounted for 54 percent of Illinois AIDS cases, compared with 27 percent for whites.

"I just remember standing there stunned, thinking, 'I can't just sign off on this. I can't just only do my job as the press secretary here. I have to put on my advocacy hat,'" she recalls.

Jackson pulled together various agencies, and the result was the $2.5 million BASUAH program. She also helped create the Illinois Statewide Minority Business Loan Fund, a $1 million project by the state, the Illinois Finance Authority, Fifth Third Bank and Chicago Community Ventures to assist minority firms in accessing capital.

Jackson and her husband live on Chicago's South Side. They met at Northwestern, freshman year. Cheryle's parents both attended Northwestern — and so did her younger sister, Michelle Robinson McKissack (J91, GJ92), and brother-in-law, John McKissack (McC91). "Wildcats are in the family," she laughs. "It's in my DNA.

"I think back warmly on my Northwestern experience," she says. "Not every African American does, and I'm sensitive to that." She recently heard actress Daphne Maxwell Reid (WCAS70) speak about being crowned the first African American Northwestern Homecoming queen and the pain of "not being wanted, being disrespected, being treated ugly."

"There's a price to pay for being a trailblazer, and she paid it," says Jackson. "I think because of those that came before me, the Daphne Maxwell Reids, because they were trailblazers and they paved the way and took the hits, I was able to come along and just be a normal kid going off to school for the first time."

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Cheryle Jackson
Cheryle Jackson, in front of the Victory Monument in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood. The structure honors the achievements of the 8th Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, an African American unit that served in France during World War I.Photo by Jon Lowenstein