Civic Leadership Academy graduate helps transform historic Pullman

Standing at the front of a tour bus as it rolls through the Pullman neighborhood, Jennifer Bransfield points out examples of the far South Side community’s ongoing revitalization. The tour is part of Ideas Week, an annual festival with hundreds of events across Chicago to showcase innovative ideas and spark conversations and intellectual discourse.

Bransfield, general counsel and vice president of operations for the nonprofit Community Neighborhood Initiatives, is hosting the tour because her organization is leading the transformation of Pullman, which President Obama last year designated as the first urban national park. The tour became part of Ideas Week through the two-year-old Civic Leadership Academy at the University of Chicago.

The Civic Leadership Academy is an interdisciplinary certificate program for emerging and high-potential leaders at nonprofits and public agencies within the city of Chicago and Cook County, where fellows like Bransfield learn essential leadership skills from UChicago faculty and forge deep connections with peers.

When CLA offered to share some of its insights with Ideas Week, an interactive tour of Pullman was a logical choice. “The entire neighborhood is a showcase for a wrap-around, holistic, place-based approach to community development,” explained Bransfield, who graduated from CLA in June.

Joanie Friedman, the director of civic partnerships for the Office of Civic Engagement, which operates CLA, said that Pullman is an excellent example of how the academy is a force for positive change in and around Chicago. “Pullman is a fascinating story right now,” she said. “It takes a lot of innovation and smart collaboration to make that happen, and the academy is designed to help people who are deeply involved, like Jennifer, become stronger civic leaders.”

Outside the bus windows, the impact of CNI and its partners is everywhere. On the left side of a sun-dappled stretch of South Maryland Avenue is the Pullman Wheelworks, a 1920 industrial building converted into more than 200 affordable housing units. Across the street sits the Pullman Porter Museum, which helped CNI make the case for the historic district’s national park status.

The tour looks into the past and the future of the community—one stop looks inside a new LEED-certified Method cleaning supplies factory with a computerized, state-of-the-art greenhouse on the roof. Up the block is the original administration building for the Pullman Palace Car Company. Part of Bransfield’s tour is about a community garden that replaced a troublesome local liquor store and a firehouse from the 1890s at the corner that is begging to be rehabbed into offices or maybe housing.

These are big changes for a neighborhood that lost more than 20 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010, where six out of 10 households in 2013 earned less than $50,000 in income and unemployment stood at twice the citywide average.

CNI is in the middle of all of it—convening a community planning process, providing loans for development, and purchasing and cleaning up the land under a former steel mill. Part of the strategy is to woo Method, a new Walmart and other stores to the 180-acre site. The group has attracted $130 million in outside investment, and it played a lead role in coordinating the process to make George Pullman’s planned model industrial town a national monument.

Bransfield has been with CNI since it transformed from a subsidiary program at a local bank into an independent nonprofit community development organization in 2010. Her former job as a corporate attorney has served her well in her role running the group’s operations, legal, accounting, communications, fundraising and more. With so much going on in Pullman, however, she said that being accepted into the Civic Leadership Academy has increased her capacity to do even more.

“I had heard that CLA was a dynamic experience,” she said. “I’m not an urban planner, I don’t have a background in community development. I wanted the context and connections that my peers had.”

The academy certainly provided her with those connections. She says that fellows working for grassroots advocacy and social justice organizations have provided new perspectives, for instance, and fellow Liz Jellema, the director of research at World Business Chicago, has pulled data on Pullman for Bransfield to more deeply inform CNI’s local efforts.

“I email people [from CLA] one or two days a week to ask a question or just to meet up,” Bransfield said. “Looking to the future, I’m very excited about the network we’re building of former fellows.”

For her capstone project—an opportunity to use academy lessons to inform the work at a CLA fellow’s day job— Bransfield focused on how the Pullman’s national monument designation can attract more resources and support. In June she convened a meeting on the topic at the White House with representatives of nine different federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation, Small Business Association and the National Endowments for the Arts.

“It was encouraging to get all those people in the same room and thinking about how we can work together and how that can be scaled to work in other neighborhoods as well. We’re a small nonprofit developer, but this opportunity got us in the White House,” Bransfield said. “The Civic Leadership Academy has been a life-changing experience for me.”