Inaugural class graduates from UChicago-led Civic Leadership Academy

Who ever heard of a director of facilities management trying to mitigate recidivism? This is precisely what Bilqis Jacobs-El is doing in Cook County, having recruited the skilled tradesmen who work in juvenile detention facilities to teach the youths held in those very buildings. 

To do this, Jacobs-El, a member of the first class of fellows graduating from the Civic Leadership Academy at the University of Chicago, had to step outside the narrow box of her job title, and the academy offered her the network and resources to do so. “The Civic Leadership Academy cleans your palette,” she said. “It opens you up to let more come in.”


Jacobs-El is one of 28 fellows who graduated from the academy this month. The leadership development program targets rising professionals from nonprofit organizations and local government agencies in Chicago and Cook County. The Office of Civic Engagement, in partnership with LISC Chicago and the Civic Consulting Alliance, incubated the program for two years. It offers courses in such topics as leadership, strategy and management, human capital, strategic communications and civic innovation.

Additionally, in partnership with Common Purpose, a global leadership nonprofit based in the United Kingdom, fellows also will travel this month to Johannesburg, South Africa, for an immersive, one-week leadership development experience. They will work with their South African peers on a civic challenge, and apply the lessons learned to their work in Chicago. 

“Our world in general is becoming increasingly urbanized,” said President Robert J. Zimmer at the academy’s commencement ceremony. “It is our hope that the skills, the spirit of cooperative decision making, and the important network of peers that you have acquired as a part of this program, will help make you leaders of civic affairs for years to come—not just in Chicago, but among your peers from around the world.”

Campus partners in the Civic Leadership Academy include the School of Social Service Administration, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the University of Chicago Law School, the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies, and the Institute of Politics. “This program draws on resources from across the University and Chicago to provide leadership development training that will directly benefit our city,” said Sonya Malunda, senior associate vice president for civic partnerships in the Office of Civic Engagement. “The graduation of the first cohort is a testament to the contributions of the faculty and local practitioners who helped design the program and taught the courses.”

Jacobs-El said she expected the academy to challenge her, and it did. But she didn't anticipate the emphasis on doing original research and vetting the integrity of previously accepted data. She did more than bring her new knowledge to her place of work; she also brought it home to share with her children. “It's beyond just work,” she added. “It’s life-changing.”

James Rudyk, executive director of the Northwest Side Housing Center, feels like the close of the program is just the beginning. “We have a long journey ahead of us,” he said, while already seeing tangible “ripple effects” from the academy spreading throughout his organization. “My staff made a video of how I've changed as a leader. I’m better at making decisions, slowing down, trusting others and delegating more important projects. They feel more empowered, and I feel more intentional about how I spend my time,” he said. 

All participants worked on personal capstone projects that address significant challenges facing their organizations. For Paul Thompson, dean of business and professional services at Harold Washington College, that was figuring out how to scale internships to meet student needs. “The Civic Leadership Academy was like drinking from a fire hose," he quipped. “There was so much information. It gave me the time and space to think and work on this problem. I’ve worked on my poise and my listening skills. With more in my toolkit, I can better handle what comes at me.”

The 28 fellows—15 from nonprofit organizations and 13 from government offices—each logged 132 hours in the classroom, a combined 140 hours of coaching through the Social Enterprise Initiative at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and committed countless hours to their personal capstone projects and homework. The program awards a Certificate of Civic Leadership from the Harris School of Public Policy, and the organizations that sponsored the academy graduates receive a $2,000 stipend to be used toward a returning scholars academic course offered by the Graham School.