Blueprint for Change: From Ideas to Collective Impact
Keynote Address

by Tom Wilson
Co-Chair, Board of Directors, Get IN Chicago

Originally delivered at The Chicago Urban League 2016 Summit Luncheon

Thank you, Jasper and thank you to the Chicago Urban League for hosting today’s dialogue. It’s a particular honor to be speaking to the Urban League. The Urban League has been part of the fabric of Chicago for over a hundred years. Allstate is proud to have called Chicago home since 1931, only sixteen years after the Urban League was founded. Our company, employees and agency owners also consider ourselves part of the city’s fabric as well.

I am proud to have made Chicago my home for 36 years. But I am not a Chicagoan by birth. Like many of you, I came here for opportunity—the opportunity to do well, to be part of a successful business community, to experience the vibrant cultural life and to be a part of the community…to be a Chicagoan. My wife and I valued the opportunity to raise our children in a safe and nurturing environment where they can chase THEIR dreams. Not everyone is as lucky.

Too many Chicagoans do not have decent economic opportunities and live in poverty. Too many people live in fear of random violence. Too many children are being left behind because of inadequate education and social services. And youth violence is a plague that is taking our children. It is a parasite, sucking hope from our hearts.

It’s time to do something about this that is bold and different. This is our city. Youth violence is tearing the fabric of our city, and that tears us apart as well.

How in the world did we ever get to a place where over a hundred of our Chicago children are murdered each year? As everyone here knows, it’s complicated. Poverty, lack of job opportunity, drugs, trauma, insufficient education, fractured families, easy access to guns and a breakdown in the neighborhood fabric are all part of it. These problems have created an even bigger problem. Some are losing hope and are ready to give up.

If you’re a young black male in America, there’s a 16% chance you’ll get a four year college degree, and a 29% chance you’ll end up incarcerated at some point during your life. It’s pretty hard to be hopeful with this reality staring you in the face. But we cannot let this difficult reality make us lose hope. If we can inject hope into communities, positive outcomes will follow. Hope enables us to envision a better world. Hope changes how we feel about ourselves, our families and our communities. Hope gives us energy to get over the inevitable bumps in life. Hope repairs the tears in our communal fabric and leaves it stronger than before.

Together we can restore hope. We can do it individually and collectively. We can do that through our places of faith. We can do it through our institutions. We can do that through public private partnerships like Get IN Chicago. We can do if it we believe in ourselves, our young people and each other.

Now some think that people inside and outside of our affected communities have stopped caring. I refuse to accept that belief. People may be overwhelmed. They may not know how to make a difference. But I believe that Chicagoans WILL ALWAYS accept even the most complex challenges if it means saving our city.

Success will require creativity and innovation on the part of everyone involved. For example, our police department has to find a new path. Police officers have a tough and emotionally exhausting job. Dealing with pervasive violence day after day after day would take a toll on each of us. That said, it is not an excuse for treating people without respect or due process. We must make sure our elected leaders address this, that they set aside politics and makes the tough choices.

According to the New York Times, nearly 40% of the city’s budget is spent on policing. So it follows that this is 40% of the jobs of elected officials. The mayor has told us he is all in on the problem of violence. He is unhappy, you are unhappy, I am dismayed and our children are victims.

We need the police department to make changes. I am not an expert in how they should fix it. But I am sure it is their accountability to fix it. All of this you know and likely agree with.

I want to add something new to the dialogue. We also need to give them some space. We need to assume positive intent on their parts. We need to encourage innovation and new methods of policing. Hold them accountable but assume positive intent when some of these don’t work.

Jim Reynolds and I created Get IN Chicago as a way for the business community to help find innovative solutions to the problem of youth violence. Let me set some context. Four and a half years ago, Mayor Emmanuel and Cook County President Preckwinkle asked the Civic Committee to find new approaches to reducing violence in Chicago.

I got asked as the “young guy” to take on this role. At 55, when someone leads with “young guy” you accept before they finish the ask. The truth is I did not know what I was getting into. I soon learned just how embedded violence was in some neighborhoods in Chicago. At first, I was embarrassed. Then I was mad. Then I was committed.

We formed a group of leaders from social services, non-profits, law enforcement, and the judicial, education, community and business sectors to find ways to help make our neighborhoods safer. The business community, through the Civic Consulting Alliance, contributed $3 million of pro bono work to study the problem. We looked at other cities to find out what they were doing.

Every leader in the room made a commitment to step up and to work collaboratively to drive change. Public officials, leaders of non-profits and executives were all in. We created Get IN Chicago as a public-private partnership.

We picked the name Get IN Chicago because of something my daughter Hannah said. She said my wife Jill and I were always talking about helping kids “get out” of bad neighborhoods. Hannah said what we really need is for more people to “get into” these neighborhoods and make them better. That became our mantra: Get in, not out. Get involved. Get invested. Get inspired.

Mayor Emmanuel, Jim Reynolds and I reached out to the business community and raised $46 million specifically targeted to fund innovative approaches to reducing violence. Great companies such as Boeing, Guggenheim, Allstate, Exelon, Mesirow, AON, Grosvenor, Northern Trust, J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, McDonalds and many others stepped up with large financial commitments to create a new private funding source. The Boston Consulting Group helped us create a strategy focusing on seven of the most dangerous neighborhoods targeting at-risk youth from the ages of 14 to 21 and providing new innovative programs for mentoring and trauma therapy.

We didn’t want to fund overhead so we formed a small organization, led by Dr. Toni Irving, and leveraged the capabilities of the Chicago Community Trust and professional grant reviewers from a dozen of the city’s best foundations. Since 2013, we have awarded $17.5 million in grants which will impact more than 9,500 youth and parents. We’ve awarded grants to 56 nonprofits working in 26 schools including The Chicago Urban League who operates a mentoring program at Corliss High School. Those grants include both programs that directly help at-risk youth as well as investments in infrastructure support for organizations, so they can scale up and serve more kids.

We’re testing new ideas through our $1 million innovation challenge. And we’re learning. We have learned that today’s programs and delivery systems are not equipped to dramatically reduce violence. We need to segment our approaches, use different programs, expand capacity and get comfortable with measurement of results. Let’s cover each of these four specific learnings and discuss what they imply for how we attack the problem of youth violence.

First, segmentation is a standard business tool and it’s one that’s very applicable to this problem. By segmentation, we mean treating at-risk youth with different needs differently, providing each segment with unique programs. Let’s start with a truism. All of the children who live in Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods are at-risk in some way shape or form. Some are at-risk of being swept up into gang violence and falling into a life of crime. Others are at-risk of becoming victims and still others are at-risk of not realizing their full potential. All of these at-risk youth deserve our help and it’s in our and society’s best interests to help them all.

They just do not all need the same type of help.

Through our work at Get IN we have identified that the most acutely at-risk youth are the ones most likely to be in drawn into violence. This is probably 15 to 20% of the total population of at-risk youth. These are not the kids who are getting As, Bs or Cs. These are the students who are absent from school more than 10% of the time and have had multiple run-ins with the juvenile court system.

Acutely High-Risk

These acutely at-risk youth are not receiving the services and support they need. These kids are hard to find, hart to get into programs and hard to help. To address them, we must build programs and capacity directed specifically at them. At Get IN, that means investing in developing new types of programs and different delivery systems. I encourage those of you involved with a foundation or non-profit to ask the question; “What segment of at-risk youth do our programs serve?”

Secondly, we learned that even the best programs lessen their impact if they don’t treat the youth they serve as customers.

Let me make this point by asking you a personal question. How many of you see a therapist? Raise your hand. It looks like about 5 to 10%. The national average is about 20% so that means there are a whole bunch of you who don’t want to be called out on this.

The same is true for acutely at-risk youth. They need therapy but it needs to be packaged in a way that is emotionally and socially acceptable to them as customers, not as problems to be fixed. We must also make sure they get a large enough dosage to make a difference.

A youth who has seen his friend killed, experiences massive trauma and needs significant therapy and support to recover. Left untreated or undertreated, this trauma hardens and a societal victim could eventually become a societal predator. We need new approaches, new delivery systems and new rewards specifically targeted at acutely at-risk youth. Get IN is funding out-of-the-box solutions for this group of young people.

Thirdly, there is not enough capacity in our neighborhoods to deal with this challenge. Demand exceeds supply. There are not enough social service programs or not-for-profits to meet the need. In Roseland alone there are over 1,800 youth missing 10% of school days and the capacity to help them is less than half the amount needed. That leaves 900 potential societal victims being incubated into societal predators.

We need to invest in building more capacity and Get IN is doing that. Many of the organizations working to help these children are relatively small and are under-resourced. Get IN has funded Lurie’s Children’s Hospital and Illinois Mentoring Partnership to help organizations improve services and build learning communities.

We all know that “dollars spent” is a headline that catches the public’s attention and we’ve gotten some criticism for not spending our funds fast enough, for spending too much time deciding where to spend the funds strategically so they have the greatest impact. We understand it. We are asking communities to embrace new ways of doing things, and that’s a big ask.

We’ve also gotten criticized for our emphasis on measurement. That’s ok because it facilitates a very important conversation. We must get better at measuring the results of programs to find the ones that work.

When we opened our first round of funding, we asked potential grantees to submit proposals that were specific and had measurable results. We got over 200 proposals which were then reviewed by the city’s best grant reviewers. Over half of the proposals did not meet standards that most of you would consider baseline.

This upset those organizations that weren’t funded. We understood their frustration. They are working on the problem of violence each and every day and they are passionate about making a difference. We were also frustrated since we are all in to reduce violence. That said, we chose a slower, more thoughtful start than to just throw money at the problem.

When people criticize our efforts, it hurts. We’re human. But Jim and I and our Board are focused on creating new learnings to save children’s lives, and we will take heat in order to do that. Hopefully, organizations now understand our mission and focus and are assuming positive intent.

Measurement is a particularly difficult problem in this space. It is difficult because of the challenges of measuring outcomes, isolating causalities and selecting the timeframes. How do you know if a young man does not pick up a gun? Do you measure this in the next six months or over the next two years?

Some of the metrics and methodologies used by academics to measure effectiveness are difficult to deliver in Chicago. For example, social scientists need cohorts of 500 individuals and another 500 for a control group to get a statistically accurate read on a program. There are very few organizations in Chicago’s at-risk neighborhoods that can handle 200 children, much less 500. Care providers also don’t get much funding for infrastructure and items like measurement since funders want to help as many children as they can. Funders and providers worry that measurement will divert energy from “doing” to “counting.”

We must have measures that tell us what is effective and what isn’t. Otherwise we can put hundreds of millions of dollars into helping at-risk youth and there will be no reduction in violence. When discussing at-risk youth programs the number of children served is a measure of the breadth of activity, not effectiveness. To reduce violence we must know whether we’re helping acutely at-risk youth or someone who is headed to college. There are many reasons measurement is tough, nonetheless, it is essential. That’s reality.

So there is much we can all do differently. To reduce violence we need to segment our approach to at-risk youth and approach the acutely at-risk youth differently. If you are a foundation, ask the teams you fund to segment their programs. If you are a social service organization take on the gargantuan task of finding, engaging and helping the acutely at-risk youth, even though there are many other at-risk youth who need your help. We need to build up the capacity and capabilities of social service organizations to focus on acutely at-risk youth.

If you have money, talk to Get IN to see how and with whom you can build capacity and capabilities. Those of you on the front line helping children, be open to change since you may have to operate differently to grow and continue to operate effectively. We need to embrace measurement.

If you are a service provider, ask Get IN for help in building good measurement. Encourage your team to embrace measurement and adapt as you learn what works. If you are a funder then fund it. The MacArthur Foundation has provided huge resources to do this but more is needed. Once you fund it, then demand it be used. If any of these points resonate with you, please write them down and we’ll be happy to get you more information.

We also need to get in and rebuild and empower communities and residents. The Urban League is a leader in helping communities and their people be engaged, informed, and empowered. Get IN has also joined in by providing five communities with professional resources to build Community Engagement and Resident Empowerment Plans. These plans will identify what the residents believe is needed to build stronger, safer neighborhoods. The United Way and McCormick Foundation are pursuing similar efforts in other neighborhoods. We can take these learnings and develop templates that could be used to raise community collaboration and resident engagement in all of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Imagine a world where there are plans for each of our neighborhoods. Where the city aligns behind these plans by having them approved by the city council. Where approval equals resources based on a plan not just political clout. Where foundations can review proposals in the context of a neighborhood plan to ensure they are funding a comprehensive approach, and not a band-aid.

We need the Urban League, our foundations and government officials to listen and shape these first five plans and help make them a reality. Go to to learn more and to get in with us.

Let me leave you with one additional request. As leaders, we need to do more. I need to do more. We need to live in Dr. King’s vision of a Beloved Community.

We must be open and inclusive.

We must recognize that our strength is due to the breadth of our differences, not the comfort of our similarities.

We must build trust and relationships to create stronger communities.

We must all work together to address problems that are bigger than any of us.

We must assume positive intent.

The kids that are dying are not black or white or rich or poor. They are our children. They belong to all of us. They are Chicago’s future. Since I started working on this problem in October, 2011, 551 kids have been killed. They are not a statistic. They are kids with names.

Anthony… Andre… Devon… Martell… Alexis…. Leonardo…. Sakina…. Antwan….. George….

These are painful to say. They are painful to hear. But not nearly as painful as the experience of the mother I met in Humboldt Park whose daughter was shot when she went to the corner store to get a snack.

You have the power to make this better. You have the expertise, resources and platforms to make a difference. This is why we are here, to help others achieve more meaning in their lives.

Get IN. Get involved. Get invested. Get inspired.

Thank you for caring, and working to make our beloved city a place where everyone can find opportunity and realize their dream.

tom wilson headshot
Thomas J. Wilson

Chairman and CEO, The Allstate Corporation

Thomas J. Wilson is chairman and CEO of The Allstate Corporation, where he has held a number of senior executive positions since 1995. He was previously vice president of strategy and analysis for Sears, Roebuck and Co., managing director of mergers and acquisitions at Dean Witter Reynolds, and held various financial positions at Amoco Corporation. Wilson’s board service includes the State Street Corporation, Financial Services Roundtable, US Chamber of Commerce, Catalyst, the Property and Casualty CEO Roundtable, Financial Services Forum, Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, Rush University Medical Center, and Museum of Science and Industry. He is a founder of Get IN Chicago and co-chair of its Board of Directors.