The RoundTable recently sat down with Sol Anderson, the new CEO of the Evanston Community Foundation. We spoke in person at his office in the Rotary Building. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
ECF, a tax-exempt nonsectarian charitable organization, plays a key leadership role in the nonprofit landscape in Evanston. Its mission is “helping Evanston thrive as a vibrant, inclusive, and equitable community.” ECF does this work through program grants, leadership training, networking and connecting with other nonprofit organizations.
Sol Anderson started his new role in June 2021, coming to ECF after serving as the Executive Director of I Grow Chicago, a nonprofit based in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago dedicated to addressing “the root causes of trauma and violence.” He is a problem solver, master networker, passionate team builder, and positive change-maker. An engaging speaker with a hearty laugh, he was excited to discuss the opportunity to work with and for ECF as it strives to improve the lives of adults and children.
The importance of family
The role of family, and Anderson’s family specifically, has had a tremendous influence in his life. Anderson’s father and all 13 of his father’s siblings attended college despite humble beginnings.
“I would say my family is incredibly influential,” Anderson said. “I think even down to my career choice. I come from a long line of minister elders in the Church of God in Christ – it’s Pentecostal, but no snakes!
“My grandmother was at home. That’s a not only a full-time job, but a full-time job with mandatory overtime! My grandfather built homes; he had a small construction company that he ran for many years. He was also a superintendent in our church.
“I think that lifestyle was really what influenced them to push their kids toward college. My grandparents worked really hard their whole lives. Just physically hard, back-breaking work for both of them. I think they wanted their kids to have an opportunity to not have to do that, and they saw education as a real pathway. It was the only way that my family, being born in that era of time, could have ever broken the cycles that they were in.
“My mom ran the food pantry at my church. She also worked for the phone company and their volunteer group, Telephone Pioneers of America, so we used to do a lot of volunteering as a family. Service was a big part of my upbringing.
“My dad was a teacher and a counselor for most of his career. We were never a wealthy family by any stretch, but it goes back to the biblical principle of ‘those that are strong bearing the infirmities of those that are weakened.’ My family really took that very seriously. In terms of the expectations, as a Black family growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, many of them born in the Jim Crow South, you go on to college. You don’t really get a lot of excuses for slacking off.”
Importance of a support network
Anderson said growing up as part of a large, close, religious family provided him with a strong support network and a foundation of who he is as a person, his values and his priorities.
His career experience is focused on helping people and he has seen firsthand how much talent there is in the world, but he said it saddens him that so many people never have their chance to shine, adding, “there’s something broken about the world that this can’t be more people’s stories, because talent is out there all over the place.”
Anderson said he recalls a former elementary school classmate from his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In high school, he said, his classmate went to prison for murder. Anderson recalls that the kid was not dumb. He had a few emotional outbursts over the years, perhaps as a result of undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Their two families were similar economically. The big difference, Anderson said, was that he had “a consistent, positive presence, parents that supported me and helped me with those expectations.”
The conversation moved to race and the outsize role that it plays in the lives of African Americans.
“I remember the second semester of my freshman year of college [at Michigan State], it was the first time I was the only Black student in one of my classes, and I had a panic attack in class,” Anderson said. “I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I now know. I called my dad and he talked me through that. There was more than one time when I called my dad when I was struggling.
“I think about some of the other Black students I know from Michigan State University, really talented, really smart people. They hit these levels of difficulty and they didn’t have a support network. And I just think about all of these things having to break exactly right for me to have the opportunities that I’ve had.
“It’s been a motivator in my career to make the world a place so more people can have stories similar to what mine is. There should be a lot more opportunities for people with talent than there are now, regardless of needs.”
ECF as a hub
Anderson said the ECF is in a unique position to connect the business community, city government and philanthropic leaders together to address problems. “We’re a really important hub that brings all these different elements of every community together,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to have a conversation in a different way than you can really do in any other venue.”
He continued, “Here’s an example: we did a bunch of roundtables around the federal funding coming to Evanston. There were conversations happening among community and nonprofit sectors saying, ‘We need more jobs,’ folks in the business community saying, ‘We need more people to work.’ That’s an opportunity to bring two sets of community needs together. Then we’ve got money circulating within the community; we’re strengthening the community from within.”
Anderson is an optimist, a sentiment that he shared both explicitly and subtly throughout the two-hour conversation. But his concerns about deeply rooted problems in Evanston and in the country peg him as a realist too. He shared some thoughts about cultural competence, which he describes as “how we understand … and engage as people with one another.”
“Here’s an example: I know at some of the parks in Evanston, there have been complaints about groups of young Black kids playing basketball because the way they communicate with each other might sound foreign to someone else,” he said. “If you hear kids yelling at each other, some of that is just what it means to play basketball at the park, right? I grew up like that. If you heard me with some of my best friends in life, the way we talk to each other when we play basketball, you would think we were the worst enemies, but that’s just the way we communicate. So if you feel that you can’t necessarily be yourself because the cross-cultural communication isn’t necessarily strong, it makes places feel not as accessible even if they are geographically close to you.”
How can that gap be bridged? There are no easy answers.
Issues are generations deep
“There are a lot of organizations and good people working on the affordable housing challenge and access to resources, but the challenges are still there,” Anderson said. “We know that people of color are leaving Evanston at higher rates. We know that there are gaps in terms of achievement at all levels of school. The city and the school districts have bought into working on those things, but these problems are generations deep. So we need generations-deep investment.”
“You’ve got to invest money. You’ve got to create opportunities for housing, you’ve got to think about trauma with every single kid of color who’s walking. Just being Black is traumatizing in America. Let’s address that from the moment a child steps into an early childhood education center.
“Let’s catch those things, from the early childhood education system to District 65 to District 202, so that we have strong enough channels of communication to make sure that we’re sharing what each of these kids needs to survive and thrive. Then you’ve got to make sure that their parents have jobs that allow them to sustain their lives and not just break even at the end of the month. We’ve got to pour as many of our resources as we can so that the things that are beautiful about Evanston feel accessible to everyone and are attainable for everyone.”
ECF Rapid Response Fund
One recent example of ECF’s community leadership and involvement was the launch of the Evanston Community Rapid Response Fund on March 18, 2020. Its purpose was to foster a united philanthropic response to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on the Evanston community. Anderson has been deeply involved with all aspects of this new venture, especially stewarding the many new donors to ECF.
“We had a number of community members who stepped up during 2020 and 2021 to be a part of the Rapid Response Fund, and we’re working really hard to engage those folks as thought partners on how to make Evanston the type of community that it needs to be. There are a lot of people who gave to us then who had never given a dime to ECF before.
“Some people think the term ‘philanthropy’ is intimidating, referring to someone who has so many dollars to their name that they don’t even have to think about giving it away. But that’s not what philanthropy is. The word is rooted in the love of humankind.
“We built a strong financial base, and we were working on the racial equity piece, and then in 2020 the world comes to this head where both of those things needed to be working together in order for a lot of organizations and people in Evanston to survive the pandemic. ECF was in this perfect position to be able to do that.”
Partnering and investing
Anderson is a man with a big vision, and he has thought deeply about the role that charity plays within a community. He said, “I’ve been thinking about how we use the term ‘giving’ because you can give in so many ways, or even the African principle of ‘Ubuntu.’ It’s similar in meaning to philanthropy, basically: ‘I am, because you are; I am strong because you are strong, I am weak because you are weak,’ and seeing that link between all of us. It’s about what it means to live in a community because it’s easy to just live in your home and have your own life. Especially because there are a lot of people of privilege here. I think of myself as one of them. Homelessness and food insecurity and health care problems are a lot more in your face in big cities than in suburban communities, but they’re here too. And so we can’t ignore them.”
“It’s our job to keep that in the face of people and keep people saying, ‘Look, this isn’t just about you writing checks to the foundation to make grants, what this is about is partnering with us and investing in and having a system that’s for everyone.’ That’s what our role is. That’s what we want the people who give to us to really think about.
“We want ECF to be thought of as the instrument that you can partner with to invest in in Evanston where every single community member, every child here has what they need to thrive and to live up to their potential.
Unlocking the power
“You know, sometimes the problems feel so big. It’s like shoveling dirt with a spoon. My coach said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, what if I could give folks a shovel? Or what if I could give them a bulldozer?’ So that’s why I bought this little bulldozer [he holds up a small plastic bulldozer] here to remind me, what if we could get to that point?
“I see the work that people are doing with just the spoon. I’ve seen people’s lives turned around. I’ve seen kids who we thought were marked for failure end up going to high school and graduating high school, going to college and turning their lives around. I’ve seen that in my work and my personal life. I’ve seen the impact of people caring, what that can create for people who need that little extra boost.
“I don’t like to use the word ’empower’ because I think that people have power within them. You’re not giving anyone power, but you’re unlocking the power that people have. This is what I want to be doing right now with my life: trying to provide resources to people. Because then we get the right amount of resources, there’s no question in my mind that we can fix these problems.”
“I know the type of people who go into this work, the intelligence, talent and dedication that I see working in the nonprofit world over almost two decades now. There’s a lot of amazing talent in this city. So I’m absolutely optimistic. We can be a model for other places. Look at reparations. … We work with a reparations stakeholder authority of Evanston and are holding a fund that we’re building out so that when the city fund is done, we can do some interesting creative stuff, but we also partner with that organization.
“I hope folks really understand that we’re so appreciative of how everyone in Evanston stepped up to help during the pandemic. But there’s an opportunity now to rebuild and even reimagine this community in a new way. ECF is an important entity to have those conversations and drive toward building a new Evanston, and we just really appreciate everyone’s continued partnership.
“Whether your gift is $1 or $100,000, we all have a part to play, not only in the financial resources, but coming together and thinking through what we need to do as a community to be strong.”