A Neighborhood Some Think Has Nothing Gave This Leader Everything
Growing up in North Lawndale—an underserved Chicago neighborhood challenged by poverty, unemployment, and lack of affordable housing—cannot have been easy, but Whittney Smith feels differently.
“I don’t feel like I succeeded despite my circumstances – in a lot of ways, my community made me who I am,” Smith said. “And not just in that I have grit, I have resilience, but my morals and character. All of that was learned from people in my community.”
After graduating from American University Washington College of Law, Smith served as an attorney in Washington D.C., representing clients building community through banking, small business development, and direct service providing. In 2017, she returned to Chicago as Deputy Director of Lawndale Christian Development Corporation (LCDC), where she wears many hats, including a bright pink hardhat for her construction site visits.
“For me, coming back has always been a matter of paying it forward and being of service to a community that was of service to me,” Smith said.
Smith was awarded a We Raise Emerging Leader Grant in 2019 for LCDC’s 2-Flat Ownership Program, which aims to create financial stability and a path to wealth for property owners in the community. Despite the events of 2020 – and pandemic workarounds – renovation of three 2-flats is complete. Smith anticipates completion of the fourth 2-flat by December 2021.
The We Raise grant helped support several soft costs of the program, such as security, staff time, and electricity for buildings under construction.
“We were grateful to have your support,” said Smith, who also used the grant’s value-added components. “I definitely was thrilled to have the opportunity to have coaching and [coach] Lanelle Harris was very helpful in guiding my thought process about how to grow into leadership during the grant term and beyond.”
The 2-Flat Ownership Program includes many touchpoints of economic impact. LCDC develops each property as a duplex, giving homeowners the opportunity for rental income to make their mortgage more affordable. To ensure their success as landlords – and boost housing stability in the community – LCDC provides training for homeowners on laws, policies, and best practices in landlord/tenant relations. Finally, the built-in construction apprenticeship program allows 8 to 16 young men from North Lawndale partnerships to gain job experience and career exposure in the construction trades.
In addition to heading up the 2-Flat Ownership Program, Smith is launching a cooperative incubator for small businesses in North Lawndale; supporting the “1000 Homes” campaign, a real estate development project involving a coalition of almost 300 nonprofits that partners with the City of Chicago creating new construction on city-owned vacant lots; and championing LCDC’s Lazarus project to create 48 units of affordable apartments, with a focus on formerly incarcerated individuals and their families.
Smith has learned that a successful leader in a housing development ministry should have genuine connections with people and a commitment to order and processes. Describing herself as an “outgoing people person,” the connection part comes naturally, but she has worked to develop a sense of meticulousness. It’s something that her We Raise coach has helped her with, and another reason why she appreciates We Raise donors.
“The continued support of We Raise donors is vital to the work that we do,” Smith said. “It’s also an opportunity to seed the growth of something new and fund transformation of a community that has seen unbelievable divestment but has loving, caring, compassionate people who need support to make a change.”
Thanks to caring and compassionate donors, We Raise is helping revitalize a community where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family once lived and where an extraordinary young woman, often donning a pink hardhat, is paying it forward to a community that shaped who she is today.