Susana Vasquez's office on 22nd floor of a Loop high-rise is spacious and bright. What's missing, save for some children's drawings and an impressive Tinkertoy contraption displayed in the corner, is much in the way of decoration.
Vasquez, who became executive director of the Chicago office of the national nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC, lisc.org) more than a year ago, acknowledges the bare walls.
"There's a stack over there — they're things I'm supposed to be putting up," she says, indicating her wall art. She turns to a neat pile of unpacked moving boxes.
"My predecessor Andy Mooney (now commissioner of the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development) — those are still his files that I'm supposed to be going through," she says of the boxes. "Those are his Tinkertoys, too, but I inherited those."
Vasquez, who has worked to revitalize Chicago neighborhoods for 20 years, has a lot on her plate as the leader of LISC/Chicago, which obtains government, corporate and philanthropic funding for locally based revitalization projects in struggling neighborhoods. Vasquez oversees a full-time staff of 17, an annual operating budget of $10 million and a loan portfolio of $8 million.
"It's exciting and impossible — the work of leading a nonprofit in this city right now," she says.
"This is a very complex time: You've got a different mayor, you've got financial resources going away, you have issues in the neighborhoods tougher than before and there's a general sense of anxiety (among nonprofits) around. ... What is our role? What is the right impact we should be having?"
But she believes deeply in the community-organizing approach, designed to help residents of low-income neighborhoods come up with their own solutions to local problems, with nonprofits such as LISC providing the expertise and funding. And she's excited by projects such as Smart Communities, in which LISC helped five low-income neighborhoods come up with a plan to expand broadband usage, a critical issue in an era when so much job and school information is increasingly accessible online.
LISC obtained $9 million for the broadband project, which included public service messages featuring neighborhood residents.
Born in Ecuador, Vasquez, 42, came to Chicago as a baby and was raised by her mother, a nurse and a teacher, after her parents' divorce. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She and her husband live in Oak Park with their three young children.
"Part of this goes to the personal," she says of her commitment to giving neighborhood residents a voice in decisions that affect their lives.
"I was raised by a single mom in subsidized housing, and from my vantage point, a lot of well-intentioned policy can be created by folks who don't have the day-to-day experience of what it's like to live within those policies," she says. "The greatest experience base to attack the issue comes from the folks experiencing that issue."
The following is an edited transcript of a conversation with Vasquez.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a community organizer?
A: I don't think anyone grows up saying, 'Mommy, I want to be a community organizer.' I fell into community organizing, and that happened right out of college. I started out on (an) organizing internship, and then I did work with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization as an organizer and then was at the Resurrection Project as an organizer.
I did decide professionally I would not continue formally being a community organizer because it is a very challenging career to balance with your personal life, and so I moved into what's called development work: fundraising.
Q: In Barack Obama's autobiography, community organizing sounds like a 24-7 job.
A: The whole narrative that he has is a very true one: At some point, you feel like, are there other ways that I can contribute to these issues that are not so grinding? And some people — God bless them — stay, and are true organizers, and I have the deepest respect for them. I've worked with some of the best in Chicago.
For me, the balance between a professional and a personal life meant I needed some space between what I did for a living and what I could do when it was time to go home.
Q: When did you make that transition?
A: I was probably 30, 31 at Resurrection Project. And to my boss's credit, Raul Raymundo, he's like, 'Well, you're really good at writing grant proposals too. How about if I make you our fundraiser?' So I stayed on with the organization and transitioned from being their senior organizer to their resource development director and, as I like to say, went from organizing the people to organizing the money.
Q: As a college student, you were involved in student protests over the University of Illinois' mascot at the time, Chief Illiniwek. Was that satisfying to you?
A: College is a time when you're sorting out all sorts of things that make you angry, and there are all sorts of ways to then communicate that. I think I found a lot of camaraderie with folks who leaned toward social justice, racial justice and just basic gender justice, and those became my closest friends and those were the issues of that moment. If it were 10 years earlier, it might have been apartheid. If it was 10 years later, it would have been probably U of I students for Obama. To me, it could have been any issue that said something is not just here, and we must do something about it.
Q: What do you do when you're not working?
A: It's all about my kids. It really is. It's the age they're at. I probably miss reading. I managed to knock out "War and Peace" during bath time, for a year after Daniel, my second, was born. I read I think (after) Gabriel (was born in 2011), "Just Kids" by Patti Smith. Since then I squeezed in "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion. But it's my kids, and my kids — baking cookies, making pancakes, saying, "Why is the house so messy?" — and my kids.