Chicago first lady Amy Rule highlights work with nonprofit business internship group
Chicago first lady Amy Rule interacts with students from the education nonprofit Urban Alliance Friday during a class at Columbia College. (E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune / December 14, 2012)
Students passed around a coin while reciting some common money sayings and myths.
Chicago’s first lady offered, “Money grows on trees,” before passing the quarter to Briana Miller, 17, who added, “Save for a rainy day.”
The exchange was part of a regular Friday afternoon workshop for teens put together by the Urban Alliance, a nonprofit group that hooks up public school students from low-income neighborhoods with internships at high-profile companies and provides weekly sessions emphasizing such professional basics as financial literacy and the importance of punctuality.
The Washington, D.C.-based organization expanded to Chicago in February with the help of volunteer co-chair Rule, who learned about the charity while living in the nation’s capital when husband Rahm Emanuel served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff.
Rule, who has kept a low public profile since returning to Chicago last year, said she decided to promote the program as it seeks to grow in the coming year.
The tightly controlled event marked Rule’s first public interview and second major appearance since becoming first lady. In the spring, she made remarks while leading a city delegation more than 4,000 miles away to Brussels ahead of the May NATO summit in Chicago.
Though Rule has made solo appearances, she has preferred small settings and gatherings away from the media.
Even some students in Urban Alliance did not know Rule, who often comes to the Friday workshops, was married to the mayor until recently.
That under-the-radar approach has drawn contrast comparisons with her predecessor Maggie Daley, who became a very public figure during her 22 years as the city’s first lady before her death in November 2011.
But Rule, who has an art history degree from Tufts University and a master’s in medieval art history from the University of Chicago, made it clear Friday that her absence from the public sphere has been by choice.
“I haven’t really had anything of civic interest to share,” Rule said. “In terms of speaking publicly ... one public person in the family is enough, in my opinion.”
As she stepped into the spotlight, Rule had some help from two pros of public relations and messaging — Sandra Abrevaya, a former spokeswoman for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the organization’s Chicago executive director, and Katie McCormick Lelyveld, former press secretary to first lady Michelle Obama.
“What I love so much about this program is basically helping these young people at a critical point in their lives where they are maybe going to go to college,” Rule said. “We are really giving them those tangible skills to be successful. How to dress, how to say hello to someone, how to look them in the eye, how to write a professional e-mail.”
Also co-chairing the Chicago effort are Lelyveld and K. Brooke Stafford-Brizard, the wife of former CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard.
So far, the program has linked 71 students with internships in at major law firms, large corporations and business arms of sports teams like the Bulls and the Cubs. Monday through Thursday, the students go to work from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. During the summer, they will work full time.
“The thing that I have learned is how resilient some of our youth are and some of the challenges that they’re facing that might not have occurred to me because they’re not challenges that I personally faced in terms of your family structure and also having to navigate … some of the ‘what-do-I-do-with-myself’ questions on your own,” Rule said.
The first lady’s public endorsement of the nonprofit comes at the same time that Emanuel’s school district is seeking to shutter under-enrolled schools, which are mostly on the city’s impoverished West and South Sides. Many of the participating businesses sit on Emanuel’s powerful World Business of Chicago organization that serves as the city’s economic development arm.
At Friday’s workshop, Dunbar High School senior Briana Miller said the connections she has made at the Burson-Marsteller public relations firm have helped her navigate the college application process.
“It’s just such a wonderful thing and a weight off of my shoulders to have so many people in my corner,” said Miller, who said her mother did not finish college.
As for the first lady, Rule said she anticipates trying to line up more jobs for students during the next year. Asked whether she will be out in the public more now, she made no promises.
“We’ll find out,” Rule said. “The purpose of this is really to talk about Urban Alliance.”