Interview with Fulcrum Fellow Joanna Trotter

Joanna Trotter (far right) writes on a flipchart during a Elevated Chicago workshop

This week, we interviewed Fulcrum Fellow Joanna Trotter, Senior Director of Community Impact at The Chicago Community Trust (The Trust), a community foundation working to improve the lives of people across the Chicago region. As a leader within one of the largest community foundations in the country, Joanna has used her time within the Fulcrum fellowship to reflect on the unconventional ways in which the Trust can support the creation of a system that better serves entrepreneurs and communities of color as part of her overall and multifaceted efforts to address the growing racial wealth disparities in the Chicago area.  


Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you ended up in your role at the Chicago Community Trust.

I’m originally from Portland, Oregon, and my professional background is in urban planning. I went to Atlanta, Georgia, for my undergraduate degree. The transition to Atlanta from Portland exposed me to key differences between the cities including the built environment and segregation that got me interested in planning. I was unaware of how well planned Portland was and how in Atlanta, for example,  a number of communities of color, residents had little or no access to public transportation or even sidewalks in some communities. In Atlanta, I was first exposed to the powerful and devastating role eminent domain can have on communities of color and only later in my career learned how this tool was piloted here in Chicago and also used to take property in my hometown of Portland from Black homeowners and business owners.

My growing interest in urban planning issues led me to get my Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning from UCLA. While there, I interned at PolicyLink and learned about new approaches to equitable and inclusive urban planning and public policy practices. From there, I helped run the inclusionary zoning ordinance for the City of West Hollywood to increase affordable housing options in this small city. I came to Chicago for love in 2003, thinking my then-fiancé and I would be here for a year or two. I started working at a small neighborhood development corporation before moving to the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) where I spent a decade focused on equitable development and planning work at the regional level. I eventually wound up at The Chicago Community Trust, where I was hired to manage the housing and economic development grantmaking portfolio. Since then, my role has expanded to include the Trust’s new strategic focus on the racial wealth gap. Needless to say, fifteen years after my move, Chicago has become home to me, my husband Shaan, and two kiddos, Aubrey and Sanaya.

Describe the community you work with.  What challenge have you chosen to focus on during the fellowship?

The Chicago Community Trust serves the entire Chicago region. We work with community stakeholders, nonprofit organizations and donors across the region to collectively advance equity and opportunity. Our focus is on creative a thriving, equitable and connected region where people of all races, places and identities have the opportunity to reach their potential. However, we know that this is not possible until we address the racial and wealth gap, which is the root cause of inequity.

The work I’m leading aims to build wealth in Black and Latinx households, which has involved more policy work than I’ve done in the past. In the Fulcrum fellowship, I’ve focused my challenge on serving entrepreneurs of color. What I’ve questioned through my work in Fulcrum is whether The Trust’s role is to provide direct capital access or to build power in the region to create an ecosystem that works better for these entrepreneurs, which could include more coordinated capital provision. 

Tell us a little bit about what you’ve learned throughout the program.  What has had the most impact on your professional and personal development?

I’ve learned so much from the emotional intelligence assessment. I’m stepping into a more substantial leadership role than ever before, so reflecting on my leadership abilities has been an important exercise. It’s invaluable having access to coaching from Marian as well as Robin's expertise around capital absorption. In terms of the tools I’ve applied, our team has more clarity now that we have a defined results statement and that has helped us have a robust strategic planning process. Now that we’ve moved from planning to implementation, I’ve used the power-mapping exercises and Case Making principles in preparation for meetings with key stakeholders, including our Executive Committee and the Mayor’s Office.

How has the fellowship changed your self-awareness?

The thing that has been sitting with me the most has been the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and how what I thought were strengths of mine might be contributing to conflict in certain situations. For example, I tend to ask a lot of questions with the hopes of bringing colleagues and myself along in coming to conclusions. Through our MBTI coaching, I realized that I sometimes question the things that people want to leave unsaid. I’m more conscious about the emotional implications of that now and how to consider that as I work to surface important issues or needs of the group.

I’ve had leadership roles before, but I always saw myself as a servant leader, someone who is  humble and deferential. Now that I’m leading a major strategy, I have to develop a more decisive leadership style to create clarity within my team and organization and provide guidance where people need it. 

Share with us how your experience has been implementing some of the concepts you have learned during the fellowship back at your organization.  What have been some wins? Challenges?

Throughout our strategic planning process, using the results statement tool that I got from Fulcrum for all of our initiatives helped us focus on the vision without getting too in the weeds. It’s an effective tool to keep people thinking about impact. It helped us articulate the outcomes we were seeking and then work backwards to map things out.  Our organization had been using logic models to do this work, so Fulcrum helped me step back from that to keep an eye on the bigger picture. Logic models, while valuable tools, tend to get too quickly into details and outcomes where you can run the risk of losing broader connections and systems analysis.

How has your systems orientation changed as a result of Fulcrum Fellows?  How does this show up in your work?

Some of the solutions I proposed in my Fulcrum application were to see whether we could use our grant resources to do more impact investing. I had a foregone conclusion in my mind and wanted to figure out how to implement it. However, Fulcrum has allowed me to step back to better understand our role as a community foundation within this small business system. It has allowed me to put more options on the table. For example, we could convene other capital providers and influence the way that they serve our communities or we may end up investing in other funds, setting important tables for coordination, or evaluating existing capital resources to improve outcomes for businesses of color. I may even leave Fulcrum without creating a fund.  By stepping back, we have more options to consider, which may ultimately lead to greater impact.

What most excites you looking ahead to the rest of the year?

I’m excited to start doing this work! We wrap our strategic plan in September 2019, but it has taken us the last nine months to build it out. The racial wealth gap is getting some incredible traction, both nationally and in our region. It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s also energizing in that we are not alone in this work. This is going to be incredibly hard work, but we have a many options in front of us around the way we can create change—policy advocacy, new ways of investing, research and learning. There are so many other ways we can use our voice and I'm excited to see that unfold over time.

Transforming investment in communities

CCI is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The California Endowment, and The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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