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BEING NEIGHBORLY: ICO'S COMMUNITY ADVISORY BOARD
When Charles Mullen, OD arrived in Chicago after being named Illinois College of Optometry’s (ICO) fourth president in 1996, he brought with him over two and a half decades worth of experiences in some of America’s largest urban settings on the Eastern Seaboard including Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
Each of his previous positions influenced him, but one in particular from his first professional role as Special Assistant to the President for Clinical Development at the New England College of Optometry, his alma mater, really stuck, “It was in Boston where I learned about the importance of creating community affiliations. Seeing the importance of community and community leadership and how they can impact the educational experience always stayed with me,” says Dr. Mullen, now retired and living in Pittsburgh.
One of Dr. Mullen’s first objectives at ICO was to “create a group of community leaders who valued interaction.” The timing was right for Mr. Leroy Kennedy who was working in external relations at the neighboring Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) during that period, “There was very little community involvement when I started. A small group called the South Side Partnership existed, very informal, but ICO was not involved with that.”
Dr. Mullen and Mr. Kennedy each saw an opportunity, as the objectives of their respective institutions aligned and ICO’s Community Advisory Board (CAB) came into being in October of 1998. In his book, The Road to Excellence: A Continued History of the Illinois College of Optometry, Dr. Mullen wrote, “The recently created Community Advisory Board is comprised of eleven individuals, representing area churches, schools, community groups, government agencies and members of ICO Administration. (Its purpose) is to discuss areas of mutual concern and to formulate plans for improving the quality of life for all the residents of our community.”
It was in Boston where I learned about the importance of creating community affiliations. Seeing the importance of community and community leadership and how they can impact the educational experience always stayed with me.
Charles Mullen, OD ’70
The connections made at our meetings lead to further business opportunities, better utilization of ICO resources, and a community idea exchange.
Mark Colip, OD ’92
In 1998, Mr. Kennedy (who has since retired from IIT as its Vice President of Community Affairs) was one of those eleven people who first sat on ICO’s CAB and had a front row seat for watching it take shape, “It was important to expand the table and ICO did that. The Community Advisory Board allowed for a much broader base of individuals and organizations. The meetings were efficient and lasted just one hour, but it was the time in between meetings where things really happened.”
Through connections made at the quarterly CAB meetings over the years, Mr. Kennedy described how the educational pillars of the local community – ICO, IIT, the De La Salle Institute, a private Catholic high school in Bronzeville, and the VanderCook College of Music began to collaborate and network with local churches, police, elected officials, and community groups to identify unmet needs.
From those connections, positive changes started happening. Vision screenings for CPS students and daycares were provided by ICO students, and ongoing meetings between the presidents of the three educational pillars of the community continued to identify needs and board members worked together to see how they could be met.
There is a collective energy and phenomenal synergy where benefits and opportunities are made available.
VanderCook College of Music
It is common for larger non-profits to talk the talk of community service, but not necessarily walk the walk. When new initiatives are created with the best of intentions, it can be easy to stray from original goals over time and instead start to focus on meeting standards on a paper or checking off tasks that do not match their stated intention. ICO’s CAB has not fallen into that pattern. This could be because members of the CAB live and work in Bronzeville, The Gap, and the surrounding area, so all those needs being fulfilled positively impact the larger community, having an ongoing ripple effect. Sometimes those needs are personal and sometimes they are professional.
Nicole Wheatly is a community development consultant, real estate developer, and founder and owner of Steps, Inc. Consulting in Bronzeville. Mr. Kennedy invited her to join the board over seven years ago and sings its praises, “I don’t know if it is divine intervention or strategy regarding who is invited to sit on the board, but I am honored to be a part of it. There is a collective energy and phenomenal synergy where benefits and opportunities are made available. The functions they host support families and seniors in the community. Everyone shares.”
An example of that synergy and sharing that Ms. Wheatly identified continues to benefit her own family, “We were going downtown for music lessons for my son. It was a trip, but we did it every week. It was at one of the CAB meetings that I learned about VanderCook College of Music, one of Chicago’s best kept secrets. It was so secret even I didn’t know about it,” Ms. Wheatly says, laughing.
VanderCook happens to be the only college in the United States solely focused on the training of music educators. What better place for music lessons for her talented son? “The board exists to help the community access resources,” says Ms. Wheatly, “Every meeting is A+ and each member is provided the opportunity to share and spread the word.”
One of ICO’s stated values is to provide “service to the community.” For a college of optometry, that is accomplished through the many ways that faculty, staff, and students make vision health and services accessible to the surrounding community, but with the formation of the CAB, the Administration has continued to push for other ways ICO can be not just a community resource, but a good neighbor.
Mark Colip, OD ’92, serves as ICO’s sixth and current President, and sees how Dr. Mullen’s vision for the CAB continues to benefit both ICO and the larger community, “The connections made at our meetings lead to further business opportunities, better utilization of ICO resources, and a community idea exchange. ICO has the infrastructure to host these meetings that are something like a living bulletin board for community organizations. We host guest speakers, have check-ins with each member, and provide the opportunity for people to come together to share updates with one another.”
In discussing the work of the CAB, Dr. Colip reflected on its history, as he served as Dean of Student Affairs when it was created, “Dr. Mullen’s strategic plan identified a need for closer ties with the community. Our institution was isolated from neighbors, insulated from service outside of caring for our patients. Dr. Mullen brought the mentality of service to the community and how that was an opportunity for students to learn and provide in a different way. By recruiting community leaders and activists, we build ties that are helpful to ICO and vice versa. We are all stronger when we work together.”
There is a posture of humility and appreciation for the community which has endeared ICO to this community.
Urban Outreach Foundation
Jonathan Banks is the Chief Operating Officer of the Urban Outreach Foundation and has sat on the CAB for the past four years after being introduced to it by Ms. Wheatly. He lives and works in the community and knows the importance of that connection, “The majority of ICO staff and faculty don’t live in the area, but they are connected and connected in an intentional way. You can only serve if you are in relationship with the community. The posture of ICO’s leadership is not, ‘We’re here to help.’ It is not paternalistic. There is a posture of humility and appreciation for the community which has endeared ICO to this community. Institutions ‘giving back’ are not helpful. There has to be a partnership.” Mr. Banks sees ICO as “convening their power to elevate the community.”
While meetings total just three hours annually, Mr. Kennedy puts that in perspective when he acknowledged that the time in between meetings has the most impact, “There are the folks at the table and the folks that get you to the table. The community stays involved because of [ICO’s] detailed, accurate, prompt sharing of information. The table provides the opportunity to establish relationships, but the work matters.”
It is a tribute to Dr. Mullen’s original vision that almost 25 years later, ICO’s Community Advisory Board is still impacting Chicago’s Bronzeville and The Gap communities in ways large and small that goes far beyond vision screenings. Mr. Banks understands how this is possible and knows its value, “ICO creates the opportunity for relationships. It’s good to know your neighbors.”