BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
The Village concept came to Chicago in 2007 and opened as Lincoln Park Village in June 2009. On Valentine’s Day 2008, Dianne Campbell was asked to be the Village’s founding executive director. Part of a growing national movement to help those aged 50-plus remain in their communities, the Village Chicago is among the largest urban villages with 450+ members living on Chicago’s north and near-south sides. This month the Village launched its 10th anniversary celebration, and Dianne is stepping down. As her friend and Village member Laurel Baer has said:
“Successful startups are Dianne Campbell’s forte. The Village was her fourth when she was selected as founding executive director, and she has been pivotal in building a robust, effective organization. Dianne is also someone who might show up at your door with hot soup—a distinguishing quality that shaped the Village into the successful, caring powerhouse it is today.”
All ages have benefitted from Dianne’s dynamism, caring, seven-days-a-week commitment. A public school teacher who helped start the city’s first magnet school, she became founding director and president of the Chicago Children’s Museum, growing that sensational hands-on destination for 17 years. Subsequently, she helped build one of Chicago’s first public charter schools into a network serving more than 2,200 students.
At the Village Chicago, Dianne has been a catalyst for the City of Chicago to create “villages” in its 21 senior centers. Dianne’s impact and energy are felt throughout the Village’s community, bringing together individuals, families, resources, and a network of collaborators. She recruits new members, forges partnerships, and enlists Village members to make birthday calls to others.
Among partners she has brought to the Village are DePaul University, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago Innovation, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, libraries, aldermen, fitness centers, theaters, museums, and more. Dianne and the Village have been involved in research studies on aging with Northwestern University; University of California, Berkeley; and University of Illinois at Chicago.
We asked wise Dianne to share leadership lessons learned and found that they apply to opportunities and challenges we each are given. Here’s what she told us.
Tell us a little more about your work at the Village and what it has taught you.
My work at the village has offered me a window into the worlds of our 450+ members aged 50 to 100 and into the science of longevity. This has been a gift as I begin to shape my own next chapter. My work has taught me so much about the importance and rewards of the following:
- Building a network of connections and support—and recognizing the power of interdependence instead of independence
- Surrounding myself with both older and younger people
- Practicing self-care (Be fit/get enough sleep/eat well/ invest in yourself). A large measure of the Village’s success was a result of just hard work—often seven days a week of showing up and working together to make things happen. For a leader that requires self-care, not my strong suit, but I’m learning. Two important things to practice: meditation and strength training.
- Being a life-long learner
- Showing gratitude
- Purposeful living (“unretirement” is for me)
How do you build a sustainable, useful organization from scratch?
Good governance matters. The Village was a new concept, so we took a year to build the first board of directors. We developed a job description, met with community leaders such as Dr. Henry Betts, who headed the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for suggestions. He had a brilliant one: Ruth Ann Watkins, who became our president.
We slowly built the first board of community leaders, influencers, people with seasoned backgrounds in being on boards, a variety of skill sets, excitement for the potential of the Village. That investment has paid off and the Village continues to benefit from a cohesive, committed, and hard-working board. It has made all the difference. I found these other steps worked:
- Make a plan but act on good ideas and opportunities too.
- Build on assets.
I first learned about asset-based community development from John McKnight at Northwestern in the ’80s, and it’s a great strategy with which to build an organization. It involves identifying the community assets that already exist, then harnessing those assets to work.
For The Village, from the start, we were surrounded by assets: A local developer provided office space almost on a pro-bono basis. People opened their homes and meeting rooms to provide space for workshops and gatherings. Businesses, companies, and institutions became partners and provided expertise, including DePaul University, with its abundance of great student volunteers, professors and facilities.
The Apple Store, continues to open early one Sunday a month to provide tech classes for the Village. And our members, who bring years of experience, talent, and heart, are perhaps our greatest asset. Everyone has a gift to give.
What growth strategies would you share with other leaders?
Build strong team and know when to ask for help. Knowing what I didn’t know—a lot—and asking for help made a real difference. From the beginning, jump-starting the Village was a team sport. And building a team that compliments my strengths and shores up what I’m not good at contributed to the Village’s success. Example: jump-starting projects is a strength I have, while setting up sustainable systems is not. Thank goodness we had people aboard who were good at that.
A leader also has to be a good talent scout. From the beginning the Village has been a magnet to attract a talented committed people who joined together to help. Our communities are chock-full of people who we encouraged to do what they most liked to do (versus what they knew how to do).
Don’t forget to visibly celebrate wins. We had an ice cream social when we opened and have celebrated every June since. Also celebrate short-term wins. Such celebrations build community and confidence (“See what we are creating!”) and help volunteers take stock and be recognized.
And the following at all times:
- Show up and work hard.
- Be bold and don’t worry about failure.
- Take the long view and be patient.
Founding Village board member Charlotte Damron said of Dianne recently:
“What I remember most are not all the incredible things Dianne accomplished, although they are mighty, nor the countless hours she spent making this organization happen. What stands out most vividly of all is the extraordinary respect, regard and confidence she has for seniors. Those values clearly guided all her effort and resulted in incredible success. Members were energized and validated. They found themselves doing more than they ever expected. And the Village has become more than many could have ever imagined.”
Finally, Dianne shared with Classic Chicago readers some of her favorite quotations, including this one from her home office, posted in 2007 when talks about bringing the Village movement to Chicago began. She said it encouraged her and her founding board to “step off the curb”:
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, BEGIN IT. Boldness has genius, power and magic” —Goethe
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
And the poem “Adios” by Naomi Shihab Nye:
It is a good word, rolling off the tongue
no matter what language you were born with,
Use it. Learn where it begins,
the small alphabet of departure,
how long it takes to think of it,
then say, then be heard.
Marry it. More than any golden ring,
it shines, it shines.
Wear it on every finger
till your hands dance,
touching everything easily,
letting everything, easily, go.
Strap it to your back like wings.
Or a kite-tail. The stream of air behind a jet.
If you are known for anything,
let it be the way you rise out of sight
when your work is finished.
We doubt that Dianne’s dynamic gifts given to emerging organizations and ideas will ever be finished. We anticipate where her efforts will rise again.
For more information, visit thevillagechicago.org.