Kevin Sutton took the reins of the Foundation for Homan Square in January 2017 after 6 years on staff, 20 years of intensive community involvement, and North Lawndale roots going back to his early childhood.
The Foundation was formed in 1995 to oversee the redevelopment of Homan Square – a 55-acre property that previously housed the historic Sears catalog facility, office tower, and power plant built between 1905 and 1907.
Today the campus has been transformed into a tapestry of community resources including a 70,000-square-foot community center; a 14-story hub for arts education, youth leadership development, job training, and nonprofits; 400 units of affordable housing; affordable health care providers; YMCA day care facilities; and public charter elementary and high schools. IFF and the Foundation are partnering to maintain and manage many of these assets.
Read on to hear from Kevin on his journey to become Homan Square’s Executive Director and what’s next for this community gem.
IFF: You have deep roots in the North Lawndale community, going all the way back to your childhood and throughout your adult and professional life. Can you describe your relationship with the neighborhood over time?
Kevin Sutton: I was born in North Lawndale on 16th and Avers, and I attended Penn Elementary School. When I reached third grade, my parents wanted to move our family to a safer neighborhood, so we moved to West Pullman. I was sort of a commuter kid for a long time – my home and neighborhood were on the far south side, but I still had a connection to the west side because of my family, friends, and church.
As an adult, I chose Oak Park for my first home. However, once I married and started looking for a house, I realized that Oak Park might not be the best fit for our family financially. We needed to be open to other options. I still remember flipping through the local newspaper one Saturday evening and finding a full-page Homan Square advertisement in the real estate section. My wife and I went to the sales office the next day, and we were back with the deposit check that Wednesday night. At that time, Homan Square’s first phase of construction was offering 3-bedroom houses for about $100,000. Considering the plans for the community and the surrounding area, it was a pretty easy decision for us. We were eager to play a part in revitalizing the community.
As we got settled in the neighborhood in 1994, I became actively involved right away. I served on the local school council at Gregory Elementary School; I organized the first resident meeting in my living room to talk through solutions for the challenges in our new community; later, I joined the community center advisory council; and I was on the board of the Power House School during its formation. Those were the early days, and I became a real advocate for Homan Square – new family, new baby, new homeowner, and a new voice to these councils and boards. During this time, I met Kristin Dean [President and Founder of the Foundation for Homan Square from 1995-2016], and we developed a great working relationship.
Looking back, it seems like a natural fit that we would come to work together within the Foundation. As I considered a career change in 2010, Kristin commented, “I’ve always seen you working here.” We talked about it and shaped a role that incorporated my management and service background with the evolving needs of the foundation.
IFF: How do you think the challenges in the community have changed over time? Is Homan Square better off today than it was when you were a kid?
KS: We still see some of the same challenges – safety concerns, lack of investment in infrastructure, and loss of jobs, including several large manufacturers. We’re working with our local government officials and other stakeholders to continue to drive for improvements. But a few things have changed. We are excited to see many more service providers, bringing programs that facilitate workforce development, education, economic empowerment, and job creation. They are making real changes in this community, and they’re here because Homan Square helped make space for them.
IFF: Tell us about the Homan Square campus today. What do you think it does for the community?
KS: Homan Square, for me, is a tremendous opportunity to see a collaborative vision that works. We don’t just have a theory or a conversation; we have something tangible and real. Over 400 families live here, over 1,000 kids a day visit our campus, all of our wonderful providers are invested and committed to stay here. We’re really blessed and fortunate. I only wish there was a way we could replicate it further west and into the south side and other areas that are struggling with some of the same difficulties.
We were lucky here. We had a lot of vacant land and vacant buildings to work with, and we had an organization like Sears putting financial “skin in the game” by donating the land, the buildings, and the money to help with remediation and demolition. We had Charlie Shaw’s vision and his impressive network of donors. And we had Kristin Dean’s hard work. We had a whole lot of other people coming to the table and examining what could make this community better. That’s pretty special.
I think of the Homan Square campus as a beautiful tapestry of providers and programmers and staff who really want to do as much heavy lifting as they can to address many of the systemic issues that relate to workforce development, job training, youth leadership, and arts and culture. One big thing we’re doing is giving young people an outlet and a voice to express themselves outside of violence – a way to be retrospective and introspective about their circumstance and what they’re living through day to day. The arts and culture piece is very important, but then there are also the basics, like health and fitness and medical care, and soon even a dentistry clinic.
Homan Square really serves as a bright spot in our community. It gives the ability to transform your life if that’s what you want to do.
IFF: In all your years of service to the community, is there any single memory that sticks out?
KS: Last year, we were experiencing some epic levels of violence in the neighborhood. And we got this request from the Mayor’s office asking that community organizations and neighborhood organizations do a kind of “day of solidarity.” Here in Homan Square, we hosted a neighborhood block party where we had grills and hotdogs and DJs and games and contests both inside and outside of the community center. I remember looking around and thinking: “You know, to have pulled this off in a couple of weeks and have it be this successful and well attended … this is a really great day.” It was a feel-good moment because it reminded me of the fact that the people who live here ultimately want the same thing that anybody in any neighborhood wants – to feel safe and have a good quality of life and be with good friends and family.
IFF: What’s next?
KS: It was always part of the vision to transition from more of a development entity into more of a permanent community resource center. We completed and filled Nichols Tower; we completed and filled the Community Center; we built a day care, elementary school, and high school; and we built 400 units of affordable, quality housing. But the land was limited, and we ultimately knew the development would come to some form of an end too. Now I think we have to ask ourselves and the community two questions.
First, can we reach beyond the current Homan Square footprint to expand it? Mostly in terms of providing affordable, quality, well-managed housing. Our new partnership with IFF gives a new opportunity to perhaps explore how we can expand our residential holdings into some of the other problem areas nearby. Homan Square’s brand and experience, combined with IFF’s real estate and lending services, could come together to do some great things if that’s the will and voice of the community.
Second, how do we encourage our current provider base to increase their service capacity by working together? Let’s say there’s a family over at DRW College Prep, and all they know about is the school. How do we get that family to take advantage of other offerings related to job development, workforce development, financial literacy, training? How do we get them to take advantage of the Lawndale Christian Heath Center’s primary care services if they don’t have a doctor? How do we get them to sign up for classes at the pool, at the fitness center, at the park district? Would their teen son who’s working at DRW be interested in participating in an after-school program with Free Spirit Media or School of the Art Institute? I always hear people saying that they’ve never heard of some of the services offered at Homan Square. In many ways, even though we call it the Beacon of Hope, it’s still difficult to penetrate the community and the households to a point where they know all that’s available here. There are probably more than 1,000 kids a day on campus, and that’s a lot of families that we could potentially connect to an impact.