Friday, June 26, 2009

Remembering Wanda White Gills

News came through today that Wanda White Gills, a longtime contributor to the improvement of Chicago communities, has passed away after a long battle with cancer.

I had the pleasure of working with Wanda back in the 1980s when she was with the Community Workshop on Economic Development, and was thrilled to work with her again in 2004 and 2005 in Englewood, where she brought 600 different people into a remarkable series of meetings that resulted in Teamwork Englewood's 2005 quality-of-life plan.

Pierre Clark, who participated in that process, passed along the sad news:
"Wanda White Gills was the best facilitator and collaborative consensus builder I've worked with in 30 years in community development, bar none. I will miss her and I know she will be missed as a friend, colleague, guiding light and visionary.

"Wanda was Economic Development Director to three Chicago mayors, Executive Director of the Community Workshop On Economic Development, President of the Women's Self-Employment Project, Director of Teamwork Englewood NCP, Founding Board Member Of The Annenberg Challenge Grant process, architect of the Chicago Empowerment Zone process, third in command at the CHA during the early Transformation days, wife to Professor Doug Gills of UIC, mom to Scott and RD, grandmom, and a great friend and colleague of many of us in community development and community empowerment circles . . . (she) made her transition on Wednesday, June 25, after a long battle with cancer.

"Her homegoing ceremony will be Friday, July 3, 2009, at 1 p.m. at Progressive Community Center, 56 East 48th Street, (Wabash and 48th Street), Chicago, Illinois 60653."
What I remember quite vividly was the atmosphere in the big room at 815 W. 63rd Street, at Teamwork Englewood's office, when Wanda White Gills was working her magic. Englewood leaders and residents had been through plenty of planning processes before that one, and most of those plans had resulted in nothing much, but Wanda got people talking, let the angry ones speak their minds, treated every person and every idea with respect, left time before and after each meeting for people to talk to each other, and always urged everyone to come back to the next meeting and bring their friends and neighbors. And they did, month after month, until a splintered community had come together around common goals and created a sense of hope and spirit that hadn't exist before.

That's what Wanda White Gills was capable of. It's a rare and special talent. I know I am one of many who admired very much her contributions to our city.

Photo is from March 19, 2005 Englewood Youth and Young Adult Summit, during the report-back session when youth told a panel of adult leaders their concerns and hopes for the community.


Pierre Clark said...

Thanks, Patrick for posting my thoughts and your own. I blew a horn many times about Wanda when she was with us in this plane of existence, and I remember when I had lunch at Hyde Park's Calypso Restaurant with Saul Klibanow of then Pullman Bank (which had just taken over Chicago City Bank and before it was named Park National Bank) in February 2004.

I was talking to Saul about the nascent Teamwork Englewood and LISC process funding a newspaper for Englewood which I later named the Englewood InfoEye News (and which we actually did publish). Saul and I had talked a few days earlier on the phone about Vince Gilbert resigning as the first Teamwork Englewood director and he had revealed to me that the city's Judy Jackson recommended to the TE board that they consider Wanda White Gills for the position. Saul didn't know Wanda, and he asked me what I thought, and I told him point-blank, "You can stop looking. Wanda White Gills is the best in the country at what she does, and you will not find anyone better."

Unknown to Saul, Wanda had informed me of the overture to her to become TE Director, and expressed some reservations. I was being selfish of course, in wanting her to take the job because I was trying to get support for a newspaper from LISC and through TE and I knew that I would have a friend in that effort if Wanda were Director. I'd also had an idea to start a CDC in Englewood (which we later did start as One Englewood CDC), and I wanted Wanda's input and blessing on both ideas.

Wanda and I met at the old Orly's in Hyde Park and we talked about the position and I remember her relating to me the old parable about Jesus sending overtures that we sometimes ignore. I know from that conversation that Wanda, having just left WSEP, was reluctant to get back into an operating position as Executive Director and had her reservations about the LISC process. I'd like to think that during our conversation I helped her come to the conclusion that her participation would be good not only for me but for Englewood, which at that time was considered "impossible to organize into a collaborative process" by many around the city. I later had a conversation with Willard Payton of New Birth Church, another TE board member, who also asked me about Wanda and I told him the same thing I told Saul. I told Rev. Payton, "You wait until you meet her. You have never met a facilitator like Wanda White Gills and she is the best in the country at what she does." Subsequent to meeting her, I remember Payton telling me, "Pierre, you were absolutely right about her."

Of course she did take the TE position and the rest, as you recount from your dealings with Wanda, is a history and future which are still unfolding for Englewood. I remember attending one of the TE meetings after Wanda had started reorganizing the process and talking to Les Pollack of Camiros who told me, "I thought the process in Englewood was dead, until Wanda came on board."

If Englewood's citizen process does catalyze an emergence of the community from its nightmare of violence and disinvestment, Wanda White Gills will be remembered as having played a key role in helping that process unfold.

As I often said of her, there was no one better at what she did, and I was proud to call her colleague and friend.

Keisha said...

Ms. Wanda was such a wonderful person. A strong woman, sister-friend, leader, visionary, mother and role model. She impacted so many with her wisdom, her positive spirit and her ever present positive attitude towards change.

Ms. Wanda will be sorely missed by this city. She touched lives that never met her.

Steven Givhan said...

As a friend and brother with Wanda as a Board member of the former Community Workshop on Economic Development knowing Wanda since the days of the city of Chicago Department of Economic Development we served as key members of the Late Congressman Charles A. Hayes , Small Business task force which presented at the first small business meeting in Chicago with members of the 1st congressional district , Wanda had a great love of people of the community and loved children, as those of us of the extended family , I received the call from Mattie Butler of WECAN, informing me, Wanda love of community can be felt in the lives of the people she touched ,In the early days of her efforts Wanda give of her time to all that needed her assistance, in our efforts to WIN the Chicago Empowerment Zone award , Wanda kept us focused as well as Doug, many nights of us in the community keeping the faith , as a representative of the communities she was person you could count on in the battle to alleviate poverty in Chicago, she loved her children Scott and RD, and Doug, she is deeply loved by our community

Roz Paaswell said...

I have just learned, from Ken O'Hare, the sad news of Wanda's death. She and I were colleagues in Harold Washington's Department of Economic Development, and she was nothing less than a vital life force in working for economic justice. She did this work with great wisdom and she was a genius on reconciling differences. With practicality and sensitivity, she found solutions that worked. We have not been in touch since I left Chicago almost 20 years ago, but even now it is hard to imagine that life force stilled. My condolences to the hundreds, even thousands, of people whose life she touched and made better.

Roz Paaswell
Former Acting Commissioner of Economic Development, Chicago
Former First Deputy Commissioner of Economic Development, Chicago

Cynthia Bowman said...

I met Wanda during the CWED days when I was just getting involved in "community issues". Our paths have crossed repeatedly since that time. I was in awe of her brilliance, integrity,sense of fair play, effectiveness, and love for family and community. I'll always remember that smile!! Wanda was loved and respected by many and will be greatly missed. What a loss. REST IN PEACE MY SISTA'.

Bruce Montgomery said...

I love me some Wanda! She taught me so much. No one loved the essence and practice of community building more. I hope we all remember everything she showed and taught us how to do to build successful, intelligent, prosperous and Sustainable Communities! She loved us and We will Always Love Her! Thank You Wanda and to God be the Glory!

Mattie Butler said...

Wanda was a talented young sister/soldier and warrior. She was always a champion in the struggle for her people and her gender.

She was on a mission and moved quickly to the task at hand.
She and I talked much about our families, children and the Community Workshop On Economic Development (CWED), the organization where she at the time was the Executive Director and I was the President of CWED's Board.

This organization became nationally held up as the organization to go to for the how-to of Community Economic Development, during the time she was Executive Director. CWED became the "think tank" of international CED (community economic development).

She wanted to see her sons grow up and become successful men. And she
was concerned about the love of her life, Doug.

We talked about caring about black men and lifting them up. We talked about the Latino Community and how we could help to connect with them in ways that will bring power to both groups' communities.

There are groups in the Latino community now - The Resurrection Project is one that comes to mind - out there on the ground that developed because of the work that Wanda did in those days. These groups are now powerful and working in their communities.

There are also a number of businesswomen who she mentored and worked with at the Women's Self-Employment Project that would not been about to try the ideas of business and self-sufficiency had it not been for her.

There are groups, organizations and individuals who will say that they NEVER COULD HAVE MADE IT WITHOUT HER. She was the architect of the $100 million-dollar Chicago Empowerment Zone and Enterprising Communities (EZ/EC) process for the City of Chicago which was declared by President Bill Clinton on December 21, 1994 as "the best
process in the country". This was the "Wanda Process".

Did it do all of what communities wanted it to do? The answer is "No." However, there were some good programs and projects that came out of the EZ/EC process that helped communities and will be standing for many years to come.

But if the communities could have had their hands and heads in the Zone in the ways I know Wanda and all of us wanted, it would have truly been the best in the nation.

I love you, Wanda, and I will hold your Spirit always as I move forward with the mission work. Wanda always said, "You have to decide whether this work you do is a job or a mission." She was my sister in the mission of working for better communities for all of us.

She has not gone, she is just asleep and resting for the day to rise.

Cheryl Spivey-Perry said...

Wanda White-Gills was a member of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center's Board of Trustees for 3 years(2001-2003); she also facilitated leadership development sessions from time to time. Wanda always had a positive disposition - no matter how bleek the situation. She inspired me to work hard and be of good courage. All of us at the Hope Center will forever remember her spirit.

Capital group said...
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Jacky Grimshaw said...

Although we were neighbors, I saw Wanda most often in the struggles around the community. We worked together in the Washington Administration. She was full of ideas whenever I asked her advice about community economic development while she was at CWED. She returned the favor when she asked me for help with EZEC and Team Englewood. It was for the Team Englewood effort that we last worked together. Wanda is one of those spirits that makes a lasting impression on you. She will be missed but she work will long survive.

Pierre Clark said...

Yesterday's ceremony for Wanda White at B. Herbert Martin's Progressive Community Center was a testament to her and the power of one person to be a difference maker.

Packed to the rafters with what appeared to Rev. Martin, a 42-year pastor, "every community organizer in Chicago," the service was an outpouring of love, respect, and remembrance for a woman who everyone agreed was one of the greatest community development practitioners of them all.

Anonymous said...

Wanda and I went to high school together. I was sad to hear of her passing. She was a strong, energetic, and assertive woman, and I will never forgot her.
Leslie Perry

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for your comments regarding the passing of my mom. Her spirit will live forever through the many people who's lives she has touched.There are no words that can express the love and friendship that that our relationship consisted of and i will miss her FOREVER


kingofithaki said...

It's been many moons since my days in Chicago and as the holidays have come upon us, a search for old warriors who I came across was in the first my thoughts are how sad that in this time of need this wonderfully persistent angel is no longer with us to help "push on through"...but she had carried much more than her share on her shoulders and I guess it was time for her to move on. It is for the rest of us to not make excuses...time on this planet is short and Wanda lived 5 lifetimes in one and yet in public she never seemed rushed...never seemed worried...carried it all inside her...

G. Alex Morfesis, Tarpon Springs,FL