An Interview with Jackie Edens


by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


Dr. Knight: It was so informative to meet with you last week. Your devotion to the homeless and the economically poor is inspiring. Would you describe your Board of Directors at Inner Voice?


Jackie: Building the Board of Inner Voice has been a work in progress since I first joined the homeless services nonprofit in June of 2012. At that time, half the board had already left due to disagreements with the leadership in place at the time. Those who remained had been members for a long time, and while they were committed to the mission of Inner Voice, they had no connections to wealth either personally or through networks. Once I took over the helm of Inner Voice in September of that same year, I had a very short period of time within which to attract new board members, due to a pre-existing board mandate to do so or dissolve the agency. I reached out to a number of talented individuals I had worked with in the past and asked them to join without committing to a long haul. Despite the fact they all stayed well beyond their original commitment and learned to appreciate Inner Voice’s mission, their willingness to stay had more to do with their loyalty to me than to the organization. And the connection to wealth was still an issue, as was the amount of energy and time they were able to contribute. Inner Voice is currently working with Notre Dame University Mendoza School of Business on board development and recruitment, a project that will be completed by September 2019. We are seeking diverse board members with energy, expertise, a passion for making a difference and willingness to help raise desperately needed funds for Inner Voice.


Dr. Knight: How did the organization get the name Inner Voice?


Jackie: Inner Voice was founded by the late Reverend Robert Johnson in 1984. I suspect it was his spiritual nature to connect the agency with something common to all people, an Inner Voice, that serves as our moral compass and desire to make a difference in this world.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the other boards you started and how did they help you in getting Inner Voice to grow strong? What does it mean to be the Commissioner?


Jackie: Well, I am currently the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) which also translates into Chief Everything Officer in a smaller agency like ours! I was the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development from 1998-2004 when I retired from the City after 29 years of service. Either way, being in a leadership role is an awesome responsibility and one I do not take lightly. It has been my greatest pleasure throughout my career to challenge staff and colleagues to BE the best and DO the best they can. It’s never been about being the BOSS. It’s always been about taking advantage of an opportunity to create a culture wherein individuals feel they can contribute, knowing their efforts are acknowledged and appreciated. At the same time, it’s about giving people an opportunity to learn and grow and teach and encourage others. Everybody brings something to the table; that should never be overlooked. Rewarding little successes and victories can be more important than celebrating the one big thing.


I have served on several boards, St. Martin de Porres House of Hope and ACE Technical Charter High School (ACE Tech), The Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund (currently as a mayoral appointment) and was the Executive Director of the Chicago Workforce Board. What I learned in these various positions is that the REAL work happens at the agency level and the board should do everything within its power to make doing the work possible i.e. raising funds, being ambassadors of the agency, getting people excited about the mission, making connections that can expand programs through funding opportunities and acquisition of needed materials, attracting volunteers, etc. It is equally important that boards hold the chief administrator accountable for fiscal and programmatic integrity in a supportive manner.


Dr. Knight: Would you please tell us about the work you do for the clients?


Jackie: Reverend Johnson began attending to the physical needs of individuals experiencing homelessness in 1984 on Chicago’s near west side, where he operated a soup kitchen, quickly realizing that while the food was essential to survival, a broader array of services was necessary to help people realize their potential thrive. Throughout its thirty-five years of service to the homeless community, Inner Voice has gained extensive experience serving very low or no income single men and women, two-or single-parent households, youth ages 18-24, seniors, veterans, persons with substance use disorders and/or physical and/or mental health challenges and justice-involved backgrounds. Inner Voice helps them to identify the underlying causes of their current condition and acquire the resources to change their destinies. Inner Voice assists individuals and families to rapidly secure permanent housing, establish an income, and, whenever possible gain employment that pays a living wage. Our programs provide a continuum of care, recognizing that individual participants will require different levels of service.


While some reach housing stability and improve their life circumstances relatively quickly, others require more intense levels of intervention to reach their goals. Currently, Inner Voice operates two interim housing programs (18 rooms/beds), four permanent supportive housing programs (approximately 87 apartments), three workforce development programs, a case management program that serves approximately 180 households, a Representative Payee program for approximately 70 individuals who receive funds from Social Security, and emergency funds administration from three different funding sources.


Dr. Knight: Who does the development for your organization and how does that work for all?


Jackie: I look at development from two perspectives; resources and programs. The commonality between the two is funding. As an agency, Inner Voice has an ethical responsibility to develop its programming to deliver the best possible service menu to our participants/residents. A large part of that rests in the development of the staff delivering those services. While every funding source demands that staff utilize evidence-based best practices for which an abundance of training is available through any number of providers, not one funding source allows its dollars to be spent procuring them! So, all roads eventually lead back to resource development, especially unrestricted, general operating funds. Government funds may provide bricks but without adequate mortar to hold them firmly in place, many holes exist, weakening and threatening the entire structure.


A Resource Development Director was hired in January of this year to increase funding from foundations, corporations and individual donors and is a work in progress. We are fortunate in that she is talented and has a variety of skills in addition to grant writing. She has refreshed Inner Voice’s website and established a robust social media presence for the agency. Prior to her coming on board, I did a majority of the grant writing (hence the variation on the term CEO) with the support of program staff who have the street smarts and institutional knowledge.


Dr. Knight: Could you tell us how large your organization is and how it gets any funding.


Jackie: As of August 2019, Inner Voice’s operating budget is $3,237,603 and has 35 full-time and 1 part-time staff. Over 90% of our funding is from federal, state and City of Chicago agencies. However, Inner Voice is committed to raising non-government funds as most foundations and other contributors consider a 50/50 split more desirable. We have a LONG way to go!


That said, we have had some recent breakthroughs in the foundation community. The Seabury Foundation awarded Inner Voice funding for the Helping Individuals Re-enter Employment (HIRE) to expand its employment preparation workshops to non-veterans; the A. Montgomery Ward Foundation, after a two successful requests and a few rounds of rejections, came through with a generous grant that will allow us to secure the perimeter of one of our transitional housing programs in the West Garfield Park community and provide safe, secure space for the residents. After the sudden demise of a fairly new commercial range at that same program, a crowdfunding initiative raised funds to replace it fairly quickly.


While all three outcomes were much needed and greatly appreciated, Inner Voice also desperately needs funding for the following:


  • Two new or slightly used 15 passenger vans to transport residents to recovery programs and special events, pickup and delivery of a variety of donations, moving residents into permanent housing, food shopping for residential programs, etc.

  • Twenty-eight twin-size mattresses and linens for two transitional housing programs

  • A security system for one transitional housing program

  • Training opportunities for staff development

  • Reimbursement for mileage/parking and cell phone usage for staff not paid out of a funding source for which these are eligible costs

  • Printing an annual report


We recently launched a new and easy way to donate to Inner Voice. People can make a secure donation by texting "IVCHI" to 44321. And, of course, visit our website at www.ivchi.org. Ask us anything at info@ivchi.org.


Dr. Knight: There are a million issues to be taken care of in this world. Why do you put your time, talent and probably money in this organization?


Jackie: My mother. My parents divorced when my sister and I were fairly young, and my mother stepped up to make sure we were able to attend the Catholic grammar school down the block and later Catholic high school. She worked two and three jobs to make sure we were afforded the same opportunities as our friends. Yet, she seemed a magnet to every wayward kid we knew. Our four-room apartment where we lived for seventeen years was often a gathering place where under her supervision (there was only one other room she could be in!) we enjoyed good times and lots of laughs. Whenever she had a little extra spending money, she provided pop and White Castle burgers. She also found time to be our Girl Scout leader as well. So, looking out for others and sharing what little wealth we had was something ingrained in me at a very early age.


When I went to college (the first grandchild to attend) after a short fascination with English literature, I turned to psychology. I was insatiably curious about why people did the things they did and made certain choices, and what it would take to redirect one’s energy. The rest, as they say, is history.


Dr. Knight: How can people assist this organization as the Scripture says: Love your neighbor as yourself. We seem to do this in a sporadic fashion and maybe the call to love our neighbor needs to be more consistent and thoughtfully undertaken. Could you give us suggestions?


Jackie: I think if people struggled more to take themselves out of themselves to see things from a different perspective and act accordingly that could change the dynamics of truly loving and helping others. Just one little turn of the kaleidoscope and a whole new picture emerges. Many people have the question of and about others and their actions/choices that if they required themselves to push beyond not knowing the answer, in essence asking others to figure it out for them, then we’d have a lot more problem solvers fixing mankind’s numerous challenges. I don’t think there is a worse waste of time and energy than placing blame. Love and understanding, especially when it is hard to do is a much more effective and rewarding approach.


Dr. Knight: How did your family and friends support your undertaking of this core work for our society?


Jackie: As I mentioned, my family doesn’t have the resources to contribute financially. My mother gave me the greatest gift possible by being a loving, giving and supportive human being. She will be 90 in October and she continues to inspire me. It is especially gratifying to see all those she has helped keep in touch with her, and I am sure they will all be there when we celebrate her 90th birthday. My sister is my rock and has an incredible network of friends. Luckily for me, she is a prolific poster on Facebook and supports everything I do that way. Most importantly, my family and friends realize how difficult the work Inner Voice does and how much more difficult it is to do it as a nonprofit instead of government where I spent most of my career. It was SO much easier dispersing millions of dollars than it is pleading for hundreds.


Dr. Knight: Give us some idea of what you do for fun? Besides the joy of the work you do?


Jackie: Fun, I vaguely remember that activity… This is my third act, so to speak, career-wise, so I have more time to devote to my job and fewer distractions. However, my home is my “queendom” and shortly after I retired, I did the coursework to attain a Master Gardener certification through the University of Illinois. The classes were at the Garfield Park Conservatory where my father worked when my sister and I were born. I had also worked in a family lawn and garden center when I was ten; it’s been in my blood since I was born. My garden in Logan Square, which has a 600-gallon koi pond after five iterations, has won six awards. It’s pretty cool and very gratifying to look down on during warm summer evenings. And, I guess I never gave up entirely on English Lit as I still like to read a lot.


Dr. Knight: Thank you for doing this interview with Catholic profiles. We know that the readership will respond to the good work you do for all people.

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