Life lessons I’ll take with me - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Life lessons I’ll take with me

During the past few months, each time I’ve experienced a “last” – my last MPC Annual Event, my last staff outing, my last debate with the Board – I’ve confronted a jumble of emotions. So it feels like an impossible task to sum up the joys, and sometimes struggles, of serving as President of the Metropolitan Planning Council for the past 25 years.

Over its first 60 years — between its founding amidst a World’s Fair in 1934 and when I was recruited in 1996 — MPC was a spark that helped transform public housing, create the Museum Campus following the relocation of Lake Shore Drive, inspire the precursor plan to Millennium Park, chart a modernized transit network, and much more.

As a student of the history of cities, of Chicago’s successes and stumbles, and of MPC’s fascinating 87-year trajectory, I have gotten a kick this year out of revisiting my memories. Here, in my last blog post, are six life lessons I’ve learned from a tapestry of people (even more than specific policy wins). These are the true treasures I take with me.

Surround yourself with passionate people

Passion is infectious. Whenever MPC has achieved breakthroughs, it’s because we’ve welcomed a wide range of perspectives, surrounding ourselves with people who reject complacency and attack complexity with creativity. The struggles of Chicagoans across suburban and city communities animate me to do more to improve people’s lives. I’ve tried to set ambitious goals, bringing a whatever-it-takes mindset. But I’ve also learned when we need to ease up on the intensity, slow down, listen deeply, and recalibrate. 

Confront exclusion and design for equitable outcomes

As an organization committed to equity and to inclusive public participation, it took us a long time to confront our part in metropolitan Chicago’s racist history. Through the Cost of Segregation study, we’ve been on an equity journey which has altered who we are, internally and externally. My awareness of my privilege as a white woman, and of power dynamics, has dramatically changed me. MPC continues to do this critical work through “courageous conversations” and intentionally trying to become antiracist. The wisdom of community voices and the lived experiences of people of color have re-shaped our agenda. We are completely focused on making access to opportunity and justice real.

Celebrate the impact of women

MPC has been a groundbreaker in recruiting female leaders. I’m fortunate to follow Dorothy Rubel (1943-74), Liz Hollander (1979-83), and Jean Allard (1990-95), each of whom extended the ladder so others could ascend. I was constantly aware of the hands of our first Executive Director Elizabeth Wood — and those who followed — guiding me to be both consultative and bold, both analytical and visionary. And I’m beyond thrilled that this tradition continues as MPC welcomes its next leader, Darlene O. Hightower.

Cultivate future leaders inside MPC and beyond

Key mentors opened the doors to fellowships like Leadership Greater Chicago and the International Women’s Forum during my time in the Mayor’s Office. I brought my appreciation of those transformative experiences with me to MPC, seeing my colleagues light up through the German Marshall Fund Memorial Fellowship, the Chicago Urban League’s IMPACT Fellowship, and dozens more.

Guiding gubernatorial and mayoral transition efforts have been equally expansive experiences for me and my teammates. Again and again, when I trusted my co-workers and encouraged risk-taking, they took us further than I could have imagined. And while it’s always sad when talented colleagues move on, the influential roles former MPCers take on remind us that developing the region's leaders is a significant part of our mission. 

Learn from leaders in other regions

Conventional wisdom holds that Chicago is so unique that there’s not much we can learn from other places. Wrong! I’ve seen many “aha” moments that have emerged from study trips. MPC organized delegations to Silicon Valley (1998) to learn about employer-assisted housing and to Stockholm (2008) and Berlin (2009) for insights on transit innovations, and we hosted the prestigious 2018 global exchange in Chicago of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

One of the most satisfying and sustained cross-learnings has been between the staffs of MPC, SPUR in the Bay Area, and the Regional Plan Association (RPA) in the New York Tri-state region. An example: my counterparts have challenged me to confront why Chicago has as many vacant lots today as 25 years ago. Discomfort with persistent wealth gaps and our collective failure to share prosperity has ignited the fire that fuels us to be bolder.

Stay the course

This appeals to the sailor in me, though progress can be frustratingly slow. For example, following a glimmer of progress in 2018 on reasonable guard rails for aldermanic approval of affordable housing developments, we’re still talking, not yet acting. Common sense and fairness suggest that every ward and every suburb should contribute to affordable housing supply, not just those on the south and west sides and southern suburbs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turbo-charged our understanding of regional interdependency: if one person becomes sick, we are all at risk. I’m proud that MPC has always taken the long view, knowing in our bones that issues like affordable housing, clean water, clean air, and access to decent jobs are a collective responsibility and take time to deliver shared benefits. I’ll bring that with me.

I’m sorting through my mix of emotions as I bid farewell to work that I’ve loved. As a parent of two humans becoming young adults, I have some practice. I’m letting go so I can continue to grow, to make room for the good to come. I’m endlessly grateful to MPC’s Board of Governors, especially the 12 Chairs I’ve served, and extraordinarily talented and dedicated teammates, past and present, for the chance to do work that directly improves people’s lives. As a forever friend and fan, I will be watching closely and cheering passionately, knowing that together, we are building a better, bolder, more equitable future for everyone.

 

MarySue Barrett concludes 25 years as President of the Metropolitan Planning Council at the end of 2021. She is excited to travel, take dance classes, tackle some home improvement projects, and explore her next purpose-driven leadership roles. In the near-term, as a Brookings Metro Nonresident Senior Fellow, she’ll be helping chart more equitable outcomes from the massive federal infrastructure package.

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