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Leadership in Democracy Cohort 2020 Bann

Inaugural Leadership in Democracy Cohort

The Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the Executive Service Corps of Chicago (ESC) announce the inaugural Leadership in Democracy cohort


The Robert R. McCormick Foundation (RRMF) Democracy Program and the Executive Service Corps (ESC) have partnered to create the new Leadership in Democracy Program.


The Robert R. McCormick Foundation works with communities in Chicagoland and across Illinois to develop educated, informed, and engaged citizens. The Foundation’s aim is to assist communities, to strengthen democracy, and help ensure that all families and children have the opportunities they need to flourish.


The Executive Service Corps (ESC) is Chicagoland's premiere nonprofit consultancy. ESC is a 41-year-old nonprofit organization with the mission of helping make nonprofits successful. To achieve ESC’s mission, it provides consulting, coaching, and professional services to other nonprofit organizations impacting 1.2 million people annually.


One of the Foundation’s goals is for institutions to be inclusive, transparent, and accountable to the communities they serve. To support this vision, the Democracy Program supports the development of high capacity civic leaders, representative of the communities they serve, who invite constituent participation and advocate for and implement inclusive policies. This new Leadership in Democracy Program welcomes nine exceptional leaders in the inaugural 2020 cohort, providing guidance to elevate their skills through one-on-one executive coaching, expert training sessions, and shared learning.


Rachelle Jervis, President and CEO of the Executive Service Corps reports, “The 2020 inaugural class is an all-star roster of Chicagoland’s nonprofit leaders. We are proud to support them. They make Chicago a better place for us all. We are fortunate to have them as civic leaders and as neighbors.”


“By investing in these great leaders, we’re helping to ensure that civic engagement remains a priority in our schools, social service agencies, and community organizations,” said Sonia Mathew, program officer in the McCormick Foundation’s Democracy Program. “ We applaud their selection and look forward to their future success.”

Congratulations to the 2020 Leadership in Democracy Cohort

DeAnna McLeary-Sherman

Co-Founder, True Star Media & Foundation

DeAnna McLeary-Sherman is the co-founder and executive director of True Star Media & Foundation, a media company and digital agency led by youth. McLeary-Sherman’s business acumen has had a significant impact on True Star and its ability to transform the lives of Chicago youth. Since the program’s inception in 2004, True Star has provided over 10,000 on-the-job training opportunities. True Star youth are journalists, reporters, creatives, videographers, marketers, and brand strategists, who work alongside industry professionals. True Star Foundation’s mission is to improve the lives of youth by exposing them to real-world experiences in the workforce through the development of their own media and being an intricate part of the strategic direction and overall business operations of the True Star organization.

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Heather Van Benthuysen

Director of Social Science and Civic Engagement, Chicago Public Schools

Heather Van Benthuysen serves the families and students of Chicago as the Director of Social Science and Civic Engagement for Chicago Public Schools and has over 20 years of experience as a youth advocate, educator, instructional coach, speaker, and professional learning provider. She believes in 360 degrees of civic learning: students should have a voice in classrooms, school visioning and decision-making; every school stakeholder has a role in preparing young people as powerful civic actors; and every classroom and school can be a transformative learning environment when designed to educate in/for democracy.

The Social Science and Civic Engagement program at Chicago Public Schools has the mission of preparing the next generation to participate in civic and community life.

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Madeleine Doubek

Executive Director, CHANGE Illinois

Madeleine Doubek is a passionate, long-time advocate for improving government and politics in Illinois. As the former vice president of policy at the Better Government Association, she was responsible for a new law that limits golden parachutes for public executives. She also worked to stop efforts to limit government transparency and championed laws that boost government efficiency. Doubek writes a government-focused column for Crain's Chicago Business. Prior to her direct advocacy and policy work, Doubek spent 32 years in journalism, many covering local and state government and politics. She has won several regional and national journalism awards during her career. Her work on Illinois’ historic budget impasse was honored by Voices for Illinois Children and -- with two Peter Lisagor Awards from the Chicago Headline Club -- CHANGE Illinois is a leading nonpartisan, nonprofit systemic government and election reform influence.

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Nicholas Wylie

Managing Director, Public Media Institute

Nicholas Wylie is an artist, organizer, and educator based in Chicago. He is Managing Director of Public Media Institute, where he helps take care of a nonprofit art center (Co-Prosperity Sphere), a radio station (Lumpen Radio), and a quarterly publication (“Lumpen” Magazine). Wylie, before returning to Chicago, spent four years in San Francisco as Associate Director of Southern Exposure, a 45-year-old, artist-run, nonprofit publication.  The Public Media Institute’s mission is to create, incubate and sustain innovative cultural programming through the production of socially engaged projects, festivals, spaces, exhibitions, and media.

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Vanessa Sanchez

Yollocalli Arts Reach Director, National Museum of Mexican Art

Vanessa Sanchez is the Yollocalli Arts Reach Director, the award winning and nationally recognized, youth and teen program of the National Museum of Mexican Art. Since 2001, she has dedicated her career to designing innovative, creative, and free art and media programs for teens and young adults in collaboration with local and international artists. She has served on the Hive Chicago Advisory Committee, the Little Village Quality of Life Plan, the Pilsen Image Taskforce, and the Lakefront Curatorial Committee. Currently, she is the Co-Chair of Chicago Youth Voices Network and is the Board Vice President for Villapalooza, the Little Village Music Fest. The mission of the National Museum of Mexican Art is to showcase the beauty and richness of Mexican culture by sponsoring events and presenting exhibitions that exemplify the majestic variety of visual and performing arts in the Mexican culture; to develop, conserve and preserve a significant permanent collection of Mexican art; to encourage the professional development of Mexican artists; and, to offer arts-education programs.

Niketa Brar

Executive Director, Chicago United for Equity

Niketa Brar serves as the founding executive director of Chicago United for Equity. She comes to this position from a career working to bring a community-centered approach to government which started during her time advising a city council member in Oakland, California. She has served as a consultant and policy adviser to elected leaders ranging from school boards to municipal and state leadership roles. She currently serves on the Local School Council (LSC) at National Teachers’ Academy, a Level 1+ school serving a primarily African-American, low-income student population. She co-founded CUE, with LSC President Elisabeth Greer, as they worked together to organize parents, students, and a larger citywide coalition to fight this school’s closing.

Chicago United for Equity’s central purpose of connecting and amplifying the power of individuals to build a just, equitable, and inclusive city.

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Nissa Rhee

Executive Director, Borderless Magazine NFP

Nissa is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in “The Christian Science Monitor” and “Chicago Magazine.”  In her decade-plus career, she has covered global issues as a producer at Chicago Public Radio, served as a foreign correspondent in South Korea and Vietnam, and reported on police abuse and gun violence in Chicago. In 2019, she received the Chicago Headline Club award for best online feature story. “Borderless Magazine NFP” is a nonprofit news outlet that is reimagining immigration journalism for a more just and equitable future.

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Fernando Diaz

Editor and Publisher, Chicago Reporter

Fernando Díazis the editor and publisher of “The Chicago Reporter.”  Before joining the “Reporter” in November 2018, Diaz was the managing editor of digital at “The San Francisco Chronicle.”  A 2004 graduate of Columbia College Chicago – and former reporter intern – Diaz has worked at “ChicagoNow,” “Hoy,” and the “Daily Herald.”  He was a reporter at the “Democrat and Chronicle” and a senior editor for investigations at “Reveal” from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

The “Chicago Reporter” confronts racial and economic inequality, using the power of investigative journalism.

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Maryam Judar

Executive Director, Citizen Advocacy Center

Maryam Judar practices in the arenas of sunshine laws and laws supporting civic engagement (including the First Amendment freedoms and ballot access) as executive director and community lawyer at the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, Illinois. Her work with students from Benedictine University resulted in amendments to the Illinois Open Meetings Act to guarantee the public a right to speak at public meetings. Maryam clerked for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit after graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law with certificates in public interest law and policy and critical race studies. She is a member of the Illinois and California Bars.

Citizen Advocacy Center's mission is to build democracy for the 21st century by strengthening the citizenry's capacities, resources, and institutions for self-governance.

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