What is a civic entrepreneur? Found out
By Patrick Judge
Think of the stereotypical tech entrepreneur—technologically brilliant, ideologically daring, may or may not be secretly plotting to take over the world.
Shouldn’t that same sort of innovation be brought to our local community lives? Not everyone will drive a Tesla in their lifetime, but most will live in a local neighborhood or community, each with its own set of challenges that demand inventive, hyperlocal solutions.
A man in Chicago’s Northwest Side has built a reputation for himself doing just that.
Jac Charlier has over 25 years of experience engaging in what he calls the “civic arena.”
His community-based accomplishments could fill the pages of a novel: Charlier co-founded Lutheran Advocacy Illinois; he founded the Neighborhood Connection beautification project in Edgebrook (which recently celebrated the completion of an Edgebrook Metra station mural); he mobilized citizens to usher a bill all the way to the governor’s desk through the Fair Allocation in Runways citizens’ coalition that would lessen the racket made by planes over Northwest Side neighborhoods.
In a phone interview, Charlier shared details about his experiences as a self-labelled “civic entrepreneur,” including his own stint of Jesuit education.
Unlike Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, you don’t have to worry about this entrepreneur having any aspirations to take over the world. He just wants to connect with and empower its citizens.
So I’m reading about you, and it looks like you’re wearing no fewer than ten different hats at any given time. Describe for me a typical day in the shoes of Jac Charlier.
A typical day for Jac Charlier is about living the life of an American citizen. When I use that word “citizen,” by the way, I don’t necessarily mean it in the legal sense—I mean it in the idea of people living in neighborhoods and in communities, who are working together to find solutions to our shared challenges. I’ve done that now for nearly 25 years, in terms of everyday life.
I like to say, somewhat humorously, that some people really like preparing cars, some people garden, some people birdwatch—I do civic engagement. That’s how my mind is wired, and I do it all entirely as a volunteer.
You describe yourself as a ‘civic entrepreneur.’ What exactly does that mean to you?
It’s a term I’ve used for a while, and I always get asked, “What does that mean, Jac?” [chuckles]
Civic entrepreneur is a way to say that in this space of community of neighborhood, we also can be entrepreneurial and it can be as exciting and as sexy, so to speak, and as fun and as innovative as any other part of our society.
We hear of entrepreneurs in the business world, we get excited and we think of ideas no one has ever thought of before. When we think of in the political arena, we think of people who are exciting and charismatic, who speak well. In the civic arena, mostly the community arena, we should have the same thing.
Being at a Jesuit school myself, I would like to ask you about your time at St. Ignatius [College Prep]. Are there any aspects of your Jesuit education that you still carry with you today?
A lot of the work that I do is grounded in social justice. St. Ignatius provided the first academic social justice environment that I had had. I grew up in the Christian church, an evangelical church—the Salvation Army. That clearly had social justice woven into it, but on a kind of one-day-a-week type thing when you would go to service. St. Ignatius and the Jesuits weaved that into your whole education, like math, science, and history.
It is from that experience that I am absolutely convinced that my early social justice roots began to develop as I spent more time than just an hour a week learning about it. Reading about St. Francis of Assisi, for example—I remember that and I still have the book downstairs—[had an] extremely powerful influence on me.
I learned social justice and what it means to live out the life of a Christian in a diverse world where God calls us to be brothers and sisters to one another—and not just those who we want to be or who we live by. The poor, the hungry, the homeless, the widow, the orphan, the alien—those are phrases I can say easily because I think about them almost daily.
You’re running for office! What motivated you to start campaigning for a seat in the Illinois House [of Representatives]?
For me, it’s part of a seamless narrative of a life of building community and finding solutions to our shared challenges. So it’s grounded in, actually, what I’ve been doing for two-plus decades: working in community, working with neighbors, and looking and saying, “Hey look, there’s something going on here. Can we find enough people? Can I supply the leadership? Can I co-lead with others so that we can find solutions?”
Nobody who knows anything about my background is surprised about it.
In a nutshell, our state is broke and here in the 15th district, our democracy is broken. Our state legislature has bankrupted the state of Illinois. We have a $135 billion deficit. We can’t provide central state services and worse, human services in Illinois, because [the infrastructure] has been so cut repeatedly since 2008. This is some of the work I’ve done through the church, through Lutheran Advocacy, from that Jesuit tradition that’s in me of social justice.
Illinois’s human services infrastructure is on the brink of collapse in all arenas because of its underfunding. That costs us. That hurts us. That hurts our neighbors who are in deep and real need.
Your campaign slogan is “Time to Fix Illinois.” This may be a little out of left field: is there anything in Illinois that doesn’t need fixing?
We have great citizens in Illinois, Patrick. People live here, they’ve chosen to live here, they’ve chosen to come to this state. So we have great citizens, who are waiting to see where their leaders come from and where people step up from to provide the vision of where we go next.
Header image: ‘APN Community Organizer,’ AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
Portrait: provided with permission by Jac Charlier