Finance graduate switches careers, launches Chicago non-profit to benefit youth

Justin Cunningham (right), with fellow SocialWorks founders Essence Smith and Chance the Rapper.

In Chicago, more than 500 miles from his alma mater, Justin Cunningham, ’15, is guiding a non-profit organization that he and a few childhood friends launched last year to empower youth through the arts, education and civic engagement.

That’s tall order in a troubled American city, but SocialWorks–with fast-rising hip-hop star on board–is tackling that laudable goal.

Mr. Cunningham teamed up with GRAMMY Award-winning artist Chance the Rapper–he was Chancelor Bennett in the third-grade classroom they shared on Chicago’s South Side — and Essence Smith, a high school classmate, to create SocialWorks.

“We got together to form SocialWorks because we’ve always been looking to enhance opportunity and provide access to those without,” explained Cunningham, its executive director. “This is something we all felt we must take part in, especially this extraordinary opportunity to leverage Chano’s celebrity and make being a good person cool again.”

Also on board as a founder is Ken Bennett, who brings considerable political and social work experience to the fledgling organization. Mr. Bennett served three Chicago mayors, was a campaign manager for President Barack Obama during his U.S. Senate run and a deputy officer in the Obama presidency. He’s also Chance’s father.

Being able to impact the community is what steered Cunningham, who earned a degree in Finance and a minor in Leadership Studies, away from corporate work. Cunningham held administrative positions with a nationwide food-service and facilities management firm, a major convention center and Chicago Public Schools.

SocialWorks’ roots go back to early 2015 with monthly “OpenMike” sessions that provided safe spaces for high school students to express themselves and also learn and network with like-minded individuals. Through the Warmest Winter, an initiative with The Empowerment Plan that hires homeless individuals to make coats that can be transformed into sleeping bags, SocialWorks raised over $110,000 and gave over 1,100 coats to homeless individuals and shelters.

SocialWorks hooked up with Chicago non-profits in last fall’s Flex Your Vote campaign to facilitate millennial voter activation, education, demonstration and celebration. Pop-up registration shops and town hall gatherings set the stage for a free concert in the city’s Grant Park and Parade to the Polls. Over 2,000 people–including about 750 first-time voters–marched to the polls to exercise their early-voting option.

The organization’s logo conveys a universal message of community, progression and positivity, Cunningham explained. All figures are placed close together, raising objects associated with particular fields–photography, science, music and art. They are raised in a fun, liberating fashion within the hands of diverse groups of people.

Cunningham longed to have a positive influence in his hometown with his family and friends. “I believe everything is more clear in civic work, meaning you know who you are impacting and why,” explained Cunningham.

It was Cunningham’s tenure in Enactus, a student organization at Fredonia committed to projects that have a social, economic or environmental impact in the community, which fueled the SocialWorks vision.

“What inspired me to get involved with SocialWorks was my experience with Fredonia’s Enactus. I’m essentially doing the same work,” Cunningham said. “Fredonia Enactus allowed me the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself. Enactus is all about creating programming and infrastructure that provides impact on a continual basis and alters the community to ultimately change the world.”

School of Business Assistant Professor Susan McNamara said Cunningham, a former SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence nominee, had the rare ability to integrate his academic learning with his experiential and extra-curricular experiences.

Fredonia instilled in Cunningham a “sense of community” that he wasn’t accustomed to while growing up. “I try to acknowledge everyone and build a relationship. That’s something that I learned at Fredonia.”

More information about SocialWorks is available at www.socialworkschi.org, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram: @Socialworks–Chi.