Harris: Gay marriage event draws thousands of marchers — and just 1 'corporate sponsor'

Orbitz helps fund Springfield event, but other companies 'said it was too political,' march founder says

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Tuesday's March on Springfield for Marriage Equality brought an estimated 3,000 supporters to the Capitol grounds

But the effort landed only one "corporate sponsor": travel company Orbitz, according to organizers. And march founder Tracy Baim, publisher of the Windy City Media Group, said she was "really disappointed" in the lack of corporate backing.

"They said it was too political," Baim said. "Or they didn't want to get involved in a legislative issue. So we explained they'd be giving to a 501(c)3 charitable organization (the Equality Illinois Education Project), and that in our minds it was a social justice issue. … It was just shocking to me how few saw it (that way). Luckily, some of their employees did."

Orbitz, Groupon, Google and Knight Engineers & Architects were the only for-profit businesses to sign a letter released in January supporting gay marriage. The remaining 45 or so signatories were all prominent executives, speaking for themselves, not their companies.

"It's one thing to write a letter behind the scenes and say you're in support of it," Baim said. "It's another thing to show up with your corporate logo and let your employees come to it. It was too high of visibility for many of them."

Orbitz, Groupon and Google logos were visible Tuesday, Baim said. Orbitz and Google split the cost of a bus for their employees, and Orbitz helped pay for lodging for the event's entertainers, according to Marita Hudson-Thomas of Orbitz. Google, meanwhile, provided digital marketing advice and had one employee providing on-site social media support, said Kevin Boyer, one of the co-chairs of the march.

Groupon, which supports gay marriage, allowed the absence of about 40 employees, who paid for their own bus, spokesman Paul Taaffe said.

BMO Harris Bank let employees know about the event and gave them the option to participate, according to a bank spokeswoman.

Baim said organizers pulled off the march, a first, through financial support from individuals and small-business sponsors, including three Chicago bars.

Good pitch

Seven directors of unfinished documentary films pitched a who's who of Chicago philanthropic and business leaders for financial and marketing support Tuesday as part of the city's first Good Pitch event.

The actor Danny Glover appeared, supporting two films, "The Message" and "Strong Island." Multiple attendees wanted photos with Glover — but Glover first posed with Sister Jean Hughes, an Adrian Dominican nun, featured in "Sister."

The film follows three nuns promoting "radical feminist themes," as a 2012 Vatican report put it, in a patriarchal hierarchy. Hughes works on Chicago's West Side for St. Leonard's Ministries, which helps men and women re-enter society after prison. The filmmakers have been trailing her for about eight months, she said.

"It's funny to see yourself in a movie when you've gone 75 years and nobody's paid any attention to you," Hughes said, prompting laugher. She stood and talked to the audience of a few hundred people with the support of a cane.

She later added: "It's not about sisters really. It's about women. It's about women who belong to an organization that they believe in, that their parents believed in, that their grandparents believed in. But in fact, they understand all of the sudden that in this system, women's wisdom is not appreciated. Women's leadership is not sought. So the system is missing half of the world, and it's got to catch up."

The men, she said, "are working fiercely — and these are not bad people; I'm not against the hierarchy — but the men are working so hard to prop up the system because they believe in it, and the women are working so hard to do the mission."

Although every filmmaker left the event with more support, "Sister," one Tweeter put it, "won the lottery" when Organizing for Action's executive director, Jon Carson, said his group would screen the film across the country. OFA is the legacy organization of Barack Obama's two presidential campaigns. And it has access to the campaign's "extremely valuable" voter databases, including 17 million email subscribers, The New York Times has reported.

Investing in kids

The Oak Brook-based Illinois Children's Healthcare Foundation has a little-known story. And a lot of money.

Its wealth came from a 2002 settlement between then-Attorney General Jim Ryan and the parent company of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, the Tribune reported in 2004. Ryan claimed that the company wrongfully held on to its charitable assets when it converted from a charitable institution to a mutual insurance company in 1982. Blue Cross didn't admit wrongdoing but paid almost $125 million to establish the foundation.

The financial crisis battered the foundation's stock and bond portfolio, dropping it from nearly $141 million at the beginning of 2008 to nearly $84 million by the end of that year, according to tax records. But the market, and thus its portfolio, has rebounded. And the foundation, now led by Heather Higgins Alderman, is making its first investments in children's mental health treatment in Chicago. (It already has four children's mental health programs, but in other areas of the state.)

Working with the Erie Family Health Center in Humboldt Park and Metropolitan Family Services in Englewood, which are being awarded $2 million each, the foundation will ensure more children are screened and treated for mental health problems, Alderman said.

"We just saw an overwhelming need," Alderman said. "And the Chicago Department of Public Health pointed us in the direction of these particular neighborhoods."

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582.

Twitter @chiconfidential

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