Leading up to the 2012 election, Chicagoan Fred Eychaner contributed $14 million to Democratic super PACs, including $4.5 million to the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action, making him the top individual Democratic campaign donor of that cycle.
The openly gay Eychaner went on to play a pivotal role in banding together three pro-gay marriage groups, helping pay lobbyists and a public relations firm to keep these activists on message as they fought for, and won, the right to marry in Illinois last year.
Although his company, Newsweb Corp., owns a printing press and radio stations, Eychaner shuns attention to the degree that a recent speech, posted on YouTube by Windy City Times, is noteworthy.
"It's been a broad, grass-roots process, fighting in the trenches, one phone call at a time, one legislative letter, one contact," Eychaner, 69, said, explaining for the first time in many years why he is so dedicated to Democratic causes and candidates. "The process of coming out was critical to getting where we are today. Coming out to our friends, our family, our co-workers, God forbid, to our clients."
At the April 23 event, a Lambda Legal benefit at the Art Institute of Chicago, Eychaner noted that he grew up in DeKalb, raised by "teetotaling Methodists" who ended up founding a PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter and marching in the annual gay pride parade.
The audience broke into laughter and applause as photos of two of his parents' business cards appeared on the screen behind him. One card read: "Howard & Milly Eychaner, Proud of Our Gay & Non-Gay Children."
"Part of our history includes the long struggle to pass the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance," which protected gays from discrimination in employment and housing, Eychaner said. "It started, folks, in 1973. That was 40 years ago. Early defeats generated many responses in the community. We fractured. We had splits. We had schisms. And we came together and separated and re-formed and went back to work and we got it done."
"Reagan had been president for six years before he spoke out on the (AIDS) epidemic," Eychaner said. "And by that time, 38,000 of us had been diagnosed positive and 20,000 of us were dead. … If the dead and dying had been American Legionnaires or New York Yankees or evangelicals at their megachurches, there would have been a swift public outcry and an intentional public health and scientific response. … Instead, Reagan and his Republican allies chose to demonize us, all of us. … The hatred and damage they sowed in those years continues to ricochet today in our politics."
"Remember, it was just our last president, George W. Bush, who was elected with the drumbeat of a constitutional amendment which would have banned marriage equality, demonizing us yet again for overt, political, partisan advantage," Eychaner said. "Our victories today are real. They are sweet. But let's always remember and never forget that our progress has been won at the cost of many lives, much time, money, sweat and many, many tears."
A LEAP forward
Phyllis Lockett, a former leader of the Civic Consulting Alliance and New Schools for Chicago, which helped fund the opening of new charter schools, is launching a new education-focused nonprofit, called LEAP Innovations, with $4.2 million in funding.
Lockett said in a Wednesday interview that her goal is to raise $8 million to cover LEAP's first three years of operating expenses.
LEAP will help pay for the introduction of new technologies and methods into classrooms and then evaluate whether they are working. Another component of the nonprofit, called The Collaboratory, will be a teacher training center. The third focus will be working with schools to overhaul their teaching methods.
Reporter Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah wrote in Tuesday's Tribune about the nonprofit's first effort in that vein: Grants to seven Chicago schools to explore how gadgets, such as the iPad, can be used to tailor lesson plans to individual students.
"What happens is, you see all of these incubators and funds that have cropped up all over the country that are dedicated to education tech, but there's zero efficacy or validation as to what is actually working," Lockett said. "And educators are so overwhelmed with the budget pressures, with the accountability pressures, and they have no time to understand what's out there and what's good and what's not good. There are a lot of vultures out there."
Lockett left New Schools Chicago, which was founded by The Civic Committee, an influential group of Chicago business leaders, at the end of March on good terms. Former Exelon CEO John Rowe is chairman of New Schools, and he and his wife, Jeanne's, foundation is a backer of LEAP, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, billionaire Eli Broad's foundations and other marquee funders.
Lockett said her goal as CEO is to not accept funding from any corporation or affiliated foundation looking to have its products placed in classrooms or evaluated by the group, which has a staff of seven. The organization expects to be fully staffed and operating by fall.
The first products LEAP will be testing through its pilot program focus on improving literacy among children in pre-K through eighth grade. Lockett expects reading instruction in the future to be far more individualized.
For example, your computer's camera would follow your eyes as you read text online. Then, based on that eye scan, the software would be able to identify the words, phrases or even concepts that tripped you up and explain them in greater detail for you.
"It's not about slapping tools in classrooms," Lockett said. "That's not going to work. Schools have got to commit to a pretty high level of professional development support (30 hours). You've got to adopt this in the pedagogy and be committed to providing the feedback necessary … because we want to present the best solutions for kids."