Believe Chicago is an employee-driven program, drawing on those who live and work in the neighborhoods being served (Photos courtesy of AT&T)

In the city of Chicago, the twin plagues of gun violence and unemployment determine the experience of many who live and work in neighborhoods far from the sparkling high rises of downtown. In this other part of the shining city, gun violence is so high that the Wall Street Journal reported last year that Navy medics are prepared for tours of duty by training at the trauma unit at Cook County’s Stroger Hospital. The number of homicides has dropped over the last three years, down from 771 in 2016 to 561 last year. But that positive trend—shaped by nonprofit groups, religious congregations, local activists and government programs—can use all the help it can get. Now it’s getting it from a new source: AT&T.

Eileen Mitchell, president of AT&T Illinois

The world’s largest telecom company (2018 revenues: $170.8 billion) launched a new program last October called Believe Chicago to focus on injecting opportunity into 19 Chicago neighborhoods with the highest rates of unemployment and violence. It’s not a random selection—many of AT&T’s local employees live or work in those very neighborhoods. “When we did the research and saw how many employees and retirees we had living in these neighborhoods, how many stores we had, we determined that we had an obligation to step forward,” says Eileen Mitchell, president of AT&T Illinois, one of the state’s largest private-sector employers.

AT&T has a history of volunteerism and community service within its workforce, but at a time when the relationship between big companies and big cities can be contentious, AT&T wanted to build a sustainable, employee-driven program in partnership with Chicago's neighborhoods.

So AT&T's managers fanned out. Across the city, headquarters staff met with employees in stores, call centers, and equipment garages. “The magic started to happen when we went out and talked to our employees,” recalls Mitchell. “They were very close to the issue and there was an extreme amount of enthusiasm for the idea that we needed to get involved. The conversations that we had informed and inspired the work that we did and the program that we built.”

One of the program's initiatives is Learn Chicago, which provides skills training for young people, including in retail stores

From there, AT&T went even deeper into the communities, convening organizers and activists, and asking them to gather residents who could share their perspective of what was happening around them and where there were gaps in services and support. One of the biggest gaps? Economic opportunity.

Well, Mitchell reasoned, one of the most powerful opportunities a large company can leverage is hiring. This led to one of the pillars of the Believe Chicago program: skills training and connection to job openings. Last month, AT&T hired their 500th employee from the 19 neighborhoods who came up through the Believe Chicago program.

The programs milestones will be celebrated on March 15 with the debut of a documentary entitled, Beacons of Hope: Stories of Strength from Chicago, launching on the AT&T Audience Network. With early support from company executives including John Donovan, CEO of AT&T Communications, the Believe initiative has grown in just a year into a national program with offshoots in New York City, Dallas, Atlanta and Detroit. More than a dozen additional cities are planning to launch their own Believe efforts later this year. The Believe program joins a variety of job-skills programs that AT&T supports, including Girls Who Code and All Star Code.

Eileen Mitchell’s passion for Believe Chicago is built from her three-pronged background: 12 years as an AT&T executive, a stint as Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s chief of staff, where she became familiar with the challenges facing neighborhoods, and a year volunteering for the archdiocese of Chicago to develop an office of violence prevention.

“All institutions have different assets that they can bring to bear,” Mitchell says on the role that corporations should fill in local communities. “The violence issue in Chicago is not one person’s to solve. Government can’t do it alone. Private enterprise can’t do it alone. And the faith community can’t do it alone. The real power comes when government, the private sector and the faith community can all come together with one goal in mind: to lift these neighborhoods, to invest in them, and to create opportunity that doesn’t exist.”

That corporations are just one integral piece of the health of local communities in which their employees and customers live and work points to a key tenet of the program: sustainability. The program may still be young, but by focusing on community partnerships, job growth, and training, Believe Chicago has its eyes on a commitment to the Windy City that will extend many years into the future.

Emily Ludolph is a senior editor at 99U and an alum of TED Conferences and Vassar College. She has published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Narratively, Artsy, 99U, Quartz, and Design Observer