News / Member Spotlight

Early Bets Lead to Continued Growth for Darius Ballinger’s Chasing23

Darius Ballinger, Founder and Executive Director of Chasing23, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting young men of color through entrepreneurship and mentorship, was recently named an Echoing Green Fellow. The prestigious fellowship is awarded to a highly selective group of social entrepreneurs working on bold social challenges.

Darius is no stranger to the Chicago Learning Exchange (CLX) community and serves on CLX’s advisory committee. Read more below about Darius’s new Echoing Green fellowship and how he credits CLX staff and network in providing early support that helped him and Chasing23 grow.

How did you get involved with the Chicago Learning Exchange (CLX)?

In the Summer of 2016, I started Chasing23. I was passionate about serving black boys and men of color because that same focus and mentorship changed the trajectory of my life. I was new to this work and looking to learn. I think Jessica Besser-Rosenberg, CLX staff member, recommended that I join the Hive (now known as the Chicago Learning Exchange).

When I first attended in the summer of 2017, I knew I was in the right place.

At the CLX meetup, I heard from Avri Coleman at Commonwealth Foundation who shared lessons from his work with (PRO)jectUS, a CLX-funded project, that leveraged fashion and entrepreneurship to support Chicago youth with creative workforce development opportunities. I knew I wanted to do the same thing. I wanted young men of color to have opportunities and learn more about entrepreneurship.

What is one of the most valuable and or challenges you have learned from your engagement with the CLX community?

Being within the community practitioners is powerful. It’s hard doing this work on your own, and it’s great to have a network to lean on who have different areas of subject matter expertise.

I was able to ideate, learn, and then actually practice because CLX was one of the first funders to support Chasing23’s work with grants. I also learned a lot from fellow CLX members like Lesley Etherly of Contexture Digital who supported me in thinking through the role of media; I was able to build partnerships with folks like Michael Hannan at Alternative Schools Network. Internally, also I got to witness how CLX does it work and also shape its future through the advisory board. It was all valuable.

It’s awesome that CLX is willing to take risks and make investments, but one thing I wish CLX could do is cultivate a pipeline. If CLX had more capacity, I think there could have been more brokering to other foundations or support with program development. Regardless, over the years, I have really valued the exchange. Everyone is valued. I can share my lessons learned and I can learn from others.

Tell me more about how the Echoing Green Fellowship. Do you see any connections between CLX and Echoing Green?

I feel very fortunate to have been selected for the fellowship. I know many people who have tried multiple times but haven’t gotten it. My path to Black Male Achievement work is rooted in my own story and work but also connected to CLX and the power of networks. Sana Jafri, CLX staff member, actually invited me to an invite-only Executives Alliance convening about Boys and Men of Color in Chicago. There, I was able to network with others who shared my passion for serving boys and men of color.

I’m a people person and it’s been kind of a snowball effect for me. I was sharing how I turned my own personal trauma into my passion through Chasing23. I was invited to the Obama Foundation and then to a convening at Facebook. I really feel like I have a niche in my work because there’s a lot of work happening in the in-school space, but I’m working in the out-of-school time space.

Through my advisory work with the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC), I plan to build a sustainable model. With the Echoing Green Fellowship, I’m able to actualize that vision. My bold idea is to reduce juvenile recidivism in Cook County among minority boys by providing transitional employment and individual support.

Both CLX and Echoing Green placed early bets on me....and I think that’s powerful. I am taking that power and channeling it into serving my community.