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Maria Hibbs Reflects on CLX Growth and Predicts a New Decade of Possibilities

When Chicago Learning Exchange (CLX) Board Chair Daniel Ash announced last week that my colleague Sana Jafri will become CLX’s new Executive Director, reality finally sank in. In less than three weeks, I will be retiring. After 45 years in journalism, corporate public affairs, philanthropy and non-profit leadership, it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of leadership, and I do so with tremendous optimism.

In 2013, the MacArthur Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust asked for my help as a consultant in organizing and managing the Hive Chicago Fund for Connected Learning at the Trust. The Fund was a collaboration between the two foundations to incentivize innovation in learning. It was also a supporting partner of the Hive Chicago Learning Network, an initiative of the Mozilla Foundation, which at that time had about 57 organizations on its membership roster.

Connected learning, maker spaces, STEAM programs, HOMAGO, digital badges -- these were all new concepts for me back then. Perhaps they were for most “Hivers,” too. This work was evolving with no route charted by GPS because even the destination seemed unclear. But I tend to enjoy life in the gray because it offers countless possibilities, so I grabbed the wheel.

The first time I attended a Hive monthly meetup, I was hooked. The educators and youth development professionals I met there -- diverse in every way (though most far younger than me) -- were passionate about supporting young people in divining their dreams and pursuing them. They worked in large cultural institutions, small community-based programs, and everything in between. The meeting itself was controlled chaos with activities, share-outs spirited networking, affirmation, collaboration -- a shot of adrenaline between pastries and coffee.

Since then the field of connected learning has developed, and research is demonstrating its impact. What was nascent in 2013 is entering young adulthood.

In 2017, my friend Sam Dyson, then director of the Hive Network, and I recognized the power of combining the Network and Fund. We co-founded CLX in early 2018 to remake learning so it’s driven by learners’ interests, enhanced by technology, and connected to opportunity. The community has grown to more than 240 members. CLX (and the Fund before it) has issued more than $8 million supporting collaborative projects that incite innovation. Many of these investments have flourished -- like FUSE, which offers learners a set of engaging STEAM challenges in a choice-driven studio environment, the West Side STEM Learning Center in Austin, and youth councils advising Chicago cultural institutions and public agencies. Other projects have become fixtures on Chicago's calendar of events, including the ChiTeen Lit Fest and Remake Learning Days CHI. Not all projects were successful, but our community learned from those too.

At CLX’s core is the conviction that youth-development practitioners and educators are experts with unique knowledge of their content areas, their youth, and the communities they serve. We create the spaces for innovators from youth-serving organizations, cultural institutions, city agencies, foundations, and universities to collaborate to ensure all youth have access to the tools, opportunities, and benefits of 21st Century learning. Our aim is to close the equity gaps challenging thousands of Chicagoans under age 24 by envisioning our city as a connected and nurturing community where all learning counts.

I have no doubt that creating CLX to continue the work under way for almost a decade was absolutely the right thing to do. Thank you to our founding board members, our funders, and the energetic, talented CLX team for believing in this idea.

If this new world merely provided more tools and advantages to those who already have plenty of them, it wouldn't be of interest to me despite the dazzle of the latest trends. In this work, equity isn't a byproduct. It’s the point. And that’s true innovation.

That is why I’m proud to continue my association with CLX as a member of the Board. So, CLXers, as a new decade dawns, I look forward to leading from a different vantage point, participating in our inspiring and burgeoning community, and charting the next 10 years that is centered on creating greater opportunity for Chicago’s youth, educators, and families who need it the most.



P.S. - Save me a croissant - preferably chocolate - as this won’t be good-bye -- rather see you later.