AT&T’s latest business venture has a unique focus: the South and West sides of Chicago, where news coverage often skews heavily negative; and where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has issued a challenge to companies to take more responsibility for – and involve themselves more deeply in – the community.
“He rightfully said it’s not just a police problem or a government problem. It’s everybody’s problem, and I agree with that wholeheartedly,” asserts Paul La Schiazza, President of AT&T North Central Region.
“Gun violence, homicides, poverty, educational challenges. You just hear bad news each and every day,” he says. “So, we… tracked crime and homicide data, looked at the 19 neighborhoods [most affected by gun violence], and we said, ‘What [employees, buildings, infrastructure and stores] does AT&T have in these areas?’
His research exposed one particularly sobering statistic: in fact, hundreds of AT&T employees call these neighborhoods home. But what really got La Schiazza’s wheels turning? In focus groups conducted by his team, those employees shared “compelling stories about their love for the community, their belief that they can make a difference in those communities.”
AT&T employee Cedric Wouldfolk is one of those employees. A technician with AT&T for the past 15 years, Wouldfolk was in the field in Chicago two years ago when he got a call from his son. “It was his girlfriend,” he recalls. She said, ‘This isn’t Dimitri. Dimitri’s been shot’.”
Dimitri was one of the lucky ones—only a metal rod remains from when the bullet hit his leg. However, his son’s survival isn’t enough to assuage Wouldfolk. “I can’t let something like this go,” he says.
In the field, he would often engage the young men he saw hanging out on street corners, “and the overwhelming sentiment was despair.” He searched online for solutions, finding only second-chance offender programs that necessitated jumping through hoops – until he discovered Chicago’s Austin Boxing Club.
“It’s a 100 percent-free boxing club,” he explains. “Any kid, any age, anywhere can come and earn a boxing license free. They get free gloves, free shoes, free everything… We teach the kids 12-and-under conflict resolution skills,” and that disagreements don’t need to escalate to gunfire.
News of Wouldfolk’s boxing-club volunteer efforts and calls to end Chicago’s gun violence eventually reached the top ranks of AT&T.
“One day, I get a call from my manager [at AT&T],” Wouldfolk recounts. “And he says, ‘[CEO of AT&T’s communications business] John Donovan wants to meet you’.”
“The motorcade arrives, and [Donovan starts] telling me about how when he was young, and how he came from a big family, and it was tough in Pittsburgh… And in the basement of his church, he used to go to the boxing ring.”
Wouldfolk was quite surprised, that high level executives actually cared about the community issues in Chicago.
But La Schiazza hands the credit back to the employees:
“They’re doing things on their own time, and their own dime, to lift up their block, their neighborhood… And we started saying…, ‘If they’re doing all these things on their own, and having an impact on their own, think about the power that AT&T can put behind their efforts.’
Says La Schiazza, “So we came up with this concept of Believe Chicago.”
“One of my coworkers, he had a body shop,” Wouldfolk says. “He takes the kids off the street and teaches them bodywork for free. AT&T Believe Chicago learned about him. They gave him a contribution without an arm twisting.”
“It really is an employee-driven initiative,” La Schiazza says. “Our CEO started talking about community engagement, and we talked to him and his leadership team about launching Believe Chicago, and they’re like, ‘That’s exactly the model that we think should eventually multiply across the country because that is AT&T’s values… But let’s start in Chicago. Let’s learn in Chicago. Let’s create opportunity in Chicago. And then we’ll look to do more in other places’.”
What started out as a grassroots effort quickly resulted in a brand-new AT&T call center in Chicago, with a goal of drawing talent from, and creating job opportunities for, surrounding neighborhoods. In just a few months, AT&T added 400+ individuals to the payroll. Grow the careers of a community, believes La Schiazza, and, in turn, lift up the community.
As a resident of one of the 19 Chicago neighborhoods most affected by gun violence, AT&T customer service manager Caitlin Caporelli says, “To see that this entire [Believe Chicago] program started first as a simple round table discussion in our basement of our call center asking people … ‘What is it like for you to live in this community?’ We’re not used to people coming in and asking, ‘What we can do to better your city’. It’s usually, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’
“Most of these schools [in these 19 neighborhoods] are so overcrowded that kids just kind of fall through the cracks and just end up giving up. My hope is that we can make changes to these kids’ lives that’s going to start this snowball effect,” she continues. “Their friends are going to see that they’re part of some type of [AT&T] program…, [and] are going to be like, ‘Hey, I want to do that too.’
“I know that, a lot of my coworkers…, when I tell them, their first reaction is always… ‘This is what I want to do for my community. Where do we sign up?’“
“We’ve already invested this year over $2 million in [Chicago-based] philanthropy efforts,” says La Schiazza, “working with community partners that have a proven track record in the neighborhoods …, trying to help them scale as they help us scale the program to touch more lives.”
But AT&T’s commitment goes even deeper.
“We’re looking at our real estate in these communities: how can we use our real estate as either a safe haven location, a place for a community group to convene, neighborhood places where youth can be safe and/or where you can come to learn about the latest technologies and job opportunities?”
[We’ve developed] “training-and-skills-development platform AT&T Learn, where you can go, and you can actually see AT&T jobs on the Learn platform; and then for specific kinds of jobs…, it can guide you in your own self-development to prepare yourself to … get a job here at AT&T.”
In the spirit of being a good corporate citizen, the Believe Chicago group even piloted a film project with Chicago Public Schools: “We taught them how to use video cameras, how to do interviews. And we said, “Go out and find some great material…””
Shares La Schiazza, “They found some really great stuff, and we’re putting that together into a film product that we’re going to debut later on in October.
“[We also…] spent a big part of the summer here doing a documentary about good news stories in Chicago: The Beacons of Hope. And they’re going to complete a documentary, and we’re going to have that on our channel across the globe on the [AT&T] Audience Network, so that when people tune to that channel, they’re hearing great things about Chicago.
“So how do we use our real estate? How do we use our people? How do we use our training and skills platform? That’s just a slice of what Believe Chicago is,” he summarizes.
Next, the program moves on to other communities around the country.
“I think we’re starting in major metropolitan areas – trialing a lot of things here, seeing what works… It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing because Chicago’s community issues are Chicago’s community issues. In another area, cyberbullying might be the biggest problem. In another area, homelessness might be a problem. So, it’s trying to identify what is the greatest challenge for the community and getting our assets and our talent behind it to try to make an improvement…
“We believe if we’re going to be an effective local provider, an effective local retailer, then we also need to be a great neighbor and a great investor in communities,” he explains. “It’s not something that we’re doing it for a year and we’re going to stop.”
“I think it’s just a different way to look at the philanthropy that AT&T’s already done for over a hundred years.”