United Way of Metro Chicago’s Senior Manager of Communications sat down with our new CEO and President, Sean Garrett, to learn more about his passion for our work, vision for our organization and what he loves about Chicago.
Kiara Goodwin (KG): Sean – Welcome to Chicago! Or should I say, welcome back.
Sean Garrett (SG): Thanks! I’ve spent 15 years in the United Way system and this is my second time working with United Way of Metro Chicago, so I’m excited to be back.
KG: Why did you first come to United Way and what has kept you here all these years?
SG: I first came to United Way because I wanted to be a part of something that helped make communities better and stronger. During my first year in Madison, Wisconsin, I saw what could happen when individuals come together to drive the work of making their community stronger. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of those efforts in various capacities in various communities.
KG: So, what most excites you about the work of United Way of Metro Chicago?
SG: The Chicago region is a collective of neighborhoods, and neighborhoods impact our individual outcomes and can predict how families are able manage the challenges we all face in life. United Way’s efforts to partner with neighborhoods through our Neighborhood Network initiative is transformational strategy to making our neighborhoods better places to live. I’m looking forward to learning more, being another partner in the work and playing whatever role we can in advancing the work that these communities have already started.
KG: It’s no secret that philanthropy is changing –
KG: Oh, wait, you didn’t know? Well this is awkward… But in all seriousness, what are some of the top challenges you see our organization facing today?
SG: There’s no shortage of folks interested in giving or recognizing the importance of investing in their city and their community. For the most part, people give to the things they’re passionate about or can relate to. Depending on someone’s life experiences, it’s not always easy to connect to our work on a personal level. But we have the opportunity to give people a firsthand experience and help them expand their understanding of the needs and the revitalization that’s already taking shape in our region, allowing them to see themselves in the shoes of their neighbor, even if they come from different backgrounds.
KG: For all the things that we love about Chicago, we’re also a city facing some significant challenges. Why do you think United Way is uniquely positioned to address these challenges?
SG: United Way was founded to bring the community together to solve problems. That’s always been who we are and what our DNA is. Though we’ve evolved over time, it’s still a central component of who we are. United Way in-and-of-itself will not be able to achieve what we want to as a community. But United Way as a conduit for our community can.
KG: For the folks who don’t know you yet – tell us more about yourself!
SG: As I mentioned, I was here 8 years ago so it’s great to be back. My wife and I got married here, bought our first place together and I attended graduate school at Northwestern University, so I fond memories of Chicago. After that I worked in New York for about five years and have most recently been in Charlotte leading the United Way there. Each experience has been awesome. We’ve learned a lot from each community we’ve been in, but we’re really excited to be back in Chicago.
KG: That’s awesome! What are some of the things you’re looking forward to exploring as a family?
SG: Well since our two boys have only visited Chicago for summer vacation they think it’s going to be 85 and sunny all the time, so they can’t wait to get here. We look forward to taking them to the museums – which will hopefully make up for the fact that it’s not 85 degrees all the time – riding the EL together, explaining that Lake Michigan is not an ocean but a big lake, and teaching them about pizza here. They’re still confused about why there isn’t any cheese on top. Last time they were here they thought it was a really good thing, but they didn’t think it was pizza.
KG: That’s fair. Speaking of pizza, I feel like Chicagoans are pretty loyal about their deep dish. Do you have a fave yet?
SG: No, I’m equal opportunity. I eat pizza almost every day. Growing up in New York, pizza will always be by the slice for me. But I’ve always loved Chicago style – just viewed it as a different genre. I haven’t been to a Chicago style pizza place I didn’t like yet, so I’m excited to try more.
KG: Oh, one more tough question – are you a Cubs or Sox family?
SG: We’re beginning to think through what sports teams we’re going to let our boys take on. Some will be easier than others, as my wife Emily is a Patriots and Red Sox fan and I grew up a Mets and a Giants fan. So right now the Cubs and White Sox are in play and we’ll see where the boys want to go.
KG: Hopefully you don’t lose any friends with that one. Alright, last question – What’s your favorite thing about Chicago?
SG: Two things – running on the lake is one of my favorite things in the world to do – just the beauty of the city, the water, the people, the flatness of it. All those things give me such peace and time to think and it makes me really happy. And for the city as a whole, I just think the neighborhoods are so cool. It’s such a neat experience to go from neighborhood to neighborhood and experience so many cultures in one place. It’s unique and there aren’t many places in the world that you can do that, so I’m excited to be back.