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SocialWorks is one of the most the groundbreaking and innovative non-profits operating in the US. The organization was founded in Chicago in August 2016 by artist Chancelor Bennett (also known as Chance the Rapper), Justin Cunningham, and Essence Smith. SocialWorks was founded in support of Chicago Public Schools and raises money for social issues that affect Chicago’s youth, such as education, homelessness, mental health support, as well as to create spaces and bring visibility to Chicago’s artistic community.

Smith received her Sociology degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago where she graduated with honors and became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, Beta Chapter. As SocialWorks’ Director of Communications, Smith works diligently to produce branding strategies, orchestrate favorable content surrounding SocialWorks’ initiatives and events, managing press relations as well as maintaining the overall positive image of the organization.

Cunningham earned a degree in Finance and a minor in Leadership Studies, graduating Magna Cum Laude, and also held analyst positions with a nationwide food-service and facilities management firm, a major convention center, and Chicago Public Schools. But the desire to do work that impacted his community is what steered him to SocialWorks.

I caught up with them both to find out more about their inspiring journeys and how brands can help participate with them.

Afdhel Aziz: Justin and Essence, welcome. Tell us, how you both, and Chance first came up with the idea for SocialWorks?

Essence Smith: We’re all friends from high school that were blessed to receive great mentorship and guidance from youth leaders at a young age. As we got older, we wanted to keep that same energy going for kids all over the city! SocialWorks became an idea after almost 2 years of running an initiative that we now call OpenMike.

Justin Cunningham: The combination of the youth’s response to our efforts; us wanting to take more ownership and investment into Chicago; as well as us wanting to be more effective and impactful, led us to create SocialWorks.

A person standing in front of a large audience
SocialWorks OpenMike event SOCIALWORKS

Aziz: How would you describe the purpose and focus of SocialWorks? What are some of your key programs?

Smith:  The purpose of SocialWorks is the youth! We aim to empower the youth through the arts, education, and civic engagement. We use our human-centered initiatives within the sectors of mental health, artistic expression, childhood education and development, and homelessness, to respond to the community’s needs and push for long-term solutions. All of our programs are key to someone, but some initiatives we’re really proud of are My State of Mind and The New Chance Fund.

Cunningham: My State of Mind (MSOM) is a response to mental health access. With the help of local therapists and the state, county, and city, mental health regulatory bodies, we’ve developed Cook County’s first website to access clinical and non-clinical wellness providers. 

The New Chance Fund supports in-school enrichment through $100k grants. We’ve supported 51 Chicago public schools through the city with a total of $5.1M investment. Our New Chance students are experiencing new auditoriums, dance studios, state-of-the-art visual arts labs and maker spaces, but most importantly, a renewed interest in learning. One of our New Chance Fund Schools, Michelle Clark, experienced an 100% graduation rate for the first time ever after our investment in their school! So exciting! 

A man wearing a t-shirt
A SocialWorks event SOCIALWORKS

Aziz: That’s awesome! So, please tell us about some of the brand partnerships you’ve had – so many awesome ones.

Cunningham: We’ve partnered with the Chicago Bulls, Conagra, DTLR, Champion USA, Jordan Brand, Lyft, Goose Island, Postmates, Fat Tiger Workshop, Life Is Beautiful Festival, and many more!

 Smith: We enjoy mission-focused brand partnerships that make charity a priority in a very intentional way. Though all of our collaborations are different, a common thread is beginning with a shared understanding that we are together to create a moment for our youth and the community. 

Aziz: Please tell us more about partnering with Google on the Super Me video game? That sounds super innovative!

SocialWorks and Google
SocialWorks and Google SOCIALWORKS

Cunningham: is whom we’ve worked with in the past and they’ve been wonderful partners! Google.orgaccelerates the progress of nonprofits by connecting them with Google. It’s lovely to be in a space where ideas are considered because of the resources available as well as the openness to creativity from not only SocialWorks’ leadership but from the youth of this city (which is most important)! 

 Aziz: Thank you for sharing that. Finally, Essence, you seem like you do really meaningful work. What advice do you have for others who wish to do the same?

 Smith: If you’re trying to help someone, the best thing to do is ask, act, and ascertain. No matter the result, the process is the same. A lot of times, people get stuck in doing things the “right way,” when usually, the work just needs to be done…or at least started! Honestly, as a body of people, we’re better together. Community and collaboration is key. If someone is looking to help others, my first advice would be, what are you waiting for? It all begins with opening your heart, mind and ears.