When South Shore native Jessica Davenport-Williams co-founded Black Girls Break Bread (BGBB) in 2016, she and her fellow founders wanted to create safe spaces for Black women and girls of all ages to come together in conversation. The nonprofit advocacy group aims to elevate Black women and girls’ voices, address community needs, and promote social and emotional wellness, and it quickly made a positive impact — particularly on Chicago’s under-resourced South and West sides. But Davenport-Williams, her sister Jazzy Davenport-Russ, and their fellow co-founder Khadija Warfield wanted to better position the organization for the future, so when they heard the University of Chicago was launching a Certificate in Nonprofit Management program, Davenport-Williams applied.
In March 2021, Davenport-Williams was among the first 14 nonprofit professionals to complete the free, two-year program designed to equip nonprofit professionals like her to create, grow, and operate effective community-based organizations.
“I love being in learning environments so being able to sit with this cohort knowing that we were the inaugural cohort and learning from the faculty was great,” Davenport-Williams said. “And then COVID hit so that had to change.”
Workshops — led by the Office of Civic Engagement’s Community Programs Accelerator and offered following a complementary course taught by Assistant Instructional Professor Jessica Darrow of the University’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice — moved online, and Davenport-Williams and her BGBB team shifted their focus to respond to their community’s immediate needs, launching a mask and essential items drive for expectant and post-partum moms and providing free mental health therapy sessions, among other programming.
Davenport-Williams credits the Certificate program with helping BGBB navigate pandemic challenges such as fundraising and development when the local schools they contracted with were forced to close and says she was able to apply the strategies she was learning in real time. The experience also created a strong sense of community among cohort members, even when their areas of focus were different.
“Being able to be among other nonprofit leaders to learn what other organizations are doing — and that may be in theater and the arts or in housing — and to see how these same skill sets were transferable and translatable to each of our organizations was rewarding for me, even on Zoom,” she said. “What was eye-opening was that we were all learning to pivot at the same time.”
Working with the University not only broadened the nonprofit professionals’ local networks and knowledge but forged stronger mutually beneficial partnerships between the University and its shared community, Davenport-Williams said.
“Many small nonprofits, we’re busy doing the work, we’re on the ground, we’re on the front line, we understand the needs of the community and being able to create that bridge for large institutions to have that knowledge is important,” she said, noting that by working with nonprofit leaders serving the South Side, the University gains valuable insight into issues facing neighboring communities. “It’s been a whirlwind for everyone during COVID but to show that we persevered, and we were resilient and committed is something that I’m extremely proud of. And I’m able to tell my daughters about this and share that this was a positive experience — and hopefully it allows the program to grow.”