Carlos Nelson, MBA, CEO, Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation

Where are you from?

My family settled in Auburn Gresham on 79th Street back in 1963, and portions of my family have been there ever since, so I have spent all of my life in and around the Auburn Gresham community until I went to high school and to university to study mechanical engineering. In my work as an engineer doing telecommunications development all across Mexico and South America, I was able to travel–seeing other communities, areas, and regions that are different from your home base is the most exceptional form of education. Most of my travels have been in the western hemisphere. I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago, New York City, Nashville, Tennessee, Mexico, Guatemala, and other South American countries, as well a little bit in the Caribbean.

What led you to your current organization?

I have been at the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation for 20 years as of January of 2023. I started as a volunteer–GAGDC was a brand new organization, less than a year old. My house is less than a half a block away from the office, I worked downtown and spent most of my time traveling, so I wanted to get involved in my community. At the time, there was a budget of $50,000. The founding [executive director] was a retiree, and she had two part-time staffers–they both lived on my block. In November of 2002, the ED announced that she was leaving, the staffers both left, and I decided to leave corporate America. I stepped away from my job in blind faith. I knew nothing about community development work at all, nothing about what a not-for-profit was. I thought “not-for-profit” meant no chairs, no equipment, no computers, no furniture–I wanted to change that, so I brought on a couple of volunteers that I worked with in corporate America. Now we have 50 staffers and a nearly $12 million budget.

What made it especially wonderful is I got the chance to raise my three children and be there with them every day. I raised them in my office, and they’ve gotten a chance to observe a professional office setting right at 79th Street in Auburn Gresham. My youngest is 24–he graduated from the University of Kentucky in Lexington. His sister is 26, and she graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and now teaches at Francis Parker. She’s a vocalist. The oldest graduated from the University of Denver and works for Google. They could all run this organization!

What do you hope to accomplish as a member of the CSAC?

GAGDC is based on five pillars: community economic development, real estate development, housing and senior services, educational initiatives and youth development, health, and community and family engagement. The health and wellness pillar is really rising to the top, and the health and wellness of our communities touch all of those other aspects of life through the social determinants of health. Strengthening health and wellness and raising visibility for the importance of high quality access to health care for a healthy lifestyle is where I hope to get more southsiders informed, educated, and knowledgeable. Additionally I’d like for my organization to align ourselves with health researchers, and for them to work with us and our leaders to do community-based research–in which GAGDC is the co-conspirator or co-PI of generating that research.

What are some issues in your community that you’re hoping to resolve? 

Through our health and wellness work and through being part of former Mayor Lightfoot’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team during the height of COVID, we gained more insight on the health inequities that exist in our communities and that were exacerbated by COVID. We as an organization didn’t focus on food insecurity [before then]. Now we’re focusing some of our resources on helping to address food and housing security–with the knowledge that families, just because they may live or reside at someone’s home on a couch still means that they’re homeless. There are ramifications, because if you’re having to couch surf from home to home for housing stability oftentimes you have to pull your kids out of school. Through our education and youth development work, we follow those families so they can have a continuum of care. Wealth building is something we’re really focused on, which means having ideally living-wage jobs and a steady income. When you have problems with that, transportation, education, housing, food, employment, and little access to health care, it’s a recipe for many of the ills we’re experiencing, including obviously poverty, which oftentimes leads to violence and crime and criminal activities. We believe if we address health equity issues, we can mitigate some of those numbers.

What is something that most people would be surprised to know about you?

I was raised as a vegetarian–my mother eliminated pork from our diet in the late 60s, and she became a vegetarian in ‘71 or ‘72 just from research and study. My father and I, we couldn’t cook, so we became vegetarian as well! My mother will be 90 in April. She still has a vegan diet and is still very in tune with homeopathic remedies and research.

I took four years of German in high school, and then as a young man I learned Hebrew. The German part was because in high school, I was really good at math and science. I knew I was going to be an engineer–I went to a junior engineering training program at UIC. Knowing I was going to go into engineering, they said German was the language that you should learn. Because I went to a high school away from the community, they actually had German as an option, so I took four years of German, and still to this day I wish I’d taken four years of Spanish! My mother studied traditional African religions, Muslim religion, Hebrew religion, so actually I was on a path to be a bar mitzvah–that’s why I learned Hebrew.

Throw all that together, and a man who left Chicago, went away to college in Tennessee, and traveled all over, decided to come back to 79th Street. I bought my first house as a 23-year-old–a two-flat close to my grandmother’s house on 79th. I could see it from my office. We need to get some of our young professionals, Black men, Black women, Latin men Latin women, Asian men, Asian women–who go away to learn all the tricks of the trade and the expertise to bring it home. I really believe that the ecosystem here in Chicago is so unique, and the community development world is such a strong rich world. I want our community-based organizations like GAGDC to take a larger bite of the apple and play more of a key strategic role just as our great colleges and universities and health systems have. I think many of our organizations are led by really brilliant professionals. I really want the power base of the community-based organizations, those that are entrenched in the communities, to elevate and be seen for what we are.