SCE Announces 2021 Catalyst Grants

Each year, our staff and board nominate several organizations to receive Catalyst Grants: one-time contributions made as part of our year-end giving. These organizations typically work on issues beyond our primary program areas. What unites them is their distinct and promising approaches to chronic social problems.

In a year marked again by a global pandemic and a growing movement for racial justice, the work of these 26 organizations feels urgent and critical. We’re proud to support their exemplary work.

Community and Economic Development: Project Return, The Dovetail Project, New Story, DivInc, Humble Design
Education: Alternatives, Braven, Liberation Library, One Million Degrees
Environment: Plant Chicago, Blue Forest, Justice Outside
Health and Human Services: Free Root Operation, GatherFor, Benefits Data Trust, For the Frontlines, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Watsi
Immigration: RefugeeOne, Alianza Americas
Journalism and Civic Engagement: The 19th News
Youth Development: Heph Foundation

Arts and Culture

Poetry in America: Created by Elisa New in partnership with celebrity guest interpreters, Poetry in America draws students of all ages into conversations about poetry. It also features free lessons for middle and high school youth on PBS Learning Media and offers for-credit college course opportunities to high school students across the country and around the world. 

PopShift (a project of Pathos Labs): PopShift brings Hollywood’s leading television writers together with the country’s most fascinating and insightful minds to inspire content that can bring our world towards a better future by evoking the collective imagination as far as what’s possible.

StoryCorps: StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. They’ve recorded with over half a million people of all backgrounds and beliefs, preserving them in the first and the largest born-digital collections of human voices. Particularly of note, The American Pathways collection features stories of refugees and immigrants and their experiences coming to the US.

Young Chicago Authors: Young Chicago Authors (YCA) transforms the lives of young people by cultivating their voices through writing, publication, and performance education. Through in-school classes, workshops, open mics, poetry festivals, and summer programs, each year YCA helps young people from all backgrounds to understand the importance of their own stories and those of others.

Community and Economic Development

Project Return: Project Return’s mission is to provide services and connect people with resources needed to return successfully to work and community after incarceration. Through PRO Employment,  formerly incarcerated individuals gain real-world work experience and income as Project Return transitional employees, and then go on to become the proud and successful employees of other companies. Through, PRO Housing, Project Return creates affordable rental homes for hard-working men and women who’ve left prison behind.

The Dovetail Project: The Dovetail Project gives young African American and Hispanic fathers – ages 17 to 24 – the skills and support they need to be better fathers for their children and better men in their communities. The Dovetail Project’s 12‐week curriculum educates fathers about the roles, rights, and responsibilities of fatherhood. The program also includes a component addressing Felony Street Law to help young men avoid incarceration and stay present in their kids’ lives.

DivInc: DivInc’s mission is to empower people of color and women entrepreneurs, helping them build successful high growth businesses by providing them with access to education, mentorship, and vital networks. Focused on early-stage startups, they’ve provided 64 founders and 49 tech and tech enabled companies with critical strategies to succeed and grow their startups.

New Story: New Story pioneers solutions to end global homelessness, then shares those solutions so we can all build better. New Story provides homes and 3D printed homes to people living with inadequate shelter. The organization was founded in 2014 and has helped fund community projects in four countries, building over 2,200+ homes.

Humble Design: Humble Design’s mission is to provide families in need with dignified, clean, and welcoming home interiors. They minimize the impact on the environment by matching clients with donated & gently used household goods. Their warehouses are curated by design teams that personalize homes based on their clients’ needs and preferences.


Alternatives: Alternatives supports and empowers Chicago youth to build safer and more vibrant communities through a combination of restorative justice and behavioral health services. Alternatives is a comprehensive, multi-cultural youth development organization that operates as a support system for more than 3,000 of Chicago’s young people and their families each year.

Liberation Library: Liberation Library (LL) provides books to youth in prison to encourage imagination, self-determination, and connection to outside worlds of their choosing. LL’s readers fill out order forms that volunteers fill at twice monthly packing days. Once the book is selected, volunteers write personalized notes to each reader, and the books that the young people receive are theirs to keep. This model encourages readers to have choice and ownership in a world where they are often devoid of both.

One Million Degrees: One Million Degrees accelerates community college students’ progress on career pathways to economic mobility. 65% of Illinois public college students attend community college, but only one in four of them will graduate with a degree within three years. One Million Degrees is the only organization in Illinois providing wrap-around supports to highly motivated community college students to help them succeed in school, in work, and in life. From tutors and coaches to financial assistance and professional development, OMD offers the support to ~700 students per year that empowers scholars to transform their lives and those around them for generations.

Braven: Braven’s mission is to empower promising first-generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students of color—with the skills, confidence, experiences, and networks necessary to transition from college to strong first jobs. Before the pandemic, only 30% of the 1.3 million low-income or first-generation college students who enrolled each year graduated and secured a strong first job or entered graduate school. Braven partners with public universities in Chicago, the Bay Area and Newark to provide ~1,000 students per year a network of supporters and sense of belonging.


Plant Chicago: Plant Chicago’s mission is to cultivate local circular economies by equipping people and businesses with the tools to live more sustainably through community-driven, hands-on programs and innovative research projects. Plant Chicago was established in 2011 as a collaborative community of food businesses on the southwest side of Chicago and now hosts education programs, a farmer’s market, local produce boxes for low-income residents, and a network for small business owners to be more sustainable.

Blue Forest: Blue Forest creates sustainable financial solutions to meet pressing environmental challenges. Their flagship financial product, the Forest Resilience Bond (FRB), deploys private capital to finance forest restoration projects on private and public lands to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires across the West.

Justice Outside: Justice Outside advances racial justice and equity in the outdoor and environmental movement by shifting resources to, building power with, and centering the voices and leadership of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Justice Outside’s programs provide outdoor professionals with culturally relevant skills through an Outdoor Educators Institute, Rising Leaders Fellowship and grantmaking to small community-led environmental projects.

Health and Human Services

Free Root Operation: Founded in 2015 by a then high school senior, Free Root Operation intercepts poverty induced gun violence by investing in the healing and empowerment of Black and Brown communities in Chicago and beyond. FRO runs the South Shore Data Project, a community needs and assets assessment in the South Shore aimed at creating a collective vision informed by residents. Programs now include a food pairing program, activist fund, and education programs for residents in the South Shore.

GatherFor: GatherFor organizes and resources teams of neighbors experiencing job, food, or housing insecurity to support each other like a family would. Neighbors support each other by providing funds or resources for food, financial assistance, housing, healthcare, mental health, and digital connectivity.

Benefits Data Trust: Benefits Data Trust is a national nonprofit that harnesses the power of data, technology, and policy to provide efficient and dignified access to assistance. Public benefits like SNAP, WIC, CHIP, and Medicaid can help families in need pay for food, healthcare, housing, and more. By streamlining access to benefits proven to improve health and advance opportunity today, we can build pathways to economic mobility and a more equitable future.

For the Frontlines: For the Frontlines provides free crisis counseling to health care professionals and essential workers via text. In effort to support health care professionals and essential workers who are increasingly putting their lives at risk during the coronavirus pandemic, Crisis Text Line, and its affiliate partners Kids Help Phone, and Shout, created the For the Frontlines to raise awareness about their free crisis counseling service. 

Black Mamas Matter Alliance: Black Mamas Matter Alliance is a Black women-led cross-sectoral alliance. They center Black mamas to advocate, drive research, build power, and shift culture for Black maternal health, rights, and justice. BMMA also provides technical assistance, trainings, and capacity building for grassroots organizations, maternity care service providers (e.g. clinicians, midwives, doula networks and community health workers), academia, and the public health industry.

Watsi: Watsi is a nonprofit healthcare crowdsourcing platform that enables individual donors to directly fund medical care for individuals in developing countries without access to affordable medical care. Watsi utilizes a trusted network of medical partners to connect patients and donors. Donors read patient profiles to find a match and receive patient updates following a donation.


RefugeeOne: RefugeeOne creates opportunity for refugees fleeing war, terror, and persecution to build new lives of safety, dignity, and self-reliance. RefugeeOne walks alongside refugees from the moment they land at O’Hare —welcoming them to Chicago and providing furnished apartments, English classes, job search support, mental health care, youth programming, and mentors to help them adjust to life in the U.S.

Alianza Americas – Leadership Institute: Alianza Americas is a network of migrant-led organizations working in the United States and transnationally to create an inclusive, equitable and sustainable way of life for communities across North, Central and South America. The Alianza Americas Leadership Institute is a year-long leadership development program designed to bolster the collective capacity of US-based migrant-serving organizations. The goal of the Institute is to equip local immigrant leaders with a global perspective of the policies, realities, and contexts that shape migration, building a generation of local leaders with cross-issue, cross-border perspectives.

Journalism and Civic Engagement

The 19th News: The 19th News is an independent, nonprofit newsroom reporting on gender, politics and policy.They provide free-to-consume and free-to-republish, non-partisan journalism that reimagines politics and policy coverage through a gender lens and a newsroom that reflects the racial, ideological, socioeconomic and gender diversity of American voters, and is devoted to covering everyone with empathy.

Youth Development

Heph Foundation: Heph Foundation’s mission is to help learners find STEM-related pathways for success in school and the future workforce. Heph Foundation gamifies learning with immersive STEM curricula that help disenfranchised learners prepare for and excel in the future of work. They offer in-school, after-school, and summer programs across Chicago teaching via video games, sports, dance, comics etc.