Jillisa Bondurant, the executive director of Children’s Safe Harbor, speaks with Family Counseling Services Executive Director Lynn Momberger, left, and Felicia Saad, community navigator manager for Illinois Legal Aid, on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, at the launch for CollabLab at the Rockford Riverfront Hotel and Conference Center. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)
    By Kevin Haas
    Rock River Current
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    ROCKFORD — The region’s latest effort to tackle the social challenges our community faces comes with a couple of rules: You are allowed to fail. But you’re not allowed to do it alone.

    The Northern Illinois Center for Nonprofit Excellence on Wednesday launched the Social Innovation and Collaboration Laboratory, or CollabLab for short. It’s designed to break down barriers that have traditionally prevented some businesses, nonprofits, academic institutions and other organizations from working together. And it aims to foster an environment that focuses on trial and error, prototyping and, yes, room for failure.

    “Imagine that, making it OK to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes in order to find the best solutions,” said Pam Clark Reidenbach, the center’s president and CEO, during a launch event at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront Hotel. It was attended by dozens of nonprofit leaders.

    Related: Rockford-area nonprofits show resilience after pandemic, remain optimistic despite challenges

    The CollabLab isn’t a physical space, but rather a network of nonprofits, businesses, government agencies, academic institutions and others in the community focused on innovation in addressing the problems our community faces.

    Kay Larrick, who led Carpenter’s Place for two decades before retiring in July, is facilitating the launch of the lab on behalf of NICNE, which is the acronym for the Northern Illinois Center for Nonprofit Excellence and commonly pronounced as “Nick-knee.”

    “At Carpenter’s Place we couldn’t have done it without our partners, and our partners were from every sector,” Larrick said.

    “We certainly didn’t solve homelessness, but for one person at a time we did,” she said. “Now — in this much bigger format, with a lot more support — it’s just exciting to think of the kind of answers that we might have to the challenges we’ve been facing.”

    Related: ‘It could really change the entire culture’: Movement aims to create sense of belonging in Rockford
    Kay Larrick, right, and Keri Asevedo applaud on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, at an event launching the Northern Illinois Center for Nonprofit Excellence CollabLab. Larrick, the former director of Carpenter’s Place, is the facilitator of the new effort. The launch was held at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront Hotel and Conference Center. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

    Numerous organizations work to tackle different issues the city faces, but they often operate in silos, Clark Reidenbach said. That’s in part a consequence of multiple organizations competing for limited funding.

    “Rather than adding program on top of program and then trying to fund all those programs, let’s really look at a new approach to things and that’s how we solve the issues,” she said.

    Mayor Tom McNamara, who attended the launch a couple hours after a news conference that unveiled the city’s latest crime statistics, said collaboration needs to become the norm here.

    “We, historically, in Rockford, I think if we’re all being honest, have typically come together in true collaboration when an issue immediately arises or a funding source immediately appears,” McNamara said. “I’m most excited that CollabLab and the work through NICNE will really begin to embed this culture of collaboration in every way of life and every way that we address an issue that ails our community or our families who call Rockford home.”

    There are already several NICNE-supported collaborative initiatives across the region. For example, Alignment Rockford’s Ready to Learn project brings together businesses, educators and nonprofits to prepare children for success before kindergarten. And the United Way of Rock River Valley leads a coalition of 24 agencies working to improve childhood literacy. The goal is to raise the rate of children who read at or above their grade level. That number now sits at about 35% in Winnebago County.

    Pam Clark Reidenbach, president and CEO of the Northern Illinois Center for Nonprofit Excellence, thanks nonprofit leaders on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, for their support of NICNE’s new CollabLab during a launch event at Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront Hotel. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

    Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity also recently embarked on a collaborative project with the Region 1 Planning Council and Rockford Public Schools. That effort will lead to about 25 homes being built in the Emerson Estates Subdivision off North Springfield Avenue near Auburn High School, Kennedy Middle School and McIntosh Elementary School.

    “Collaboration when it comes to housing is the only way, the only way in this community that we’re going to solve the problem of inadequate, substandard housing,” said Keri Asevedo, executive director of Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity. “This is going to be life-changing for the nonprofits that get to be a part of it.”

    “The thing that excites me the most about this is we are looking at systemic change in our community.”

    This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at khaas@rockrivercurrent.com or follow him on Twitter at @KevinMHaas or Instagram @thekevinhaas.

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