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Diana Ferguson adjusts her perspective on civic engagement

DianFerguscongratulates Class 2012 Fellow Miguel OrtegDirector Customer Technology for ComEd an LGC graduatievent July 23 2012.

Diana Ferguson congratulates Class of 2012 Fellow Miguel Ortega, Director of Customer Technology for ComEd, at an LGC graduation event on July 23, 2012.

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Updated: March 5, 2013 5:51PM

I’m old enough to remember trick-or-treating with the orange UNICEF box. The boxes traveled with us as we went from house to house on Halloween night. Candy went in the bucket, and donations for charity went into the box.

I always looked forward to bringing that box — filled to the brim — back to school. I didn’t fully understand the sense of accomplishment I felt at the time, but I knew I was doing something good.

It was my teacher, Miss Wallace, who eventually gave me a term for the actions that brought on this feeling: civic engagement. She also shared with me a simple message I try to keep in mind while striving to become a better civic leader: Small actions can make a big difference.

Through personal experience, I’ve come to realize that those actions can make an even bigger difference if we work together.

Our city, like any major metropolitan area, faces many complex challenges. For much of my life, I did as much as I could individually — volunteering and donating money — but it wasn’t until I was brought face-to-face with these challenges as a Fellow of Leadership Greater Chicago (LGC) that I was able to see clearly how I fit into the bigger picture.

I admit to being more than a bit naive coming into LGC, a program that strives to bring together a diverse mix of leaders to tackle key issues facing our region. As a private-sector professional, I’d only thought about issues through the “corporate lens.” There were usually solutions available: Put a team of smart people on it, or raise more capital.

What I quickly learned is the answer is never that simple. The Fellows in my class enabled me to see beyond my initial view, and I realized that it was far too narrow. Too often, even well-run organizations do not have the resources they need to get the job done. I learned that sometimes, compromises need to be made.

This may seem obvious to some, but my experiences hadn’t yet led me to that conclusion. What I came to realize through my LGC experience is that our views are based on what we know. And you must surround yourself with people who know something different so you can see the complete — the real — picture.

Too often we live our lives in an echo chamber of views similar to our own. Why? Because it’s easier. More than once, I became frustrated, even angry, about being forced to listen to alternative points of view. But managing to listen respectfully to these differing views was far better for me in the long run. It made me more empathetic, a better listener, and crystallized for me that it takes multifaceted approaches to tackle complex problems.

So I’d like to challenge you, like Miss Wallace challenged me so many years ago, to go out and take action — but before you do, take a moment to step outside what you know. Find someone different from you and see what they might do. I promise you’ll discover the solution you come up with together is even greater than you alone can imagine.

Leadership Greater Chicago’s annual fundraising event, the Celebrate Leaders Dinner, takes place Thursday evening at the Swissotel Chicago, where more than 550 Chicago-area business, civic and philanthropic leaders will convene. Steven Levitt, best-selling author of Freakonomics and Super-Freakonomics, is the keynote speaker. Visit for more information.

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