It’s almost serendipitous. Back in 2005, a young and enthusiastic Brenda Langstraat was taking the reins as Executive Director of Chicago Parkways Foundation. Always a learner first, she looked to visionary, Rhona Frazin – then CEO of the Chicago Public Library Foundation – for guidance. “I remember leaving that short meeting so inspired by Rhona and the Library Foundation,” Brenda recalls. A decade later, here she is, getting ready to take on a dream role.
The Road Less Traveled
With a degree in English, Brenda Langstraat was on track to becoming an educator – until she stumbled upon an internship that would end up shaping her 20-year career in the nonprofit sector. “The Chicago Humanities Festival opened the doors of philanthropic work for me. I was hooked right away to the idea of connecting people and communities to a collective mission”, she shares. And connect she did. As the former Executive Director of Chicago Parkways Foundation, she spearheaded fundraising initiatives that encourage individuals and corporations to invest in Chicago’s parks. More recently as CEO of Working in the Schools (WITS), she brought together volunteers, educators, and investors to impact literacy advancement of thousands of students in Chicago Public Schools.
“Throughout the years, I have learned that the most effective way of engaging people to the cause is to align it with their personal values. This means asking what matters to them, what about the nonprofit work resonates with them. It’s like matchmaking – but for the greater good.” she explains passionately.
A Life Passion
Brenda does not consider what she does for a living as “work”. For her, it’s deeply personal. “When you think about it, we transform lives and communities in the most personal ways. More than helping children with their homework, we give them access to a better future. We give teens possibilities for higher education by developing skills and encouraging their passions. We encourage older adults to thrive in today’s world. To catalyze these transformations is nothing short of amazing,” she shares. Brenda’s eyes gleam as she speaks, her tone hopeful and enthusiastic in equal parts. It’s clear that she loves what she does because of the impact it brings to communities, especially to groups who need support the most. This is her calling.
It Comes Full Circle
A self-confessed library enthusiast, Brenda knows the importance of libraries firsthand. As a young girl in a small town in Iowa, she would carry her new book finds protectively as she walked home. As a college student, she would spend Friday nights at the library – to finish course work, yes, but also to immerse herself in poetry and history. “I also discovered the Internet at the library. I checked my first email and made my first rèsumè there,” she recalls enthusiastically.
Aside from her love for the stacks, Brenda is drawn to the Library Foundation for its dynamism, innovation, and creativity. “The Library always finds out of the box ways to serve the communities – from the diversity of books to lifelong learning programs catering to every patron that walks through their doors,” she explains. And for Brenda’s entire nonprofit career, Chicago Public Library & Library Foundation have served as a model for a successful public-private partnership, leveraging public investment with private donations. “It’s all very synergistic with the City, corporate, and civic organizations collaborating actively towards one vision,” she states in admiration. To be working in an organization that she has always looked up to is her career coming full circle.
With confidence that stems from a self-awareness of the task ahead, Brenda is ready to take Chicago Public Library Foundation to an exciting new chapter. “Aren’t you scared?”, I ask. She pauses. Then, with a smile, she says thoughtfully, “In the best possible way, I feel the weight of Rhona’s legacy and that of the Foundation.” Another pause. Another smile. “There was a Foundation before me, and there will be a Foundation after me. So while I’m here – while we’re all here, let’s do the best work we can to help transform the lives of every Chicagoan through lifelong learning opportunities”, she continues.
Brenda may be a woman on a mission. But she is also a woman humbled by the reality that at the end of the day, it’s not about us – it’s about the people we serve.
Welcome, Brenda! Let’s get started.