Best One-Woman Think Tank

Valerie Leonard

Critics' Picks

Valerie Leonard still lives in the K-town two-flat where she was raised by her father, Theodis Leonard, who was principal of Paderewski Elementary at Lawndale and 22nd Street, and her mother, Essie, a retired teacher. After earning her MBA at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern—and following a stint in New York, where she worked for the Dinkins administration—Leonard returned to Chicago to form the Lawndale Alliance, a community group that has criticized the city for harsh budget cuts that hurt poor neighborhoods. The west-side activist roots through city websites to find budget documents she then posts online. For instance, it was Leonard—not one of the daily papers' investigative hounds—who revealed that the Chicago Public Schools' 2013 budget intended to borrow tens of millions of dollars to cover the cost of closing schools, including Paderewski. "If we're not saving money," she says, "we shouldn't be closing schools." Leonard's research has uncovered vital information on everything from the impact Chicago's Olympics plan would have on Douglas Park to abuses of the city's TIF program. She often holds meetings to discuss these issues—in effect, she's running a think tank for the people. Like many activists, she says the setbacks—especially on the schools front— have outnumbered the gains in the age of Mayor Emanuel. "It broke my heart when he closed Paderewski. But you have to keep fighting."