Leading the Driehaus Foundation and co-creating the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM)
Sunny Fischer, AM ’82, credits the education she received at the University of Chicago Social Service Administration (SSA) with preparing her for a career of service in her work for social justice through philanthropy.
Fischer has used philanthropy to work for change in issues ranging from violence against women and increasing funding for women’s issues to the arts and the impact of architecture on the lives of people. She worked after her SSA graduation with The Sophia Fund and the Chicago Foundation for Women, later moving to consulting and then to the full-time executive director position of The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. She retired from the Driehaus Foundation at the end of 2013.
“At SSA, I had great professors who provided depth and understanding of the field. They gave me the keys to my professional growth: knowledge of the city and how it worked,” said Fischer, who came to SSA as mid-career student.
“SSA was instrumental in teaching me about the interconnectedness of individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities.”
A native of New York City and a graduate of Hunter College of the City University of New York, Fischer grew up in public housing in the Bronx.
She came to SSA when her family returned to the Chicago area from Washington, DC, where her husband Paul Fischer, PhD, now a professor emeritus at Lake Forest College, had taken a consulting position. In the Washington, DC, area, Fischer began volunteering at a Community Crisis Center in Bethesda, Maryland, working as a rape crisis volunteer. “I quickly realized that if I wanted to do more, I would need to learn more--and I wanted to do more,” she said of her decision to pursue a master’s degree.
What Fischer found especially helpful was SSA’s systems approach as a model for solving problems. “This approach allows me to understand that whatever affects one piece or part of society will affect another,” she said.
“Karen Tiegiser was my advisor and head of the generalist program,” says Fischer who said Jeanne Marsh, PhD, also inspired her on women’s issues. Tiegiser, a licensed clinical social worker, is a former Deputy SSA Dean and now senior lecturer emerita while Marsh is the George Herbert Jones Distinguished Service Professor and former SSA Dean.
Fischer said she was fortunate to find a paid placement with the Chicago Law Enforcement Study Group examining police response to calls about domestic abuse and battered women. She was co-author of a paper resulting from that study.
After her graduation from SSA, Fischer continued her work with women’s rights as the first executive director of The Sophia Fund and of the Chicago Foundation for Women. The Sophia Fund was one of the first private women’s foundations in the country. She also served as a consultant for the Chicago Community Trust and the Joyce Foundation, where she developed two funding programs: one identified how to raise immunization rates in Chicago’s neighborhoods, and the other helped immigrants navigate the naturalization process.
In 1991, she began working for The Driehaus Foundation as Executive Director on a part-time basis, continuing her consulting work. A major project she headed was the City of Chicago/Cook County Welfare Reform Task Force from 1997-1999. When that assignment ended, her work at the Driehaus Foundation became full time.
The Driehaus Foundation supports the work of innovators who use art and design to improve the lives of city residents. Additionally it supports investigative reporting and government accountability and provides resources for organizations concerned with the working poor. While at the Foundation, she helped Richard Driehaus establish The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Architectural Excellence in Community Design. That award informs a new standard for neighborhood architecture.
While she has retired from the Driehaus Foundation, she remains active in several causes and projects, continuing her active community involvement.
A co-creator of the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM), she now serves as chair of its board. The group’s goal is to turn the last remaining building of Chicago’s Jane Addams homes into a museum that will confront perceptions about public housing. “Public housing was an answer to the question, ‘what should a government do for its people?’ We are finding that people are interested in social history; they are interested in housing, American history, and house museums. NPHM is a museum of stories, stories about home, and the lives of those rarely interpreted,” she said.
She serves as chair of the board of the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency, a position to which she was appointed by Governor Pat Quinn. She also consults with nonprofits and foundations.
Among the numerous awards she has received are a 2014 Impact Award from the Chicago Foundation for Women, the Richard M. Daley Friend of the Neighborhoods Award, the Point of Lightning Award from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, the Perlman Humanitarian Award from Jewish Women International, and the Professional Grantor Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
“I did not begin with a plan,” she said looking at her career. Originally, she went into social work to fight for social justice, helping people and making change on their behalf. She began working in issues of violence against women and policy work, building on those experiences to go into philanthropy. “I went from opportunity to opportunity. I was lucky. The master’s degree from SSA is a great credential. It allows you to go into many fields.”
“Whenever I was between jobs, I volunteered and in some cases was then able to move into a staff position. Volunteering not only keeps your skills sharp but offers a community of people who care about the same issues. It also provides additional experience.”
“We chose social work because we care about people and we see possibilities for helping create a more just society.” Looking back, she says, “Making change takes a long time. Change occurred. And though there is still injustice, there is hope.”