Helene Gayle

Helene Gayle in Kibera Slum in Nairobi during the Learning Tours trip in August 2009. Photo courtesy of Helene Gayle

When Dr. Helene Gayle first moved to Chicago, what struck her about the Windy City was its residents' "incredible pride" in the neighborhoods and communities where they lived. 

"I really love the love that people have for this city, and in the short period of time that I've been here, I've really grown to love the city as well," she said. "The other part of Chicago that I just love is diversity.”

Since 2017, Gayle has worked to reduce Chicago's racial and ethnic wealth inequities as the president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, one of the largest community foundations in the U.S. Gayle is also known for her former role as president and CEO of CARE International, a global humanitarian organization, and for her past work directing programs focused on HIV/AIDS prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


What first sparked your interest in medicine and public health?

I started out in medicine because I wanted to have a career that I felt would make a positive contribution to society. When I was growing up, my parents put a great deal of emphasis on getting a good education, stretching ourselves and doing as much as we could, and also using education as a way to give back and make a difference in society. In that era, if you wanted to have a good profession, you either became a doctor or a lawyer. I had two sisters who were lawyers, so I said, 'I'll be the doctor.' I really thought of health as a very tangible way that you could make a difference.

You previously worked for the CDC, leading the National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention. Has that experience helped prepare you for some of the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

My years with the CDC and having training in public health did give me tools that are transferable. In many ways, there are similarities between COVID and HIV—that was an unknown pandemic that also disproportionately impacted communities of color. It was an unknown disease that was scary, and it interacted with societal forces. It had a disproportionate impact on communities that had a lot of inequities facing them as well. 

The Chicago Community Trust has worked closely with the city recently to launch Together We Rise: For an Equitable and Just Recovery. What are your hopes for that initiative this year?

If you look at what happened with the recession of 2008-2009, a lot of the communities were hard-hit and never recovered. Our hope is that with Together We Rise, we can bring the community together—the business community, the philanthropic community and residents themselves—in a way that ensures that equity is an important lens through which we look at recovery and ensure that communities that were most hard-hit don't get left behind. 

What is the most rewarding aspect of your role with the organization?

What I love about the organization is that it's this wonderful blend of being able to provide resources to the community and also being very close to the community. And I think it's our proximity to the people that we serve that, for me, is really inspiring—to be able to work with the partners that we work with. Although we're a major civic actor, nothing that we can do would be done well without partnerships. We have the opportunity to work across different sectors, whether it's the private sector, nonprofit sector, government sector or public sector, and then work directly with the community. All of that, I think, is incredibly energizing and inspiring.

How do you develop strong relationships with stakeholders in the community? 

One of the things that we try to do is to make sure that we're listening. It's by listening and hearing what people's needs are, and having them feel that their voices are heard—that's the first step in building strong relationships. When I took over this role, I was new to Chicago and I was new to the Chicago Community Trust. It was very important for me that I got out into the community, listened and learned, so that I had a full sense of what was on people's minds so we could be as responsive as possible.

What does being a leader mean to you?

First of all, it's an honor and a privilege to be a leader of an incredible organization like the trust. ... I think of myself as out in front, leading the charge, but really working in charge with a wide range of stakeholders, working in partnership in a way that really brings people together. For me, leadership is all about listening, partnership, developing relationships and using the tools that I might have to be able to advance a mission.

Who is someone who has inspired you?

One of the most inspirational people that I've ever met is Nelson Mandela. I think he was a true servant leader and very inspirational. He was one of the people who inspired me most in life.

What causes are most important to you?

Right now, closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap—what we do 24/7. It's something that I'm very passionate about, and I'm hoping that we can make a difference in increasing economic equity so that everyone has the opportunity to realize their dreams for themselves and for their families. It's a real passion of mine.

This has been a very divisive and difficult year for many people here in Chicago. How do you think we can best find common ground and heal as a community?   

It's about finding the things that we have in common and building on them. We all have common aspirations for ourselves, our families and our community. I think if we just build on those things that we have in common, it gives us the chance to then address the things that may divide us. It's by starting with what we have in common that we can build those bridges and then tackle those difficult issues where we have differences, where we have divides. It's about building trust in each other.

Do you have any words of wisdom or personal philosophy that you strive to live by?

I try to live by the Golden Rule and whatever faith tradition that one may have, which is treating others as you would want them to treat you. So, for me, it's really about how we treat others with a sense of mutual respect and understand how much we have in common, and work and build from there.

What advice would you give to a young person looking to explore the medical or nonprofit sectors?

Learn everything you can, believe in yourself and follow your passion. The work we do is really passion-driven work, it's mission-driven work. And people come into these fields because they do have a passion to make a difference. I think it's important that young people hold onto that passion, remember why they went into whatever the work may be, and learn as much as they can while they have the opportunity to, because we all have to be lifelong learners, and learning how to learn is an important part of a career.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

What gives me great pleasure is being able to mentor and see others blossom in their own journey. So for me, I really take great pride in the many times when I've had the opportunity to bring younger people along in their professional pursuits. It's what gives me hope for the future—I see the professionals who are coming behind me. My proudest accomplishments are some of the people I can look at and say, 'I was there,' give them advice, make them feel confident, help them along their path.

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