Toni Preckwinkle’s chief of staff uses equity fund to uplift Black, brown communities

Lanetta Haynes Turner gets choked up when she talks about family.

Turner, 45, the chief of staff for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, is emotional when recalling her childhood growing up in the Illinois foster care system.

“My mother was the type that would disappear … so my grandmother, aunts and uncles would step in and keep us,” she said.

But her grandmother got too old to watch over her and her three younger siblings, then ages 6, 4, 3 and 2. “At the age of 6, I came home from school one day, and there was a social worker waiting for us,” Turner said. “We had a trash bag full of stuff. The four of us were loaded into a car. I remember we were all crying in the back seat.”

Turner said it was a blessing that all four of them got to stay together with their foster parent. Unfortunately, that parent was “extremely abusive,” she said. That abuse continued until she was an upperclassman in high school, she said. An investigation into the foster mother would get her license taken away and remove Turner’s three younger siblings from the foster mother’s care. Turner went on to live with a family she used to babysit for while she finished high school.

“From the age of 6, I’ve always been in an environment where it was about being very aware of my circumstances and the stigma,” Turner said.

Ever since, she has wanted to fight for those in similar scenarios and became an attorney to do so. She thought she was going to work on abuse and neglect cases for the public guardian’s office when she graduated from law school at Loyola University. But for the first several years of her legal career, she served as a litigator with the city of Chicago dealing with impounded cars and family law. Then someone asked her to step into the role of executive director of the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cook County, a role she held for five years.

Turner made the transition from staff attorney to policy work and the public sector, and she said she hasn’t looked back. Her latest fight centers on the Cook County Equity Fund, a multimillion-dollar plan to address institutional and structural barriers to racial equity — operations, policies and practices — inside and outside local government.

Turner feels it’s her mission, as a lawyer and someone who was in the foster care system, to serve communities where disinvestment has run rampant. She is insistent on being an advocate for Black and brown communities where disparities are many.

“Where are the health disparities? Where are the educational disparities? Where’s the public safety concerns? That’s not all of Chicago. We know where it is,” Turner said. “Why not be intentional about bringing (resources) where they need to be — giving the basics, to have a level playing field. That’s what we’re trying to create. For me, this (equity fund) is the future of government.”

Preckwinkle established the Cook County Equity Fund in 2020 as part of the county’s fiscal year 2021 budget. It’s guided by the “Policy Roadmap: Five-Year Strategic Plan for Offices under the President” and racial equity tool kits developed by “For Love of Country: A Path for the Federal Government to Advance Racial Equity, a Cook County Equity Fund Report,” released in April with an investment of $50 million. The funds behind the initiative support programs and policies recommended by a task force of over two dozen organizations charged with transforming systems around justice, public safety, health, housing, economic opportunity, community development and social services.

Preckwinkle’s office released a progress report on the equity fund’s trajectory in December, laying out implementation steps and timelines for key objectives and activities in the areas of health, economic development, criminal justice, environmental sustainability, public infrastructure and good government.

“April 2022 was the culmination of the task force work since they started meeting virtually in 2021,” Turner said. “We released it in April and then we spent the balance of the year talking about how we are going to implement it.”

That work entails building a more resilient housing and shelter system for those experiencing homelessness in suburban Cook County, which includes creating an incentive fund to encourage landlords to rent to residents who may have a previous eviction on their record.

It includes establishing an Office of Behavioral Health and Wellness, and designing and implementing the Promise Guaranteed Income Pilot that began in December. The program will provide over 3,000 households with $500 for 24 months to improve their economic mobility.

It also includes assessment and cleanup of contaminated and abandoned properties in disinvested communities and collaborating with the Regional Transit Authority and transit service boards to establish discounted transfers between different service agencies.

And it increases county investments in housing supports to create a Cook County reentry services network for the formerly incarcerated. The Cook County plan seeks to address gaps in resources, and help organizations build a more robust continuum of care for reentry services.

“Every year, we’re going to be providing updates … adding to it through surplus (funds), grants and savings that we may have to reinvest back into communities to make them more equitable,” Turner said. “Some of the pieces of the equity fund have rolled out as we were building. … A big win already is the guaranteed income pilot. That’s how you start closing the racial wealth gap.”

Turner said the equity fund is intended to be long term. Just as inequitable systems and barriers took years to erect, it will take years to fix them, she said. But the equity fund lays the foundation and speaks to the county’s intentions to work with those who are trying to engage with government, she said.

Of the over two dozen equity fund initiatives, what is top of mind for Turner is reforming the property tax system, reentry work, and developing an equity-centered grant-making strategy for grassroots BIPOC-led organizations to deliver services in marginalized communities.

“We’re trying to set aside funds to help them with technical assistance coaching, so they are stronger organizations and government can deliver stronger services and programs to those who need it,” she said.

Turner has been in the policy and government space for 18 years. She likes to fix things, think about what could be, and hold people’s feet to the fire. She’s past talking about it, and all about being about it. While the city of Chicago is centering work in the equity space, Turner said there is not much overlap with the county’s equity plans. Yes, the issues are the same, but Turner said the city is focused on neighborhood-level work and the county is addressing equity concerns from a systemic level.

“Government traditionally has been investigation, not innovation. There’s room for that. Compliance is important, but so is creating space where we can think outside of the box,” she said. “You’re spending two hours, taking three or four buses to get downtown to work? That’s ridiculous in a global city like Chicago and Cook County. And Harvey’s and Dixmoor’s water infrastructure, those are things that can’t be done alone, and we have to work with them and find the money from federal, state, wherever to fix those problems. That’s equity.”

Turner likens her job to that of an air-traffic controller. Her phone is always ringing and she’s consistently occupied with bringing government, business and philanthropy together for public safety. For the last decade, she’s been at the table planning and being that bridge for collaboration, for the betterment of many.

Turner came into Cook County government leading the Justice Advisory Council, which coordinates criminal justice reform within the county. Preckwinkle said Turner has been a good manager and a thoughtful person. Preckwinkle credits Turner’s leadership for creating a framework and a map for sharing the American Rescue Plan Act funds in an equitable manner.

“Your staff makes or breaks you and that begins with your chief of staff,” Preckwinkle said. “I’ve been blessed to have some great people who are willing to take on this challenge and I’m particularly grateful to Lanetta for her vision and hard work.”

Turner said she leads with compassion in her work because she understands what it’s like to not have much — as a foster child, she did not have the things others took for granted — and the stigma attached to that. Turner still sees it as her responsibility to make sure her siblings are OK and get through the day-to-day given the systems in place. It’s a responsibility she extends to all who live in Cook County.

“I do what I do, not just for me, but for my family,” Turner said. “The equity fund … not everybody’s gonna read it. I just want to make sure that people understand the why. It’s the outcomes: Better schools, better communities, people not just saying that violence has been reduced, but feeling safe. People having options, being able to get on the train and know that you can get from point A to point B in a reliable, accurate, cost-effective commute. That’s the equity fund — trying to do better in those systems and connect those systems to get better services for the people who matter, who is us.”

drockett@chicagotribune.com