The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast

Democracy is a Verb with Jack Marco

February 05, 2021 Traci Dority-Shanklin Season 3 Episode 2
The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast
Democracy is a Verb with Jack Marco
Show Notes Transcript

Traci chats with retired CEO of Marco Consulting, Jack Marco, about his humble Chicago roots; his work with Senator Abner Mikva, and the founding of the Mikva Challenge. The Mikva Challenge launched its pilot program in the 1998-99 school year. Now, the Mikva Challenge transforms over 50,000 young people across three states with a curriculum of civics coupled with leadership skills and political participation.

Some highlights from "Democracy is a Verb" include:

01:30 – The Humble Beginning
03:50 – Meeting Abner Mikva
06:39 – The Mikva Challenge Begins…
09:53 – Mikva Challenge and the 2020 Election
13:33 – “Project Soapbox”
15:23 – Being Aggressive About Diversity
22:01 – Mikva Challenge Success Stories
24:56 – “Chicago Wears Condoms”

If you'd like to learn more about the Mikva Challenge, please visit their website:

Support the show


Narrator  0:03  

This is The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast with Traci Dority-Shanklin. If you're interested in labor and union benefit funds, well, you've landed in the right place. We are a go-to source for all things union benefit fund-related, and we are going to bring you interviews with key decision-makers and fund professionals that guide these plans. They'll share their insights, experience, unique perspectives, all the latest developments, and tips to unlock the mysteries of multiemployer benefit funds. Time is short, so let's get started.

Traci Shanklin  0:37  

Today, my guest is Jack Marco, the retired chairman of the Marco Consulting Group. In 2017, Segal Rogerscasey merged with Marco Consulting to become Segal-Marco Advisors. Their combined assets under management is well over 500 billion. Some highlights from Jack Marco's distinguished career include serving as the director to Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago. I've also known him through his philanthropic work as the board member of America Rights at Work - now Jobs with Justice. And as vice-chair of the Mikva Challenge Foundation where I also served on the fundraising committee from 2003 to 2012. The Mikva Challenge is one of the main reasons I really wanted to speak with Jack today. 

Traci Shanklin  1:23  

Welcome, Jack, I am so excited to have you on the podcast today.

Jack Marco  1:28  

It's great to be with you, Traci.

Traci Shanklin  1:30  

So, I read a little bit about your humble roots. And I'd like to start by you telling us about your background.

Jack Marco  1:38  

Well, so I grew up on the south side of Chicago. And my father was a letter carrier. And there was nine of us. And it was a great growing-up experience, for sure. My brother - older brother - got real active in the labor movement, the UAW, but our family has lots of teachers and people in public service. I went to a small college, Louis University - west of Chicago, that I had a terrific experience. And then went onto teaching. I was a high school math teacher, which was a wonderful experience. I taught and track coach - coached track for several years. 

Jack Marco  2:22  

And then I ran into a congressman named Abner Mikva, where I volunteered in his campaigns, and that changed my life. I ended up going on his congressional staff, and then managing his campaigns in the 70s, which was a fantastic, wonderful, wonderful experience. And from that, I went into the investment business. First at AG Becker, and then they were purchased by SEI. And then I left SEI and started the Marco Consulting Group, as you described.

Traci Shanklin  2:54  

So, you started as a high school teacher, and then made this leap to politics and then went onto found Marco Consulting. That's like an interesting trajectory.

Jack Marco  3:08  

I just couldn't keep a job.

Traci Shanklin  3:12  

It doesn't appear that way. There's that - you actually kept many of them. So, you've had kind of an interesting trajectory in your career. And I want to get into a little bit more about how you actually met senator Abner Mikva, and then ultimately if you could tell us about the Mikva Challenge and what they do. I mean, it's one of the things that I love the most about you and your career is the philanthropic work that you do. And Mikva Challenge is one of the more outstanding groups I've ever come in contact with. So, I wanted to get a little bit more detail about that.

Jack Marco  3:50  

Great. Well, when I got out of college, started teaching, I was very interested in politics. It's obviously - it was 1968. And so, there was a Vietnam War, race issues. It was a very big, very tumultuous time. So, I started teaching, but I wanted to get involved in politics. And actually, I went to a campaign meeting for a state representative in the area, and that I had known, and I mean, I knew of - I didn't really know. So, I went to sign-up to work in his campaign at this - events and at the event was Abner Mikva, who was the - running for Congress. He had one - run once before and lost, now he was running for the second time. And I heard him speak, and that was it. I thought he was the greatest thing I've ever heard. He was so strong race issues; he was fantastic on the war. I thought this guy is the greatest. 

Jack Marco  4:44  

So, I signed up, and I started knocking on doors and learned how to organize. And then he was a - what you would call an anti-Daley in Chicago. He called it the "Daley Machine" back in the day, and he was much more of an independent Democrat. Very progressive, very liberal. And so, he and Daley didn't get along well at all. So, there ended up being a redist - congressional redistricting, and he lost his seat. This was about six months after I went to work for him. And it was like, "Holy cow. What are we going to do now?" Well, they ended up opening a congressional district with no incumbent in Evanston. And so, we packed our bags and moved to Evanston and ran - lost the first time and won the next three times. It was a - they were just the most exciting campaigns I've ever been involved in. And they were - I'd like to describe them as a precursor to the Obama campaigns where organizing was number one. We had just tons of people working in our campaign, but a lot of students, high school and college students. Again, because of the kind of person he was; the progressive he was. In those times, they were really attracted to him. 

Jack Marco  5:49  

And then after that, he went on, and he was appointed by President Carter to the federal bench. In Washington DC, he was chief - he became Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. And then he ended up being snagged by Bill Clinton to be a White House Counsel. So, the unique one of the many unique things about him is he served in all three branches of government: in the Congress, and of course, as a judge, and so, he was really just the - and White House counselor, just a fabulous person. So anyway, some years after that, and actually from now going backwards is about 22 years ago, several of us who were on his staff said we wanted to start a foundation in his name. While he was still alive, we wanted him to enjoy it and participate. And he ended up deciding to start the Mikva Challenge. 

Jack Marco  6:39  

The number one goal was to get the 18 to 25-year-olds more interested in voting. You know, in the past, they have been the lowest percentage turnout of all age groups. And so, we wanted to change that. And we also thought that getting people involved in politics young, would make them better, more active students for the rest of their lives. And we thought that was the perfect time to go after them. So, the Mikva's Challenge started. So, we went to the high schools, and we recruited a few teachers, and asked the teachers to come up with seven or eight students that they thought would be great for the program - not the A students, but more like the students who had great potential, but maybe were C and D students, that who if given the right opportunity could really grow. 

Jack Marco  7:27  

So, we got some great students, then we brought them in our first program was elections. So, we actually took - it's a nonpartisan organization, so we got the League of Women Voters in town to put together candidate profiles and introduce the students to these candidates. And then they chose who they wanted to work for in a campaign. And so, they got their first experience. So, as you can imagine a 15, 16-year-old student who walks into a campaign headquarters and, you know, sit down, and say, "Okay, here's what we want you to do. We want you to make phone calls. For example, here's how you do it. Here's what you say, or we want you to go door-to-door, or we want you to do some things in the office." But whatever, you're going to have a real role. You're going to have a real job. And we want to make sure, of course, they were safe was a requirement. And another requirement of the program was they had to get five minutes of face time with the candidate, somewhere along the line, so they'd have a chance to talk to whoever they were working for. 

Jack Marco  8:27  

And, it was fantastic. The effect on these kids was amazing. We had a student from the University of Illinois, a grad student, who came in and surveyed our students beforehand and asked them, you know, "What's the name of the mayor? What's the name of your congressman or the senator? What's the name of the president? Do you plan to register when you're 18? Do you plan to vote?" And then ask the same questions after they finish that campaign experience. And as you can imagine, it was 180 degrees different. They were committed. They found out how campaigns work. They know what change is about, and it was just fantastic. 

Jack Marco  9:09  

As we grew, one of the things we did and continue to do to this day, is take the students to the Iowa caucuses, and we take them to the New Hampshire primary. So, they're right in the center of the political universe, every four years. And they all talk about those trips as being life changing. They're around these presidential candidates. They're actively involved working like crazy in the campaigns. And some of their candidates - sometimes their candidate won; sometime he lost. They now know what the process is about. So, that was our first big program. And then after that, we started several other programs. I don't know if you want me to continue to talk about it all because I could spend the whole day talking about Mikva Challenge.

Traci Shanklin  9:53  

I have no doubt. What I'd like to know is what did Mikva Challenge do in this most - our most recent election? I know that COVID probably presented unique challenges, and how did they get this - the youth that are involved today involved?

Jack Marco  10:13  

Well, starting in the summer, we had programs, and they were all virtual to talk to students about campaigns, get them involved, hook them up with candidates to work for. And we, you know, initially it was the Chicago chapter of Mikva Challenge. And then we started the Washington DC chapter. And then we have a group in California - in LA, Los Angeles. We're now in the schools - in a hundred of the schools in New York City. And we have about - when you put all of the students who are involved in our programs across the country, it's about 100,000 students today. And so, we - we designed a campaign program in the middle of this pandemic, but it hooks them up with the campaigns. They are taught how to do phone calls, to ID candidates, and how to call people to get out to vote. 

Jack Marco  11:03  

I was really proud of the staff, and all the schools that got involved in this, because it was really terrific at a very difficult time. But it turned out to be a very good success, very big success. You know, it misses just like the interaction of being - going to school. It missed the interaction of other people and seeing people face-to-face. And but nonetheless, this is now taught in the classroom. So, our program is that we work with the schools. And as I mentioned, we brought teachers into train and work with us in the Mikva office. But now, as we've grown, we've trained teachers, and they have a program in the school. It's actually called "Action Civics," which is what our program is. So, the teachers actually teach this in the class with our coaching and our materials to get more students get involved. So, they were actually very active in the last election. And then the racial strife that went on this year is, you know, the most of our students are minority students. And when these things happen this year, that really drove our students even more so. So, they wanted to get more involved in those actions, as well as political campaign actions. And they were really, really involved.

Traci Shanklin  12:14  

I can imagine. You know, the current social and political climate and then Black Lives Matters movements, growing - growing popularity are really revealing the inequities of the economic opportunities available to youth coming from lower-income areas. I have done several interviews recently where we discussed this concept of meritocracy and the flaw that exists in pointing to it from companies that use it as their answer to diversity and inclusion policies. So, while we both know that the meaning of meritocracy is well-intentioned, I'm not suggesting it isn't. It brings with it a stroke of social-economic luck, if you will. 

Traci Shanklin  13:01  

So, companies really need to consider recruiting outside of their traditional uni - universities, I think for a real meritocracy to take hold. So, because of this, I think there's a growing need for organizations like Mikva Challenge. What can organizations like Mikva do to be more active in elevating and facilitating recruitment among corporations, which might be looking for more diversity, but just don't really know where to find it?

Jack Marco  13:33  

Yeah, I think, well, there's much that companies can do. But let me turn it around the other way. One of the things that we spent a lot of time with our students on is, well, it starts with a program that we call, "Project Soapbox," and Project Soapbox starts in the classroom. And then we have actually competitions, where we bring high school students together. But the idea is that you have - you are assigned two minutes to give a speech about the thing that's most important to you. And that kind of a speech is a lot of times about racial issues; sometimes about violence in the schools or violence in their neighborhood; guns; LBG - I'm forgetting the letters now. But, they get up and say these things, give these great speeches and I'm telling you, they're tear-jerker speeches, they're just absolutely fantastic. But the point I'm getting at is the idea to stand up and say what you believe, and people will listen. Don't keep it in. Don't hold it in. And so, what we're trying to teach the student is be aggressive.  

Jack Marco  14:32  

Go out there; don't give up, so much of what happens in the city of Chicago, for example, is students live in a tough neighborhood. And so, the expectation when we find it all the time in our students is they never even think about going to college. We talked to them about it, and they're like, "Well, nobody in my family goes to college. My parents don't have any money, and I couldn't get in any way." So, we said hold up - timeout. We're gonna tell you - we're gonna coach you on what kind of school you should go to; how you apply. And we have done just a spectacular job, I think, of getting students into college that would never have thought of it before. So, it's a - it's a great program. So, that's my first thing for the students to stand up. So, go in, and don't be afraid to apply for those jobs. Stand up, and tell people what you're worth. 

Jack Marco  15:23  

Now for corporations, they have to open up. They have to be aggressive about it. If they just do things the way they've always done it in the past, it's going to be the same way it was in the past. I know in our firm, anytime we had a position open, particularly in the consulting area, or research, I would direct the person who was looking - who's doing the searching for the person that I said, "I want to see people of color in here." And it was kind of a - strange things that came back to me because we would go to the universities like DePaul, Loyola, Northwestern. And we were told that get in line, that there's a lot of people looking for these - for students of color. And so, we had a hard time getting people at least from the programs that were aggressive about it. Because the - at least the area in which we were was very aggressive about trying to bring in minorities into their companies. So, I found that encouraging, but nonetheless, somewhat challenging for me to try to hire more minority professionals in my firm. And I regret that we weren't as successful as I wanted to be about it. 

Jack Marco  16:34  

But I think companies got to be aggressive about it. I think one of the important things that companies can do is intern programs. As you know, getting a college student as we have done very aggressively - getting a college student to come in and work in your environment, and gives you a chance to look at them and gives them a chance to look at you. And we have several people over the years that we have had become full-time consultants or our research people in our firm who we got through internships. So, I think that's a great place for companies to go to start. But it's - you have to be aggressive about it. You have to say, "It's going to be our policy to do it." And you have to go look. But, we tell our students about this a lot, too; about what equality really means that equal opportunity really means for them, and how to be aggressive to go after it. But also, what kind of things can be done to change the world as it is.

Traci Shanklin  17:28  

I think going back to something you said at the beginning is really this idea that the youth need mentors, and I'm stealing this phrase, but they need people that they can look at. They need like to be able to meet - they need mirrors, right or expanders, if you will. People that they can look at and say, "Okay, if they can do it, I can do it. I see enough of myself in them that I have this capacity as well." I just heard that Simone Askew - have you heard about the first black woman that's been selected to be the brigade commander for West Point cadets?

Jack Marco  18:06  

I did hear that. That's amazing.

Traci Shanklin  18:09  

Yeah. And she was interviewed. And when she was interviewed, it was one, you know, it was, uh, somebody that was a mentor for her that said she wasn't even going to apply. And they were like, "Wait a second. You have to apply." And she didn't think that they would ever pick somebody like her. And it really took a mentor to hold her hand through that process. And I think it was really - I just thought it was such a great story. So, I think that that's a very important piece to what Mikva provides. 

Traci Shanklin  18:41  

I can say firsthand that I have done just roundtables with some of the Mikva students where they get almost like, you know, I guess speed dating, an opportunity to ask me about what I do. And they're always so thoughtful and so well-prepared. And I'm never not impressed by the youth that I see at the Mikva Challenge events. So, it's just such a well-done organization. I guess, if I had to ask you one question. I mean, can you sum up what attracted you to this purpose or mission? 

Jack Marco  19:20  

Well, I, you know, I suppose it started with my father who was a pretty progressive guy in his life; although, he went through changes. You know, he - back in the day, you know, race was - he grew up in a white neighborhood. Everyone around him was white. And he started working in the post office. And all of a sudden, a lot of people he was working with were black. And he really didn't know anybody like that. He started to change. And he actually became - I don't want to say, "zealot," isn't the right word, but he was really - it was a - became a big deal to him because he had ended up having some really great friends over the years. And then taught us that. 

Jack Marco  20:01  

So, you know, I think wanting to do things like this. It's - I was involved like in college with organizations that did these kinds of things. And when it came to something like Mikva Challenge, that was perfect. It's also my interest in the labor movement is the same kind of thing. I think the labor movement does so many positive things in the workforce, but I do - I've also think that the labor movement has changed dramatically over the decades, so that they're much more diverse than they ever were in the past, and to some extent, aggressive about it, which I really love. So, and that, you know, also brings me into teaching, you know, and I taught at a very diverse school, which I enjoyed tremendously. 

Jack Marco  20:41  

But you know, part of it is, you know, we all have to grow up ourselves and learn. And then when we do, we can get excited about it and pass it on. You know, I grew up like my father, I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, white - all white grammar school, high school. And almost - it was almost no students of color in college. So, when I started teaching in a school that was about 50%, minority, all of a sudden, I woke up and got educated by the students real quick. And as well in my coaching, and I had - I had to learn a lot. And those students were teaching me many things more than I was teaching them. And I think that was a big revelation for me. And I mean, I love teaching students, and I love to the Mikva Challenge. It's what I spent most of my time doing. I also am a volunteer teacher for students who are trying to get their GED - adults trying to get their GED - a lot of immigrants, and - and I enjoy that again, too. But it's just something that I really feel good about.

Traci Shanklin  21:45  

It sounds like it's in your blood.

Jack Marco  21:47  

We have a good percentage of at least half of the staff on Mikva Challenge are former Mikva Challenge students. A kid graduated from high school, went to college, and came back on our staff. So, they're wonderful mentors to these students. 

Traci Shanklin  22:01  

Yeah. So, I wanted to go back - there was one question that I really wanted to ask, can you give us or share a success story of one of your Mikva Challenge participants?

Jack Marco  22:16  

Oh, there's so many. There's some great ones. One of my favorites was when Obama - President Obama was a senator for a couple years, of course, he was really into our program. He loved it. So, we had interns in his office. And - and we had a student. Oh, I can't think of his name that I met, and he was working. He worked as an intern in the senate office, and then left and went on to law school. And when he was applying for law school, he needed recommendations. And he - he went to his old boss, Senator Obama, who is now President Obama, and asked him for a reference, and he got it. And needless to say, he ended up in that law firm and now a very successful lawyer.

Traci Shanklin  23:05  

That's great.

Jack Marco  23:08  

But we have so many of those great stories. 

Traci Shanklin  23:10  


Jack Marco  23:11  

A lot of our students have run for public office. They're organizers when they get to college. I mean, they - they really take what they've learned and put it in practice. And we've had some - some great successes. There was a young man who ended up having plenty of trouble in high school, and his teacher said, "You know, I'm sick of seeing you the principles - that I'm sick of seeing you in the principal's office every day, I want you to go sign-up for the MIkva Challenge program." And the students said, "Okay, if I have to." And he came in. He worked in the campaign. He got so excited about it. His grades went from a 1.0 to a 3.5. He graduated. He went to college. He's run for alderman in Chicago, and he actually - the thing that I skipped in there was before he joined Mikva Challenge, he was involved in a gang in Chicago, and he left the gang, and he paid a serious price for getting out of the gang. I guess, they beat you up pretty hard if you leave. But anyway, he left the gang. Did all this crazy thing at Mikva Challenge, runs for public office. 

Jack Marco  24:15  

Now, in fact, he speaks - originally right after he got out of college, he's - or high school after he got in high school, and that's a success. He went and spoke at junior high school and high school graduations about how he changed his life around, and it was Mikva Challenge that changed his life. He had - he ran a very good race for aldermen last year and came close. And I'm sure he's going to run again. He started several organizations on the south side of Chicago. They call it the Back of the Yards area. He's a community leader. He's doing fantastic work. But this whole thing changed his life. Our biggest success story. 

Traci Shanklin  24:50  

That's so amazing. It's so amazing. Well, is there anything else you'd like to add that maybe I've missed?

Jack Marco  24:56  

One thing I didn't mention if I can. I forgot about it before when we were talking about the programs at Mikva Challenge. One of the real important ones is we've worked starting in Chicago with the government and agencies of the government to ask to have Student Advisory Committees, so, or councils. So, our students will go with the superintendent of schools, and 10 of them will go there and meet with her quarterly, and talk about what should be going on in the schools. And really having a voice. I sat in on, uh, the Health Department of Chicago and Cook County. All of these doctors and political people who are running the health departments let the students come in and make recommendations about what they should do. Well, I'm sitting in the audience, just watching our 10 students or so - they come up with a PowerPoint presentation. They said the most important health issue for students in Chicago is STDs. And I was like, "Holy cow." And they said, "Yeah, that's our biggest problem." And the doctors over there were talking and their PR guy was saying, "Well, the campaign we're working on right now is to get people to quit smoking." And they're like shaking their heads, "No, no, much more serious problem is this." 

Jack Marco  26:05  

And they actually brought an advertising campaign of how they would advertise. And it was "Chicago Wears Condoms" was their advertising slogan. And they made this great presentation. These people are just blown away by it. And - and they're sort of wrapping up and the - and the head Health Department person says, "Well, thank you very much. And - and we'll look into this." And they said, "No, no, when are we going to get together again." 

Traci Shanklin  26:30  

I love it.

Jack Marco  26:31  

And they ended up doing it. The Chicago Wears Condoms campaign was going on. And you can see it in train stations and the bus terminals and stuff. And they convinced them to do it. But imagine, if you're 16, and you've met with all these big-time people, and you got them to act the way you've said they should act, it changes your life. You'll never going to be a victim again. You're never gonna, you know, sit back, and say there's a problem and I can't do anything about it. Well, they can. And they do. 

Traci Shanklin  27:02  

It's so empowering. 

Jack Marco  27:03  

And there's many stories like that in many departments. It's really exciting to see.

Traci Shanklin  27:09  

Thank you so much for being a guest on the podcast today and telling our listeners all about the great things that the Mikva Challenge is doing. It's always wonderful to hear.

Jack Marco  27:18  

Oh, thanks very much. Yes, I'm glad you're talking about it because I'm so proud of it. And I - and they're doing great things, and they keep growing every year. I'm really excited about it.

Traci Shanklin  27:26  

Thanks again, Jack. I'm so glad to hear. In light of the events of the past few months that have impacted America's political landscape, Mikva's motto that "democracy is a verb" could not be more relevant. If you are a company, a donor, or an educational group, and you would like to find out more information about the Mikva Challenge Foundation, or if you would simply like to volunteer your time or your services, please visit the Mikva Challenge website at www dot Mikva, that's www dot Mikva

Traci Shanklin  28:05  

Thanks again for joining the conversation where listeners connect with leading experts throughout the financial and investment world. Be part of the change! 

Traci Shanklin  28:14  

And that's it for this week's episode of The World of Multiemployer Benefits Funds Podcast. We'd love to hear from you. And if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, head over to www dot multiemployer and let us know. 

Traci Shanklin  28:29  

Thank you for joining us and we look forward to next time.

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