As its inaugural year draws to a close, an organization launched in January to elevate downstate Illinois’ battered image is working to rewrite the narrative, one story at a time.
Since January, Elevate Illinois has been populating its blog and social media platforms with good news stories shared by the businesses, people and organizations that are writing them. “Progress begets progress,” said Janet Mathis, Elevate Illinois president and CEO. “The more positive news there is out there, the more positive things happen locally.”
The nonprofit organization already has shared a wealth of those stories, photos and videos on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and its blog, www.elevateillinois.org. One of its latest blog posts, for example, highlights Mercado on Fifth, the weekly summer outdoor market celebrating the diversity of Moline’s Floreciente neighborhood. “Even in the Quad Cities, a bi-state community, it is common for immigrants and refugees to settle in on the Illinois side,” Mercado’s Maria Ontiveros is quoted as saying. “I love having proximity to diverse perspectives and lifestyles. You can’t find that kind of representation in every state.”
The goal now for Elevate Illinois, said Ms. Mathis, the former executive director of Renew Moline, is to expand the number of the good news stories about the people, places, communities, nonprofits and events in Illinois and increase the number of people who view and share them. “We want people to feel good about living in Illinois and staying in Illinois,” she said.
The startup nonprofit urges anyone with positive news stories to share their stories on Elevate Illinois’ social media platforms and use the #elevateillinois hashtag on their own positive social media posts about Illinois.
The idea to burnish the Land of Lincoln’s image was born in 2008. A group of economic development leaders from north and central Illinois began searching for ways to counter the bad press dogging the state. Headlines back then were dominated by charges of corruption against Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who would later become the seventh Illinois governor to go to jail. The state also was deeply in debt.
Organizers realized that Illinois had “let other people take control of the narrative and it was time to take it back,” said Ms. Mathis, a lifelong Illinois resident, who now lives in Geneseo.
Efforts were made to do something about downstate’s bad image. But it wasn’t until a column by Jim Nowlan, a former state legislator and agency head, urged the Edgar Fellowship Program at the University of Illinois to get involved. That spurred former Gov. Jim Edgar to ask one of those fellows, Ms. Mathis, to tackle the problem.
In 2018, a board was formed. In 2021, Elevate Illinois went live “showcasing what’s going great in Illinois,” Ms. Mathis said. “It was important from the beginning to enlist people of all age groups and demographics to this effort,” she said. The idea, she added, is “meeting people where they are at.”
For Ms. Mathis and Craig Coil, Elevate Illinois’ vice president and CEO, the cause is a personal one. It is so important to the partners in The Development Consortium, Inc., that they are funding the nonprofit’s operating costs through their for-profit consulting business. “I choose Illinois because I believe in Illinois,” Ms. Mathis said, “and we want to help other people believe in Illinois, too.”
Toward that end, fundraising plans are currently in the works to ensure Elevate Illinois’ future success. For more information about Elevate Illinois, visit www.elevateillinois.org.