Back in June, Cathy Yen went to Toronto for a convention of Rotarians. And it was there, representing the vital Oak Park and River Forest chapter of Rotary as its president, that Yen realized it was time to leave, after five-plus years, her post as the head of the local Chamber of Commerce.
“There is stuff that needs to be done in this world,” she said Monday afternoon, talking about social justice issues that were front and center among the Rotarians in Toronto and that she knows are played out in real life each day on the West Side and South Side of Chicago.
“The Chamber will be just fine without me,” she said.
That’s an arguable point, though the small staff Yen has crafted at the Oak Park and River Forest Chamber of Commerce is strong and vital. When Yen was hired five years ago, this was a chamber without a purpose, unless you count an annual golf outing and collecting enough dues to survive another month a worthy purpose.
It had been a long and timid decline. Memberships had slid to 300. They’re at 500 now. More critically, this was an organization afraid of its shadow, never able to represent the interests of its small business members because it never engaged on issues of substance and was never willing to ask for a seat at the table as decisions critical to local businesses were being made.
Soft-spoken but never unclear, Yen, with the backing of a board that loved the accolades she earned, quite quickly made the chamber an essential player whenever topics of concern to local entrepreneurs were raised. You couldn’t outwork her; Yen was at every meeting, building connections and making points.
Once irrelevant, under Yen the chamber became the equal partner and often the coordinating glue between entities such as Downtown Oak Park, Visit Oak Park, the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation. She grasped the challenges of the small and all-volunteer business associations on Oak Park Avenue, in the Arts District, along North Avenue and Roosevelt and packaged the back-office services — tracking memberships and dues, making holiday decorations happen — that they could never pull off.
“We forget about small business, really small business, being hard and lonely,” Yen says. “The chamber builds a community. You realize you’re not alone. I’m most proud of watching the relationships people have built. And of getting people involved in the political life of the villages.”
The low point for Yen was in one of Oak Park’s most starkly fractured political moments, the reasonably well-botched debate over raising the minimum wage. I was at a packed village hall meeting driven by passionate backers of a higher minimum wage, who were filled with righteousness about living wages but little understanding or interest in the challenges small business owners felt they faced as the wage rose.
I watched as Cathy Yen — who is about to take on a role as operations manager for a nonprofit called Beat the Streets, which works with young people to offer them sports, tutoring and mentoring — rise to speak bravely before this intense crowd of Oak Parkers who had been blinded (blame it on Trump) to the essential Oak Park value of independent small businesses and had somehow come to conflate the Oak Park Chamber with the rabidly conservative national chamber.
“We knew we were going to lose this vote but knew we had to have a say,” said Yen, looking back Monday. “The business world has a lot of villains, but I don’t think they live in Oak Park and operate small stores.”
Full disclosure: The Chamber of Commerce is a tenant of Wednesday Journal. When Cathy was looking for office space a few years back I actively wanted her positive energy in our space. It has been a good match.
Yen is right that the chamber is going to be OK. But OK because of her, because of her vision, determination and smarts. These are better villages because of the resurrection Cathy Yen brought about.