Erica Borggren is being honored as a Women Veteran Leaders Champion of Change.
In 2011, I was appointed by Governor Pat Quinn to lead the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs (IDVA), a 1,300-person state agency with a $122 million operating budget. I was 30 years old, new to veterans work, and had never led an organization larger than the 160-soldier company that I commanded in Korea years earlier. To say I was outside of my comfort zone would be an understatement.
I quickly discovered what so many veterans do: my military experience had prepared me well. For years, in a variety of Army assignments on three different continents, I had learned to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I had studied leadership, practiced leadership, and worked closely with some of the best military leaders of our generation. And I had been part of huge military organizations taking on near-impossible missions. So I was heartened to feel, within months of taking the helm at IDVA, that I was translating my military experience into impact for Illinois veterans. With a fantastic IDVA staff team, we were quickly moving the ball forward for women veterans, veteran entrepreneurs, and the veterans we served in IDVA’s four Veterans Homes and 80 field offices.
One challenge, however, stood out as most daunting. Approached by non-profit leader after non-profit leader within my first few months at IDVA, I slowly transitioned from feeling amazed at and grateful for all the veteran support organizations in Illinois, to feeling totally overwhelmed. It was a feeling that I discovered fellow veterans and veteran leaders shared. We were all overwhelmed by a “Sea of Goodwill” for those who have served—a sea which, in its very size and scope, proved very difficult to navigate. For most veterans, the single biggest challenge is not a lack of resources, but the difficulty of finding the right one. Similarly, the problem for many veteran support organizations is finding and connecting with the veterans they seek to serve.
This shared sense of being overwhelmed was the seed of what would grow into Illinois Joining Forces (IJF), a public-private network of nearly 200 military-and veteran-serving organizations working together to create a “no wrong door” system of support for Illinois service members, veterans, and their families. IJF member organizations work together in two important ways, both of which involve creating “connective tissue” within the support community.
First, through ten IJF Working Groups, scores of previously unconnected organizations are building relationships and working together. With all the experts around the table, they are identifying gaps in support and partnering to bridge those gaps. Our Education Working Group, for example, brought together the state VA, state education boards, veteran-friendly community colleges, and several non-profit organizations; together, they concluded that not enough was being done to make military training count for credit on campus, so they launched a pilot Credit Articulation Project.
Second, IJF members are collaborating online at www.IllinoisJoiningForces.org, where they post updated services information, publicize their events, and refer veteran clients to one another. As a result, Illinois service members, veterans, and their families have a one-stop shop, a searchable directory of networked resources from nearly 200 organizations—with the ability to connect directly with the right one or ask for help if they can’t find what they need.
The power of IJF lies in its unique public-private model. Working with the Illinois National Guard, we at IDVA sought to use the convening power of the state—drawing hundreds of public and non-profit organizations to the table—while giving significant decision-making reins to our member organizations. The result has been a collaborative energy and productivity that is quickly translating into progress for the Illinois military and veteran communities. Thanks to the relationships IJF is building and the “One Stop Shop” website that our member organizations support, navigating the Sea of Goodwill is much easier for Illinois veterans.
That’s good news for all of us on the home front. When we make it easier for our veterans to access what they need, we equip them for a smoother transition, setting them on a path to discover that they have a tremendous value to offer our communities as a result of their military experience.
A Rhodes Scholar and Iraq veteran, Erica Borggren is the Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, where she helped found Illinois Joining Forces.