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Historic private club reinvents itself to be more inclusive
by John Stadelman

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The Metropolitan Club, in the Willis Tower, provides networking, dining and work spaces as well as hosts private events for Chicago's business professionals. Last year it underwent a massive reinvention aimed at diversifying its membership, aimed especially at LGBTQ businesspeople.

"Reinvention" is the key word, because the Metropolitan did not just redesign the space.

"It really taps into the brand," said Craig Barnard-El, a membership director at the Metropolitan. "It's prioritizing the opportunity to protect the exclusivity of our club, while assuring that accessibility, diversity and open club membership reflects the community that we serve. As you can imagine, with the diversity of Chicago, the business community is not just one demographic. We have the LGBT community, the minority community, the immigrant community."

Their challenge has been to maintain exclusivity while extending membership to more communities.

"To be successful in creating a home for potential members," said Barnard-El, "we need to ensure that our programming, membership options, club environment, employees, staff and the events that we cultivate actually serve those communities."

One program the club put in place is the Pride Committee.

"It is a committee that prioritizes the wants, needs, programming, social and business interests of the LGBT community," said Barnard-El. "They have a once-a-month social meeting where the committee comes together and it's an opportunity for people to connect and talk and just be present to the experience of an LGBT person here at the club.

"And there's a steering committee within the Pride Committee, focused on, 'What is the agenda? What are the initiatives? What organizations are we looking to connect with? What diversity and inclusion departments have been open to us? What other pride committees and/or diversity programs can we invite here to the club from other companies? what organizations do we want to contribute to philanthropically?'"

For Bernard-El—who is gay and African-American—it is important and fulfilling work.

"It's been great," he told Windy City Times. "The support and the resources that have been given towards me and this department, specifically for the goal of accomplishing diversity and inclusion and tapping into the LGBT community, has been very rewarding. To have the support that I have, not just conceptually but also financially, is really great. There are real resources being put behind this initiative. And those resources are giving me the tools I need to make a real difference."

Speaking further on the Pride Committee, General Manager Simona Blaugh said, "It grew from three to four people having cocktails on the last Friday of every month to 20, 30, 40 people coming together. It includes people we describe as 'straight but not narrow,' who are supporters of the LGBTQ community who help support the Pride Committee, and everyone is welcome to participate. … It's a hugely robust group that got off the ground in 2018 and that's one of our biggest accomplishments and biggest successes of the year.

"No other club has a Pride Committee and no other club celebrates the LGBTQ community as strongly and purposefully as we do."

"The challenge is always going to be change," said Barnard-El. "When it comes to not only the physical change of the club but the material change of the membership and/or the culture, when you are doing certain things a certain way for maybe a generation, when you change that you're always going to shake up the experience and lose some legacy members. … Those challenges are present and something we deal with."

Despite these challenges, Blaugh said The Metropolitan is entirely dedicated to this bold new direction.

"I'm really so proud of our club, and everything that we've been able to achieve here," she said.

The easiest way to see what the Metropolitan is offering is to simply stop in for a visit.

"The best way of understanding club life and what the club represents," said Barnard-El, "is just coming to the club, attending a tour, getting one of our member-only events. We host other organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Loop Alliance.

"There's a number of non-member events that happen here, but just reaching out to a membership director, connecting with them and expressing interest."


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