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Six Big Ideas to Improve Chicago

Tue, Nov 4, 2014

Sister Neighborhoods

The idea for “sister neighborhoods” came up in the May 12 “On the Table” event and became one of the Chicago Community Trust’s big ideas to improve Chicago. (Photo: Chicago Community Trust.)

Ninety-nine years ago, elites and power players conversed in their clubs and living rooms about how to deal with Chicago’s social ills. The conversation led Chicago banker Albert Harris to found the Chicago Community Trust, a community foundation that provides innovative ideas and non-profits with the resources necessary to create a lasting impact.

In the years since, The Trust has contributed almost $2 billion in grants to nonprofits in the Chicago region, according to Cheryl Hughes, its senior director of strategic initiatives.

“We have been connected with most major initiatives and have probably impacted every life in this region because of every grant and our civic leadership,” Hughes said in a telephone interview. Anticipating The Trust’s centennial year of 2015-2016, she was in charge of the creation, planning and implementation of “On the Table,” which drew 11,500 people from throughout the Chicago region. At more than 1,100 dinner tables— in local residences, schools, places of worship, community centers, etc. — friends, neighbors and strangers had conversations about the issues they considered most important to the future of the Chicago region.

“On May 12, 2014, we said, ‘why don’t we spend our 99th birthday letting everyday residents of the region think about what is the next great idea for how we can continue being the most vibrant, sustainable city,’ ” Hughes said.

Dinner participants placed over 1,000 ideas “on the table,” with even more posted to The Trust’s website and social media. Trust staff narrowed them down to 25 do-able concepts that were not already happening or which would require changing federal laws, Hughes said. In August, an external selection committee of representatives from Chicago Ideas Week, the Starter League, Redbox and other civic and business leaders identified six ideas as finalists.

Chicago Community Trust CEO Terry Mazany shared the next phase of the plan October 15 during a Chicago Ideas Week (Oct. 13-19) panel of “instigators of change.” The panel included supermodel Christy Turlington Burns, who founded Every Mother Counts, a non-profit dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother; former NBA Player John Amaechi, OBE; Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Peter Thum, founder of Liberty United, which makes jewelry from melted down guns.

Mazany told the Instigators audience that the Trust would be “doubling down on the six most powerful and inclusive ideas,” by partnering with some of Chicago’s leading design firms. Together, the Trust and design firms would be leading six separate “collaboratories” to, “turn ideas into action.” Mazany then introduced YouTube videos to elaborate on them. These ideas include:

  • The Gen G Project – The Generation Green project aims to “blaze new trails for young people to get a jump on the incredible career opportunities … from the emerging green, global economy.” The project would provide experiences for CPS students that would leave a lasting conservation impact.
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  • Asset Mapping – “The ultimate goal,” according to the videos, “is to have something that can help the Chicago service sector more efficiently communicate with each other.” Asset Mapping would list available resources for these people working to make Chicago better.
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  • Parent Engagement Roadmap – Mazany described this project as, “respecting the vital role parents play as their child’s first teacher.” The accompanying video said, “Neighborhood schools are a choice,” and this project would educate parents on how to navigate CPS so they can “initiate change.”
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  • Opportunity Hubs – “…will take a fresh look at the vacant properties in our most distressed communities,” Mazany said. Essentially, the idea is to bring investment, ideas and energy to the buildings, empty lots and foreclosed homes and link them to downtown Chicago and the global economy.
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  • Where is your Bench? – “When there is communication and conversation,” the video said, “community is improved and strengthened, possibly made more safe.” The goal was to identify these places within neighborhoods and potentially expand them to create more inviting and united neighborhoods.
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  • Sister Neighborhoods – “Residents [want] to truly break down historical barriers of segregation in our community,” Mazany said. “There is a deep realization that our interest and our destiny is interconnected … A neighborhood that is thriving today could be vulnerable if another is emotionally or economically stressed.”
  • Opportunity Hubs

    This May 12 discussion focused on “Opportunity Hubs,” which bring value to empty lots and buildings. (Photo: Chicago Community Trust.)

    Collaboratories connected to the six big ideas met during Ideas Week with members of the original May 12 table discussions and Chicago-based innovation firms Doblin, Gravity Tank, Greater Good Studio and IDEO. Each had an objective to create a bold idea and a plan for its execution, Hughes said.

    “Sister Neighborhoods” was an idea proposed across the region May 12 by at least nine different tables – more than 90 people – Hughes said. The concept is modeled after Chicago Sister Cities International, which started with Warsaw in 1960 and now includes 28 cities. The Sister Cities share best practices through citizen-to-citizen connections.

    Sister neighborhoods would do the same on a more micro scale.

    Neighborhoods could compile lists of needs and wants, yet each has something to offer, said participants in the Sister Neighborhoods collaboratory. Therefore, the goal of the proposed “gift economy” would be to help them barter or exchange assets to fill their needs.

    Art opens people to each other, they said, and in Chicago, food is culture. Sister Neighborhood participants suggested “groundbreakers” to share these cultural assets. Perhaps they could put a neighborhood on wheels: truck musicians and artists to an inter-neighborhood block party.

    Perhaps it would even be possible for communities with complementary assets to start businesses together. Doblin facilitators urged participants not to worry about the implementation of these ideas, but instead to focus on the ideas themselves.

    However, participants did list objectives such as developing a mission statement, creating a test pilot and developing baseline criteria. Officials also asked the group to consider how they might pair the right communities together, how they could assist relationships and how they could create structure simultaneous with freedom for individual neighborhood creativity.

    The collaboratories “Where is Your Bench?” and “Opportunity Hubs” both used Pullman on the southeast side and Portage Park on the northwest side as models.

    In the former case, the “bench” was a metaphor for a gathering space where people could get to know each other, in the fashion of Southern hospitality. The session leaders at IDEO wanted participants to consider three questions: How can we create visibility for existing safe places, make neighborhood history more tangible, and change places we know of into places where we get to know our neighbors?

    Many of the most impressive ideas centered on the element of shared neighborhood history. A “walking neighborhood tour” was suggested, where residents could share personal stories on what these places mean to them. Much like the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago, the tour could go behind-the-scenes of local businesses. The collaborators discussed that collecting history could be a great way to build relationships.

    Relationship building was always at the core of the lab. Keeping public infrastructure unbroken was a task to bring people together. Members of the community with the right skill set, it was suggested, could get together and fix things like benches, fountains or windows.

    The participants also understood the importance of a digital platform and proposed a neighborhood Angie’s List, which would give neighbors a chance to use their professional skills in a personal and friendly way to help people in their community. This might also be a good way for different generations in the neighborhood to connect.

    Members of IDEO also facilitated discussions at the Opportunity Hubs collaboratory, where they encouraged participants to be visual, to have have “wild ideas” on how to turn unused lots into neighborhood assets. One such idea was to use vacant or foreclosed buildings as a site for community apprenticeships. Neighbors with a certain skill or trade could volunteer their time and teach their craft to neighborhood youth, promoting a mutually beneficial relationship. Much like the idea that emerged from the “Where is your bench?” collaboratory, it was also suggested that the neighborhood could reclaim vacant or foreclosed buildings and rally members of the community to help restore them.

    Hughes said that over winter and spring, The Trust has strategic consultants who will work with collaboratory volunteers on their concepts and an implementation plan. “We will give them consultants to work with to see if the ideas are actionable and if it is going to happen, who is going to own the idea, where it might live and if there is a possibility for funding for it.”

    Next April, each team will have the opportunity to pitch their proposals to a team of panel of potential investors.

    For more information, visit the Chicago Community Trust Facebook page and watch their videos about the six big ideas, part 1 and part 2.

    By Austin Sanchez, StreetWise Editorial Intern (Suzanne Hanney contributing)

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