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Launched: Chicago Plans Workshops

Seva Gandhi, program director at The Institute of Cultural Affairs, leading the Chicago Plans workshop at The Burnham on South Cottage Grove Avenue in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

Photos by Gordon Walek

Despite its consistent presence in conversations about urban life, the concept of community is difficult to truly define.

For some, it’s rooted in culture: in traditions passed on from generation to generation. For others, it’s a matter of geographic place: of neighbors who form relationships as their children grow up and attend the same schools. And for others still, it centers on belief systems: on forging connections based on values people hold sacred. 

To Nakia Terry, “community” fits all these descriptions and more. For her, the thread that ties them all together is the element of selflessness. 

Terry, an education activist from Auburn Gresham, recently sat down with a group of 30 fellow community leaders from across Chicago and said she hopes to cultivate communities of people looking out for one another regardless of whether they have anything personally to gain.

“Getting the engagement piece back is key to making our communities thrive,” she said. 

That conversation was among many that took place during the second of four intensive trainings comprising LISC Chicago’s inaugural Chicago Plans workshop series. 

Chicago Plans provides participants with the theory and skills necessary to convene community-planning processes rooted in inclusivity and meaningful engagement. 

Rather than treating neighborhood planning as a series of one-size-fits-all steps, the workshops equip professionals and volunteers alike with tools to begin by engaging their neighbors based on local needs, concerns and historical context. 

Chicago Plans also builds on LISC Chicago’s approach to community development and neighborhood planning, refined over its 35-year history and anchored in its New Communities Program over the past 15 years. The program recognizes that engagement does not happen in a single meeting, but that continuous, intentional involvement of diverse stakeholders throughout planning and implementation is key to creating buy-in and accountability.     

The workshops are possible through generous support from The Chicago Community Trust (CCT), building local capacity in the same way LISC built locally-informed asset maps for the Chicago Neighborhoods 2015 project.

“Chicago’s rich patchwork of distinct neighborhoods is arguably its greatest asset,” says Michael Davidson, senior program officer at The Chicago Community Trust. “They often function as small towns would – uniquely and independently – and yet being Chicago neighborhoods makes them highly interrelated. Such dynamism requires strategic, long-range thinking. Chicago Plans helps local stakeholders chart an informed course to local prosperity but within a larger cultural and geographic context.” 

Vanessa Valentin of the Northwest Side Housing Center in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood is one of 30 community representatives participating in the Chicago Plans process.

In keeping with LISC’s philosophy that residents are in the best position to plan for their neighborhoods’ futures, participation in Chicago Plans involves full immersion of the Technology of Participation (ToP) model by facilitators from the Institute of Cultural Affairs in the U.S.A (ICA). Developed over the course of several decades locally and internationally, this comprehensive methodology seeks to recognize and honor contributors; allow for efficient consideration of data; pool individual contributions into useful patterns; and welcome diversity while minimizing conflict. 

“The key part of planning and really making change in the neighborhoods are the conveners,” LISC Chicago Program Officer Jake Ament told the cohort prior to their first workshop early in October. “Real neighborhood change has to be based in comprehensive community development that is community led and community driven.” 

While applying the tools to issues in their neighborhood, participants also build relationships with local partners and collective knowledge with organizations and volunteers across the city. This year’s cohort comprises 10 teams of three members each from neighborhoods across the city. Albany Park, Auburn Gresham, Austin, Belmont Cragin, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, North Lawndale, South Shore, Washington Park and West Humboldt Park are all represented. 

These 30 individuals – the conveners – represent an opportunity for an entirely new era of locally-driven community planning in Chicago. 

Unique goals

Each of the 10 participating teams had a different motivation for enrolling in Chicago Plans. 

For Michael “MJ” Johnson of RAGE, the program means an opportunity to challenge the idea that success for young people in Englewood necessarily involves leaving the neighborhood. He envisions a community in which people are provided opportunities to thrive and contribute to their neighbors’ quality of life. 

Community leaders participating in the Chicago Plans workshops, including John Harris (left) of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation, learn not only about the nuts and bolts of planning, but also a little about each other and the neighborhoods they all represent.

Rodney Brown of New Covenant Community Development Corporation said he hopes to strengthen North Lawndale’s reputation as a vibrant community among residents and visitors alike. His colleague, Dennis Deer, agreed that neighborhood residents have set the stage for meaningful change, assuming their efforts are properly channeled. 

And, Jose Quiles of Belmont Cragin said he hopes to develop the skills necessary to effectively pass the torch to the next generation of Northwest Side community leaders. 

While their specific rationales for applying may have differed, conversations between participants have already resulted in a great deal of inspiration and new ideas. 

“Some of the communities are already where we want to go,” said Casey Smagala of the Albany Park Community Center. “For me, that’s a source of hope.” 

Theory meets practice

Inclusive neighborhood planning can’t happen without a solid understanding of the ideas and skills necessary to bring people to the table and provide a meaningful platform. 

As such, participants in Chicago Plans are provided many opportunities to practice and discuss activities aimed at fostering dialogue among diverse constituencies. 

One such activity, the historical scan, prompted the cohort to collaboratively construct a timeline of community development milestones. The final product allowed them to work through the remainder of the afternoon with a shared understanding of their own historical context. 

Another activity, the consensus workshop, required the group to debate and subsequently agree on the steps that comprise an effective community planning initiative. Through a process of intentional consensus-building, the activity allowed them to see how conflict might be minimized through exercises that value demographic inclusivity and diversity of thought. 

Each activity is followed up by a period of group reflection – an essential component of the ToP methodology. In recapping the activities, participants are provided with an understanding of how these exercises might be put to use in their own communities under potentially volatile circumstances. 

“We need to appreciate the interdependence of our relationships and understand how our needs affect one another,” facilitator Kadi Sisay told the cohort during a recent reflection conversation. 

For this reason, all Chicago Plans activities serve multiple purposes. In addition to providing step-by-step instruction in important planning activities, they also equip facilitators with the emotional intelligence necessary to cultivate productive collaboration.

Gandhi emphasizes that there's more to community planning than meetings and negotiations.

“When you meet conflict with conflict, someone will get hurt,” Sisay said. “The opposite of that is engaging the person as a partner and working together to solve the problem.” 

The cohort is set to meet twice more before the end of the calendar year, moving on to topics from accurately characterizing issues a plan addresses to creating detailed and accountable project work plans. Another series will be held in Spring of 2016, with a call for applications expected in January. 

For more information, contact Jake Ament at (312) 422-9573 or

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