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Leading Locally: Chicago Plans Graduates 20th Neighborhood Team

Members of the latest Chicago Plans workshop class.

In her role as an organizer of the annual Woodlawn Community Summit, Liz Gardner recently found herself grappling with a problem that has frustrated community activists for decades: How, she wondered, could her event encourage meaningful engagement between residents of different backgrounds while still managing to effectively tackle the problems they face?

After all, neighborhoods are complex places filled with competing interests, visions and values where even modest attempts at collaboration can sometimes become maddeningly difficult.

“The skills people learn in Chicago Plans are really powerful in terms of allowing them to tap into the human potential of the communities they’re working with,” said Burrell Poe, a member of a recently graduated team from Chatham.

Photos by Gordon Walek

Earlier this year, this problem took on an added importance for Gardner and her colleagues. Her team is scheduled to present a long-term organizational plan at next year’s summit, and they want to be sure it captures the collective sum of Woodlawn’s residents’ ideas.

“We have a lot of people who want to see Woodlawn grow organically,” Gardner said. “Instead of doing small things, we want to come together so we can become a force to be reckoned with.”

As she began to consider how the preliminary stages of their planning process would take shape, along with two of her peers, she applied for and was accepted into LISC’s Chicago Plans program.

Managed by LISC Chicago, Chicago Plans is a four-part series of workshops focused on training small teams of community leaders to design and implement neighborhood planning processes that allow for substantive exchanges of ideas and the simultaneous development of consensus — both of which are essential for participatory planning. LISC has engaged the Institute for Cultural Affairs to facilitate the workshops.

Having recently completed Chicago Plans, along with 27 other community leaders from across the city, Gardner said the training prepared her team to draft a plan that truly captures the diversity of their neighborhood.

“After going through the training, my team and I are able to better understand why people do what they do,” she said. “Instead of dictating to our community what’s happening based on a few small conversations we have with each other, we’re better able to work collaboratively with community members.”

LISC engaged the Institute for Cultural Affairs to facilitate the Chicago Plans workshops. Here, Seva Gandhi leads a workshop in Pilsen.

Over the course’s two series, Chicago Plans has now graduated 60 total participants from 20 different communities. The program has equipped them with improved toolboxes for neighborhood planning and new connections with peers from across the city.

At its core, Chicago Plans, builds on the success of LISC’s nationally lauded New Communities Program (NCP). Launched in 2003, NCP brings together Chicagoans from all walks of life to draft and implement neighborhood Quality-of-Life plans.

By engaging residents from even more neighborhoods through Chicago Plans, LISC hopes to further empower local leaders to influence the trajectory of their communities and the city.

“The skills people learn in Chicago Plans are really powerful in terms of allowing them to tap into the human potential of the communities they’re working with,” said Burrell Poe, a member of a recently graduated team from Chatham. “They enable you to help people develop their own solutions that are fair, authentic and which respect existing knowledge.”

True to Poe’s point, the Chicago Plans curriculum emphasizes building on the collective wisdom of groups. Rather than preparing participants to serve as top-down leaders, the activities they learn enable them to tap into the experiences and perspectives of their neighbors. That wisdom can then be channeled into a plan that truly reflects their visions.

For example, one activity prompts participants to work together to build a timeline of local history in order to establish the context for future efforts. Another enables them to take detailed stock of local social networks to better understand the influence that certain individuals and institutions may be able to exert. And yet another focuses on preventing avoidable conflict by developing consensus around volatile issues of public importance.

Much like the first cohort, members of the most recently graduated group developed strong bonds with each other over the course of their time in the program.

Gandhi, left, and LISC's Jake Ament with workshop participants in Pilsen.

“We had another great combination of neighborhood leaders participate in Chicago Plans who really connected well as a group,” said LISC Program Officer Jake Ament. “The continued need for Chicago Plans has been clear each time we finish the series – the teams want to continue the conversation and get others involved. LISC’s neighborhood partners tell us these tools have allowed them to build up the direct leadership of community residents, and we’ve heard from city agency staff that conversations are more productive.”

As for Woodlawn Community Summit, Gardner said she’s confident the plan she and her colleagues present to their neighbors next year will build consensus and inspire action, largely thanks to the skills they developed in Chicago Plans.

“I strongly support Chicago Plans and think every neighborhood professional should go through this training,” she said. “For nascent organizations as well as more seasoned ones, it’s well worth their time.”

Chicago Plans was generously supported by the Chicago Community Trust.

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

Posted in Placemaking, Woodlawn


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