See Click Fix for civic processes

Growing up, I was lucky enough to be able to walk or ride my bike to my school.  When I was a bit younger, and lived farther away, the district had door-to-door bus service.  This isn’t the case in Chicago.  Students who go to magnet or selective enrollment schools have to, in many cases, figure out their transportation.  At O’s school, there is a school bus that picks students up at her school and then drops them off at neighborhood schools closer to where they live.  It’s still a few miles from her house, but slightly more convenient than having to have an adult go to her school for a pickup.

Yesterday, she called her mom to say the bus wasn’t running and she needed a pick up.  I’m picking her up today and called the school to find out if I should meet her at the bus stop or if I have to pick her up from school.  The school said the bus wasn’t running all week, but when I called the bus company, they said it ran yesterday and was running today.  This kind of communication problem, between the bus company and the school and between both entities and families sucks and there are lots of similar problems with big, bureaucratic systems like Chicago Public Schools.

SeeClickFix is a useful platform and idea for engaging different stakeholders in reporting civic problems and getting them fixed.  I’ve heard that a Code for America team will be working with Chicago’s government to implement Open311.
This is also awesome, and ultimately a move in the right direction for not only getting problems identified and fixed, but also helping people living in cities understand how governments work (or don’t work).  However, both these platforms address problems mostly dealing with infrastructure.  For many in the city, the bigger problems are issues with process: how a licensing application flows through the city, how children get picked up to and from school, income verification to get food stamp benefits … EveryBlock sometimes surfaces these issues, but its model is based around conversations and doesn’t have an accountability model or visualization of how a civic system works built into the system.

I’d really like to see a web platform and supporting on the ground community for identifying and fixing problems with the process of civic institutions.  Web platforms are often a panacea for civic problems, but I think its important in this case, just to have a document of “this is how the system is supposed to work”, “this is how it actually works”, “this is who is responsible”, “this is when a problem was identified” and “this is what was done about it.”

Lakeview Wal-Mart

I’m pretty interested in reports that Wal-Mart may be trying to open a location in my neighborhood.

I read a report in the Red Eye that said the retailer had signed a letter of intent on a location.

This is Ald. Tom Tunney’s (44th) response to this and similar reports:

On Thursday, December 9, I heard reports in the media that Wal-Mart may be interested in renting a location here in the 44th Ward.  This was surprising as I had not seen any conceptual plans for a proposed store in Lakeview.

After follow-up on my part, Wal-Mart issued the following statement on Monday, December 13:

“Contrary to media reports, Walmart has not executed a lease or a letter of intent with the developer to locate a store on the property known as ‘Broadway at Surf,’ at 2840 North Broadway in the Lakeview community of Chicago.  The company is evaluating a number of potential opportunities across the city of Chicago, and will continue to work with elected officials, business groups, community associations and key stakeholders to ensure that sites and formats are compatible with the communities we seek to serve.”

Maggie Sans – VP Public Affairs and Government Relations
702 Southwest 8th Street
Bentonville, AR 72716-0350

If any plans come forward in the future, it will be vetted through a rigorous community process.  As a small business owner, I understand the impact any big-box retailer would have on our neighborhood.  We will work together, residents and businesses, to continue to make our community a better place to live, raise a family, shop and own a business.

Tell me more

As part of my Community Media Innovation Project class (we’ll be blogging our progress at Local Fourth) I got to attend the Block by Block conference, a gathering of members of the online local news ecosystem.  I heard from a lot of interesting people about their experiences interacting with their communities and trying to make their news startups economically sustainable.  The day before, members of Chicago’s online news community gathered for Advancing Chicago’s News Ecosystem: A Community News Summit.  While Block by Block focused on anecdotal experience from practicioners, the Chicago-focused summit presented more formal research.  I was particularly interested in research by Rachel Davis Mersey, Vivian Vahlberg and Bob LeBailly into community information needs in Chicago and the health of the city’s news ecosystem.

The research included interviews and focus groups with both members of the general public and community leaders. The survey results revealed  information priorities in Chicago and disparities in information access.  What was most surprising, however was that a majority of the surveyed members of the public as well as community leaders felt like they didn’t have enough opportunities to hear the views of others.  Furthermore, the problem seemed less one of access to media to add voices, and more one of discovering or navigating media to get diverse perspectives – a majority of respondents felt like they had ample opportunity to express their own views.

Not enough opportunity to hear the views of others
A majority of respondents to a survey about information needs in Chicago said they wanted to know more about the views of others. Source: News That Matters slideshow

A full report on the research is forthcoming.  I’m excited to understand more about this dynamic and also tosee how Chicago media tries to approach this audience need.  The modern media landscape is full of opportunities for people to create content, but how does one build media that facilitates listening?

View slides from the News that Matters presentation.

Embedded in a neighborhood

The Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau features a depth of coverage of many communities and issues that isn’t always accessible. Over the summer I spoke with Gordon Walek and Patrick Barry about the site. Our conversation quickly shifted from online news to the way reporting can be used in service to communities and organizations working with communities and some of the challenges posed by this model.

The Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau looks like an elegant aggregation of news from local news organizations, neighborhood groups and nonprofit organizations – which it is. But it’s just one face of the relationship between reporting and community development for neighborhoods throughout the city.

The idea for the site came from the overwhelming amount of information available on the web, said Patrick Barry, a contractor with Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago, or LISC/Chicago, the organization that sponsors the site. The organization brings together financial and technical resources to support community-building groups to develop infrastructure, housing, employment and other assets in Chicago neighborhoods.

The Neighborhood News Bureau site aggregates news from organizations supported by LISC/Chicago, ones reporting on neighborhoods where LISC/Chicago sponsors programs, and news outlets covering issues related to community development. Barry said he had used aggregator sites that help collect and filter online news, but there were no such sites that focused on news for low-and-moderate-income communities.

Topics in Chicago's News Ecosystem
The need for aggregation. A recently released study of Chicago's local news ecosystem found that community development was the second most covered topic by local online news sites. However, many of these sites may be small, new or otherwise unknown to a broad audience.

“Our thrust is to identify interesting stories in the neighborhoods where we work,” Gordon Walek said.

Walek is the communications manager at LISC/Chicago and manages the neighborhood news aggregator. He said the kind of urban affairs coverage collected by the site has been largely abandoned by the city’s newspapers. Even in the heydey of daily newspapers, Walek said, many of the communities and issues covered in stories aggregated by the site lacked coverage.

Barry said the site’s audience was interested in the process or neighborhood development and issues affecting developing neighborhoods like affordable housing or violence and includes professors of community development and urban studies, reporters, developers and bankers. Former community residents can also use the site to stay informed about their old neighborhood, he said.

While the site continues to suck in news feeds from a range of Chicago sites, further development of the Neighborhood News Bureau site has been limited by a lack of funds, Barry said. But the news site is just one part of LISC/Chicago’s ongoing use of reporting in the community development process.

Walek said LISC/Chicago’s involvement in reporting came out of a need to make the development process transparent to the communities where development projects were happening. The development corporation hired journalists to report on community meetings about development projects. Rather than simply take minutes of the meetings, Walek said, the journalists were tasked with writing stories about the implementation of development plans and how the plans were received by community members.

“Straight journalism can be a very powerful tool to inform people about community development,” Barry said.

Reporters covering neighborhood development plans for LISC/Chicago are known as “scribes.” Barry, the organization’s first scribe, said the name implies a role as a servant to the community rather than being independent from the community. Barry said that while a traditional reporter might attend a community meeting about development plans in search of a good story, a scribe’s goal is to reflect the issues that were surfaced at the meetings in a way that is useful to community residents in understanding what was happening or planned to happen. Scribes were also tasked with contributing to quality of life reports that helped drive neighborhood development projects. Because the scribes listened closely to voices from the neighborhood, “writing as an insider using the voice of a neighborhood,” Barry said, neighborhood residents felt ownership of the development plans.

In order to write with the voice of the neighborhood, scribes, who mostly live outside of the neighborhoods they report on, had to rethink their impression of the neighborhoods and the language they used to write about those places, Barry said. While a reporter’s impression of a neighborhood may be of a “bombed-out ghetto,” Barry said, the reporter had to quickly learn that residents didn’t appreciate that description. More importantly, it wasn’t how they thought of their neighborhood. LISC/Chicago reporters, he said, have learned a lot from neighborhood residents about how to talk about places.

Barry said working to document development projects with LISC/Chicago has given many reporters a deeper perspective of neighborhood dynamics than when they covered neighborhood issues for traditional media. Traditional reporting only allows journalists to perceive a neighborhood through controlled interactions such as a public meeting or a scheduled interview with a key stakeholder, Barry said. Spending more time in the community allows journalists working for LISC/Chicago to see a more nuanced and often more difficult view of community decision making. Barry said being embedded in the community gives reporters access to the egos or duplicity of neighborhood figures, internal squabbling, friction over gentrification and ethnic tensions. Often, Walek said, scribes are able to see such aspects of the neighborhood in a way that managers of programs operating in the neighborhoods can’t.

While LISC/Chicago scribes have a long-term relationship with neighborhoods, sometimes spanning eight years, and get a comprehensive view of the communities, they must balance their access to unflattering aspects of the neighborhood with the needs of the community. Scribes may write about internal conflict in the neighborhood, Barry said, but only if it’s constructive.

Scribes must also balance covering problems facing the neighborhood while recognizing that crime reports dominate traditional media coverage in some areas such as Englewood or North Lawndale where LISC/Chicago supports programs. Walek said crime is an “800 pound gorilla” when reporting on these communities because it is present, but the organization wants to offer a more diverse view of the neighborhood. Walek said reporters for his organization might cover community events like street fairs, neighborhood sports programs or programs that integrate teen health and education needs.

A video slideshow about the “B-Ball on the Block” sports program shows how LISC/Chicago’s reports acknowledge problems like violence and segregation, but ultimately focus on community-based responses. Walek said reports forefront “innovative solutions to what seems like an insurmountable problem.”

“There’s a lot of human capacity in these neighborhoods,” Barry said.

While stories tend to have a positive focus and highlight LISC/Chicago-supported programs or partners, they also give considerable space and agency to neighborhood residents or neighborhood dynamics that aren’t usually addressed in the media, such as conflict between Latino and African-American communities in Humboldt Park, the subject of a recent story. The focus on supported programs is in part to offer program funders a way to evaluate programs in a way that is more engaging than a traditional report, Walek said. Stories, photographs and multimedia can sometimes better record the impact of a program’s work and how it was received by the community.

Photographs are also important for giving readers outside of profiled communities a more nuanced idea of the neighborhoods that emphasizes similarities between diverse communities, Barry said. He cited how photos of well-maintained houses in Little Village might challenge outside perceptions of the neighborhood.

Over time, Walek said, LISC/Chicago reporting has created an unintentional record of how some neighborhoods have evolved. However, like many new models for reporting, LISC/Chicago is dependent on foundations to pay journalists, Walek said, and he’s not sure how reporting will get funded after foundation money runs out.


Evanston Total Population 18 & over - Black

This weekend is the Independent Media Mobile Hackathon in Chicago, an event sponsored by The Media Consortium and Hacks/Hackers.  A few of the Knight Scholars taking the  Community Media Innovation Project at Medill were brainstorming ideas for the hackathon.  We talked about collecting public feedback using mobile devices to do citizen’s agenda style reporting of the upcoming Chicago Mayoral race and using Ushahidi to report and track neighborhood safety concerns.

But the idea I’m most excited about is one that comes from looking at interviews with Evanston residents for the innovation project class.  One theme that comes up consistently when talking to people about Evanston is that the community is diverse, with the public schools being a frequently-cited reflection of the community’s diversity.  However, a number of people interviewed also said the community is economically and racially segregated.

I want to build a mobile app that forefronts the integration or segregation of different spaces in the community.  Users of the app would “check in” to different spaces along with a quick numeric assessment of the racial, gender and/or age integration of the space where they are.  One of the most difficult problems would be to develop this metric, a sort of folk dissimilarity index, and make a widget that would make providing this assessment easy and fun.  Users could then get a weekly/monthly aggregation of the integration of the places where they spend the most time.  They could also see the most popular, integrated and segregated places in their community and see how the integration of places might change over time or be different at different times of day.

In many ways, this is a racially (or more broadly, demographically) aware Foursquare.  But Andrew Paley pointed out an important distinction: while most social apps help users build and share their own idea of their identity (in Foursquare by aligning themselves with certain businesses that likely reflect their lifestyle), this app would compel users to be introspective about their lives rather than expressive.  It would help users be conscious of the segregation or integration of their lives and challenge how values and belief about race and integration match up with their daily routines.  This app could be one example in a broader problem space of introspective apps.

Putting neighborhood change on the radar of the Pitchfork set

On face, “Who is Logan Square?”, which appears in this weeks Chicago Reader is a nice piece of arts reporting.  Rather than just informing readers about and promoting  the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival, it describes conflict between event organizers over how the event represents Logan Square’s diversity.  But, it’s the context of the article within the particular issue of the Chicago Reader that makes it really interesting.

The story quotes artist Victor Montañez over his concerns about the geography of the fest:

And he really dislikes the way the fest map and program divide the approximately three dozen exhibition spaces into two groupings, south and north. “Art should bring people together,” Montañez says. The arrangement looks to him like a “divisive strategy” to create a Wicker Park-esque hipster scene in one area while concentrating people of color in the other. The list of curators and artists showing in the north section is heavier on Hispanic names.

Montañez is also critical of I AM Logan Square, a public-relations centered nonprofit-organization started by Ald. Rey Colón (35th) that was granted the key role in organizing this year’s fest.  In the story, Montañez said the organization’s leadership, from outside of Logan Square, contributed to organizing an event that doesn’t equally reflect different neighborhood demographics.  “This year we got I AM Logan Square – which is a studpid name because there’s no such thing, it’s we are Logan Square,” Montañez said.

Criticism by Montañez is balanced with quotes from the alderman and a volunteer who organized shows on the main stage who both say fest organizers took great steps to prioritize diversity in the event.

While reporting on gentrification and changing neighborhood demographics is done regularly in various Chicago publications, it’s really interesting that it was run in this particular issue of the Reader.  Since the event is next weekend, the article could have still previewed the event had it been run next week.  However, the story appears in the same issue as “The Reader’s Guide to the Pitchfork Music Festival.”

While writer Deanna Isaacs uses the phrase “alleged Pitchforkification” to describe Montañez’ concerns that Latino artists and musicians are downplayed in the Logan Square events lineup, the story clearly appears in a publication that includes readers who are interested in this weekend’s Pitchfork Music Festival and may be attracted to similar aspects of the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival.  This confluence of a story about neighborhood conflict and interest in a certain kind of art and culture puts information in front of readers who may attend the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival without examining it through a critical gaze.  It is unclear, however, whether this framing reinforces or challenges the idea that Latino residents of Logan Square and people who enjoy Pitchfork-style programming are mutually exclusive.

Whether or not Montañez is right about his concerns over the arts festival’s organizing, Logan Square is a neighborhood undergoing demographic change and the accompanying identity crisis that often comes with these changes.  The Reader’s reporting and editing do a good job of helping residents and visitors see how this struggle to define neighborhood identity can be reflected in events and entertainment.

Photos via the Chicago Reader.

Ignoring the hyperlocalness of an issue

Full disclosure: I love libraries and they been a big part of my life through childhood. So, it’s hard for me not to find fault in Fox News Chicago’s story “Are Libraries Necessary, or a Waste of Tax Money?” simply on the grounds that it questions the relevance of libraries.

Both the state and many Chicago-area municipalities are facing severe budget problems, so it’s a legitimate role of the press to ask tough questions about how the government spends its money, even though there seems to be some issues with the framing and the balance between information and provocation in this particular report. In the context of this independent study, however, I want to look at how this report fails to acknowledge that libraries (in function and to a lesser extent funding) are local institutions and that what libraries look like and whether their benefits outweigh their costs may vary dramatically between communities.  Given that structure, it’s important to report on libraries as a more local issue or take great caution when reporting about them more generally.

“With cash-strapped states behind on so many bills, it’s quietly, and not so quietly, being debated,” the report begins.  The web version of the story identifies it as part of a special report on the Illinois Budget Crisis.  The story goes on to explain that 2.5 percent of property taxes go to fund libraries, but perhaps makes the assumption that all the viewers understand that property taxes fund local government infrastructure like libraries or public schools and that these funds are largely independent of state money.

The Chicago Public Library 2009 annual report shows that over $92 million of the library’s revenue came from the City of Chicago while around $8.4 million came from the State of Illinois.  Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s proposed fiscal year 2011 budget recommends about $19.5 million in general fund grants for libraries, down from over $27 million in fiscal year 2009.  So, the elimination of libraries has a much more profound direct impact on local budgets than the state budget.  So, a more appropriate framing for the story would be whether a given municipality should reduce funding for their library system.  Or, the report should draw any link between reducing local budget expenditures to reducing state budget expenditures.

The report included a debate with Jim Tobin, president of National Taxpayers United of Illinois, weighing in on the side of reducing library funding, at least through property taxes.  One of his arguments for de-funding libraries is that new technologies (first lower-cost paperback books and now the Internet) are making libraries obsolete.  Again, the framing of the story doesn’t acknowledge that the role and value of libraries may differ, not just from library system to library system but from neighborhood to neighborhood.

According to a report released in July 2009 by the City of Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology, one-third of Chicago residents used Internet access at a public library.  The same report cited that one-third of these users cited lack of computer at home as a reason for accessing it at a library.  However, library Internet use is not distributed evenly across Chicago’s population.  Young people and African Americans are more likely to use the Internet at a public library.  Furthermore, as this map from the report shows,  residents of some areas are more likely to use the Internet at the library than others.

Library Internet Use by Chicago Community Area from Digital Excellence in Chicago: A Citywide View of Technology Use.

So, while the rise of the Internet as an information source may make libraries less relevent (and funding-worthy) in some communities, it may make their relevence greater for others.  I feel a more useful framing of the story, taking into account this and other differences in the role of library resources for  different communities, could be to ask, “does this neighborhood need a public library?”  or “how do we  best use library funds?”

Union leaders and alderman among 32 arrested at immigration rally

It all went as planned.

After warning protesters who were sitting in front of the doors of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices three times, an officer told the activists to stand and that they were being arrested.

Thirty-two protesters who represented unions and immigration rights groups were lined up and led inside the building for processing.

The staged act of civil disobedience, with planned arrests, camera crews and trash bags emblazoned with dollar signs meant to symbolize the cost of current immigration policy, stood in stark contrast to the tangible fear of deportation of those in the U.S. without documents.

“We need comprehensive immigration reform,” said Keith Kelleher, president of Service Employees International Union Health Care Illinois-Indiana, and one of those arrested, as he was being led into the building.

“Our brothers and sisters in our unions and in the community are being deported every day and we need to stop it. That’s why I’m getting arrested.”

The arrests followed a rally at Federal Plaza and a march from the plaza to the ICE offices. The event was organized by the Labor Committee on Immigrant Worker Rights, an organization that represents a number of unions throughout the Chicago area.

Kelleher said employers who take advantage of immigrant labor by lowering wages cause lower wages for all workers.

“We cannot fix this economy as long as 12 million workers are forced to live in the shadows and subject to exploitation,” Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of SEIU, said. “All workers deserve to have the same rights and responsibilities.”

Medina called on Republican lawmakers to join efforts to craft comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

Jean Cusack came to the protest from Milwaukee with a group named Voces de La Frontera.

On her back was a photograph of Omar Damian Ortega, a Milwaukee man Cusack said was an undocumented worker detained and facing deportation after he tried to seek worker’s compensation for an on-the-job back injury.

Cusack said she wants to see immigration reform that allows a path to legalization for workers.  “The process is impossible,” Cusack said.

Among the arrested was Ald. George Cardenas(12th). In a speech at the rally, Cardenas said there needed to be unity between Americans across immigration status.

“We will not have tranquility in this nation unless we are all united, unless we are all allowed to pursue liberty and happiness,” he said.

Cardenas, himself an immigrant, said immigrants and other Americans were tied by a common bond.

“We share your values, we share your work ethic, we share your self reliance,” he said. “Your dream is our dream and your future is our future.”

This story was originally published May 25, 2010 on Medill Reports Chicago.

New Kid on the Block: Ramsey Beyer

Ramsey Beyer is a zine writer, illustrator and all around maker (she took the photos used in the video) who lives in Chicago. She was involved in organizing the Chicago Zine Fest in March and helps compile the monthly Chicago DIY calendar and she works as a nanny.

I had crossed paths with Ramsey a couple of time over the years.  Years ago, I stayed at her house in Baltimore while on tour with a band.  When I moved to Chicago, I found out that she happened to be the nanny for the woman whose job I was taking over.  A few months ago, I found that she had written an essay that was published in the same zine about children and radical communities as my roommate.

The essay is pretty amazing and describes a really unique relationship that Ramsey and her housemates had with the kids in their Baltimore neighborhood.  Moving to Chicago with kids, I had been thinking a lot about kids, childcare and punk.  This week, I finally got to sit down with Ramsey and talk with her about her essay and the changing role of kids in her life in Baltimore and Chicago and as a neighbor and nanny.

Check out Ramsey’s essay, “New Kids on the Block” below:

New Kids on the Block