What I Told the Chicago Community Trust about Community

Chicago Community Trust new office city map

The Chicago Community Trust invited several dozen “local influencers”–including me–to come to their office today and suggest ways to improve local community. We were photographed and video interviewed as part of the Trust’s upcoming 99th anniversary “Come to the Table” campaign, an effort honoring the roundtable discussions that took place a year before the Trust was formed.

Even after 11 years in Chicago, almost nine of them as a big-mouth local blogger, It’s always an honor to be included in civic dialogues like this. However, I realized my answers would have been much different a year ago.

I headed to the Trust’s Michigan Avenue offices wondering whether I should share how I really have been feeling about my adopted hometown. Then I realized that, knowing how people often refrain from saying in public what they really think about Chicago for fear of reprisal, I might be the only person saying anything less than rosy about the way things work in this town.

I was asked what community means in Chicago, and I was asked how community could be made better. My answer was the same for both questions. As I’ve written recently (Maybe Rachel Shteir Was Right, Leaning Towards a Warmer Climate), I told the Trust I think it all comes down to politics.

In Chicago, we live under an anachronistic and statewide political machine, long gone in most of our peer cities for many decades, that has an entrenched interest to keep itself going. Not to better people’s lives, or improve social justice, or even to abide by the law, but simply to keep those in power in power.

In this nasty framework, asking real questions about the way things work and, especially, giving real answers, is never the point. Creativity and innovation become the enemy. Acknowledging real talent becomes dangerous. Because all of that can potentially rock the boat, and if there’s one thing you don’t do here in Chicago, it’s that.

It’s a framework that extends down to the workplace. As I’ve written, I believe the culture of the Chicago workplace is to fit–at all costs–employees into rigid, pre-defined roles. Acknowledgment of creativity and talent and the potential contributions to the workplace form them is rarely on the table here, except to use as a reason for censuring workers who dare to dabble in them. Or to steal credit for your own innovative work from you and bestow it on others with less talent but more clout.

It doesn’t work like this in many of our peer cities. In places like New York, or Los Angeles, or Boston, or San Francisco, talent rises on its own merits. That’s why so many talented Chicagoans leave and never return. They may love this place, but it is politically hard-wired to never truly love them back. That includes paying them what they’re worth, and in a real sense even acknowledging their worth in the first place.

So how does that impact Chicago community? The people who leave are almost always our best and brightest, and our best and brightest are almost always our most passionate community leaders and influencers.

Because of our corrupt political system, Chicago from the community level on up can never be what it might be. I don’t believe we have ever known all of our greatest organizers, campaigners for justice, artists, writers, culture creators, comics, PR mavens, inventors of widgets that transform life utterly, and otherwise general lovers of humanity, nor will we ever. And that’s because our best almost always leave–sometimes long before we have any idea how beneficial and transformational they might be for our town.

Essentially, I told the Chicago Community Trust we have to learn to stop eating our young.

How we do that, I don’t know. Last year, I might have felt interested in the answer enough to put on my thinking cap. (Though like all longtime Chicagoans, I doubt it would do any good.) But this year, my thoughts can’t help but hesitate on what a tragedy it is for Chicago to not recognize who it has while it has them. And on how easily I could see myself elsewhere.

And I’m not sure that’s the kind of answer the Trust really wanted to hear from a “local influencer.”

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