[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]
“The grid and property lines and what they mean must be factored in, almost as immutable givens, as we begin our journey to become native to this place. Those lines are likely to last as long as there is a United States.”
—Becoming Native To This Place by Wes Jackson
This newspaper you hold took one year to put together with six volunteer editors, one designer, and 19 Advisory Group members. To fund it took hundreds of people at two grassroots fundraisers (one in December at UE Hall and another in August at Yollocalli), one grant from the Driehaus Foundation/MacArthur Fund for Arts & Culture that took five people to write, and numerous other volunteers. And last but not least, it took 45 contributors to produce the content, work with editors and think about their ideas in relationship to the issue’s broad theme: Infrastructures and Institutions.
For AREA, Infrastructure and Institutions hold an important place in our evolution. What was said above of this issue could have been said for all of the previous nine issues we have released. Over the last five years, we have built an infrastructure from scratch in order to produce these publications. And in the process, we have created an institution—an established organization that documents and networks the amazing arts, research, education, and activism taking place here in Chicago. That’s right, we consider this a networking project—the newspaper is a bi-product of all of these relationships coming together and getting strengthened.
In the case of what we typically think of as an institution, people can literally pass through the entry and exit doors of a museum or school. But we also have to understand this passing through as something that takes place on an organizational level. At AREA, people have literally passed through the organization and come out on the other side. Contributors have written for one issue, become members of the Advisory Group, guest edited an issue and then stepped off of the Advisory Group. Others have had a less intentional progression, yet they have appreciated being able to contribute ideas about something they care about, have those ideas archived and distributed to other Chicagoans, and then, without showing their faces for years, return and contribute again to an issue of the publication that engages their interests. The flexibility of this infrastructure has helped us build an organization with long-term relationships that reach deep into social networks. AREA continues to try to expand this reach, geographically and socially to work toward building community.
AREA’s Infrastructure: CORE > Advisors > Friends
Over the last year and a half, AREA has embarked on a slow and patient process to re-work our organizational infrastructure so that we can continue to become the institution Chicago’s social and cultural movements need us to be. This means finding sustainable solutions to running a largely volunteer project with more people and facets than we can sometimes keep track of.
In this process we benefited from the strategic planning undertaken by one of our cousin organizations in Brooklyn, NY (The Center for Urban Pedagogy), when we adapted their strategic vision survey for use within AREA’s Advisory Group (thanks to Damon, Rosten and Lize from CUP!). After discussing the results of that survey, we planned a retreat in the Miller Beach section of Gary, Indiana at the home of one of our former contributors (thanks, Elise!). At our retreat, we asked advisers to list everything that they do to keep AREA afloat. We then took that list of tasks and broke them into logical categories, which corresponded to programming areas within AREA. They included Content, Communications, Design, Distribution and Outreach, Finance, and People. It was clear that these areas are the underpinnings that keep AREA working, and we came up with leadership roles that correlate to those areas. This process established the AREA COREdinator Group (the CORE).
We already had an amazing collection of folks in the AREA Advisory Group who were doing most of the work to keep the organization running, but we needed a way to establish point people who could “bottom line” what was going to remain a mostly volunteer effort. Thus we in the Advisory Group had a nomination and voting process, out of which we elected six people to become members of the COREdinator Group, with a largely symbolic $200 monthly stipend. The pay was all we could offer the COREdinators, who are not necessarily responsible for doing all the work in their program area, but for coordinating other volunteers to work together to complete tasks ranging from organizing benefits and hosting meetings to copyediting new publications and designing fliers for our release parties. Through our rethinking process we also established a third group, “Friends of AREA,” which is less accountable than the CORE or the Advisory Group and which serves as our volunteer corps. This system has been in place for years but we had never formally named the group of people who help out here and there to keep AREA going.
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept
One other outcome from the AREA retreat was a new mission statement. In general, the Advisory Group members were skeptical about non-profits they had been involved with that drifted from their stated missions in order to chase funding or do what was easy. So it was not without critical discussion that we collaboratively crafted this language:
AREA Chicago supports the work of people and organizations building a socially just city. AREA actively gathers, produces, and shares knowledge about local culture and politics. Its newspaper, website, and events create relationships and sustain community through art, research, education, and activism.
It is our hope that these three sentences will guide our work into the future and make it clear to all what kind of institution we have been and continue to build. We don’t envision AREA’s organizational development or institutionalization as a process where our look, feel or meaning becomes fixed. Jane Addams is quoted in this issue on the danger that an institution “lose its flexibility, its power of quick adaptation, its readiness to change its methods as its environment may demand.” We want AREA to be a model of a dynamic institution that is nimble and changes with the times, not one that grows stagnant, too big or too fast.
Engaged Chicagoans Inherit the Grid
Your work as engaged artists, activists, and educators inspires the challenging conversation that make AREA necessary. We need your help to continue to engage AREA in the most vital work and dialogues happening across Chicago. We need you to instigate challenging conversations through our publication and events. By writing about your work or engaging with AREA you are having a dialogue with people who want to support you and develop alongside you. If you have ideas about a topic that needs attention, propose that question and maybe we can work together to organize something.
Let us continue what people before us have started, not to build legacies but to change Chicago and to change society. As was stated in the first Inhering the Grid editorial statement on Labor Day 2005, “As engaged citizens, It becomes our responsibility to re-imagine what we inherit, and to create new models.”
This concept of inheritance is an important one for AREA, as we have dealt with local social and political history as a way to learn lessons from the past that can help us moving forward. The history of this city informs what paths exist towards new possibilities. In Chicago, the grid of the streets and the rigidity of political organization are meant to keep us in our place. Mayor Daley’s power was meant to keep us in our place and co-opt our work. But as inheritors of the grid and the city we can learn lessons from the past and determine the future together. That is, if we have the shared vision for what we want.