The Public Square at 10 Years

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

Back in 2000, Lisa Lee co-founded the Center for Public Intellectuals dedicated to “re-engaging the public in vital intellectual issues and examining how, why and under what conditions public intellectuals can help transform society.” After a couple years, the Center took on its current name—The Public Square—and now, we’re marking our tenth anniversary.

The name change was inspired, in part, by a quote from Cornel West who said, “We must focus our attention on the public square—the common good that undergirds our national and global destinies. The vitality of any public square ultimately depends on how much we care about the quality of our lives together.”

These prescient words still hold true today. The “public square” is a space that is always being contested, and it’s a space that we need to continually imagine and re-imagine. The Public Square does this by creating spaces for public conversations; fostering debate, dialogue and the exchange of ideas; bridging disparate communities and building new communities.

Beyond the name change, there have been a number of transformations over the last decade. Initially, its own organization, The Public Square became a part of the Illinois Humanities Council. The Public Square has had four directors including Lisa, who is now the director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Cary Nathenson was co-founder along with Lisa and served as Program Director in the early years. Barbara Ransby took a sabbatical from her teaching position at the University of Illinois at Chicago to head the organization. And now, I’ve been with The Public Square since January 2007.

Other changes include new directions in one of our long standing series, Café Society, with the creation of a DIY Café Society Toolkit and Roving Café Society discussions that visit different neighborhoods on a monthly basis. We’ve also introduced smaller, more intimate Hungry for Justice gatherings over meals to “name” the political moment and share both lessons and challenges from our various activist, artistic, or academic experiences.

What’s remained constant is the desire to urge people from all walks of life to think deeply and critically about important issues of the day, and to do this face-to-face (although we are now exploring possibilities for virtual online discussions in real time).

I came to The Public Square from an activist background. I was previously an organizer with an organization working to end capital punishment in the United States, and before that, I worked as a research coordinator for a national study looking at the progression of HIV disease in women. So, the mission of The Public Square was one that I instinctively identified with. After all, debate and dialogue are key to making social change.

At the same time, as an organizer, I also held fast to certain adages like “Talk is cheap” and “Actions speak louder than words.” There’s also the famous quote by Karl Marx, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.” Of course, there is truth and import to these sayings. But, a disdain for intellectual thought and rigor seemed to permeate society over the last several decades from the Yuppies of the 1980s to the post baby-boom Gen X generation. This trend that extolled the virtues of action over thought is perhaps best represented by the popularity and success of Nike advertisements that contained three simple words: “Just do it!”

Through my work with The Public Square, I have gained a newfound appreciation for talk. As Lisa Lee has been known to say, “Contrary to popular belief, talk is not cheap.” At least, not all talk. It can be meaningful, infuriating, pleasurable, boring, engaging, challenging and exciting. And it can be a form of action. Talking to one another, learning from one another, challenging one another is critical to fostering a more participatory democracy. By giving voice to marginalized communities, by creating safe and inclusive spaces for conversation, we can reinvigorate a public that is becoming increasingly eclipsed.

As we mark and celebrate The Public Square’s ten-year journey thus far, our challenge is to unleash our radical imaginations to envision new possibilities for an ever-changing public. Implicit to this challenge is to understand, as Gwendolyn Brooks reminds us, that “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”


A Brief Q & A with Daniel Tucker:

When Public Square started was it responding to a lack of public space in general or in Chicago specifically?

The Public Square was responding to a need and a desire to revive, reclaim, redefine the “public intellectual.” This wasn’t just about Chicago, but an anti-intellectual trend in public life more generally in the United States.

For me, The Public Square creates spaces for learning and intellectual rigor beyond the classroom, beyond universities and other more traditional sites of learning. There is a real need for activists, artists, academics, for everyday people, for all of us, to think together collectively, to challenge each other, and to affirm each other. And this is what The Public Square tries to do.


What are some historical precedents or models that influenced The Public Square? In many ways it reminds me of the 19th-century Lyceum, but also seems to build on the tradition of the Town Hall.

In some ways, The Public Square has been influenced by both the 19th-century lyceum and the tradition of the town hall. Although we find value in the traditional lecture format and still hold public lectures from time to time, we’ve intentionally moved away from this format. We want to engender conversations among those who attend our programs. We want strangers talking to one another. We want to bring together folks from all walks of life who may not otherwise ever be in a room together. We bring disparate communities together and build new communities. And we also convene folks who are working on a particular issue. For example, we invited people working on the issue of public housing to a Cafe Society discussion on “Fighting Evictions.” A lively discussion ensued, centering on questions related to existing strategies, available resources and new possibilities. Unlike town hall meetings, we aren’t trying to directly influence elected officials or policy with our programs. For us, the purpose IS the conversation, where we’re free to listen, speak and learn from one another. We ask participants to approach all of our discussions, big or small, with the possibility of being heard AND with the possibility of being changed.

How has The Public Square related to other organizations, formal and informal, that also want to promote similar activities?

We insist on a community-building framework for public conversations that reaches across generations and cultures and is inclusive of traditionally marginalized voices. Every partnership and every public program is about building relationships and building community. So, to bridge the university/community divide, we launched a new series called Shop Talk with the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at UIC. From January to June, once a month, we brought UIC scholars to Ron’s Barber Shop on the west side of Chicago to share their scholarly work with community residents there. Once a month on Friday evenings, scholars, Austin residents, and people from all over the city, would crowd up the waiting room at the barber shop to grapple with tough issues like “Black/Brown Unity and Immigration,” “Domestic Violence and Crime,” and “The Changing Landscape of Public Housing in Chicago.” A long-standing relationship with the barbers at the shop made these Friday evenings a safe space for difficult conversations.

We also see the arts as a powerful springboard for conversations. This past spring, we partnered with the Albany Park Theater Project (APTP) for a free performance of their new show, Feast, an amazing production that celebrates the sensuality of the food we eat. After viewing this magical performance together, the audience along with the multi-ethnic youth cast of APTP, participated in a post-show conversation on the power and pleasure of food. The collective experience engendered a sense of community, and both the audience and the cast raised genuine questions and challenges about eating healthy, food deserts, and the status associated with the kinds of food you eat.

More than that, instead of a one-off performance and conversation, we explored ways that we could keep the conversation going. We coordinated a follow-up discussion on school lunches at Little Village Social Justice High School where students were actively organizing a campaign for healthier options. We also have plans to screen The Price of Sugar, a movie about the sugarcane plantations in the Dominican Republic. This three-part series has become a new model for us.


What kind of outcomes is The Public Square interested in? Where is the organization going in the next 10 years?

I would say that The Public Square is more than public programming, more than lectures, talks, screenings, performances, and panel discussions. Yes, what we do includes all of these things, true, but every event and each specific act or experience is embedded in a larger goal and a more robust aspiration to notice, invent and create spaces for dialogue, debate and the exchange of ideas about art, life, politics, culture and humanity. We bring people together to consider the world we live in and the hard issues that we face, to build common ground, to cultivate imagination and a sense of collective possibility, to overcome passivity and cynicism and become subjects in and shapers of history.

We’re going to mark our ten-year anniversary by exploring the notion of the public and the public square. We will host specific conversations centered on re-imagining the “public square” as we push ourselves to name the moment and to envision new radically democratic and inclusive spaces for the 21st century. ◊


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