[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]
Aware of the growing desire to develop city-wide movement building infrastructure among diverse sectors of Chicago’s cultural and social justices communities, AREA asked several organizers, educators, and artists to respond to this question: Why does Chicago need a new community cultural center that will facilitate city-wide networking and community—and movement—building? Where would you imagine this place being located, and what are some things that might happen there? We’ll continue to collect responses to this question over the coming months, and we welcome YOUR responses via the comment section below!
DANIEL TUCKER: I can see a downtown or West Loop space which is accessible via public transportation and takes advantage of our city’s loop-centric highways, buses, and trains. This wouldn’t be like the neighborhood-based community centers we all know and love, offering ease of access and the daily interaction that we all need. This would be a true hub of activity designed to bring together and foster the intersections of work and energy from across the city. Large assemblies would occur there, ranging from monthly dinners to citywide meetings. Exhibits and archives on Chicago’s social and cultural movement history would occur alongside night classes on various subjects ranging from political theory to community organizing. Adults would expand their horizons alongside youth, and all people would be able to fully actualize themselves and their potential. This would be a place to refine our ideas together.
MIA HENRY: Chicago needs a centrally located center that can serve as a home to any one or any group working to create city-wide change. If we call it a community center, we must redefine “community.” This term can no longer apply only to isolated neighborhoods if this center is to serve all of Chicago.
This city needs a physical space that serves as a political home for activists of all ages who want to exchange and test new ideas, create networks, and grow as leaders in movement-building. This place should be actively working to free itself from oppressive practices and committed to ongoing public programming as a way to provide continuous education to youth and adults committed to social justice. I envision a fully accessible, state-of-the-art facility located somewhere in the South Loop area, with easy access to all the major train lines. We at Chicago Freedom School are committed to helping this become a reality.
KRISTEN COX: I imagine a space reminiscent of the Texas Ballroom with loft sections for work spaces, a communal kitchen for cooking, walls for showing art, and a malleable open space that could change depending on function (film/video screening, performance, discussion, community meeting, etc). The space should be in a central location (Green Line El comes to mind) and wheelchair accessible. Groups could pay an affordable membership fee to work/occupy the space during weekday hours, and then convene for a community-building meal and gathering once a month. Donations or tickets could be sold for evening and weekend activities to help offset costs, making the space open for use by the larger social justice community. Large or small. The scale could vary.
ERIC TRIANTAFILLOU: The idea for a citywide cultural center is fantastic! When I learned that AREA was leaving the space on Rockwell, I was worried this meant its future was as a de-centralized, internet-based organization. A physical space – a place to gather, to meet old and new friends, to see and interact with each other, to produce things and knowledge, to organize across social and cultural divisions – is vital for sustaining and increasing collective reflection and action. For a nominal fee, the space could provide facilities and resources. Classes could be offered – from printmaking and political theory to Capoeira and sewing. Activities could take place – from art exhibitions and performances to presentations and workshops. Those who use the space should be able to maintain their autonomy while engaging the center’s collective practices, as they will. Some sort of green space would be great – a green roof or a vertical garden? Accessibility: the more accessible the space is to public transit the better, but it must also be culturally accessible to the spectrum of Chicagoans who might see the space as “their” space. A bigger space would mean the center could expand to meet new needs as it grows. But remember that if a future space is set up as a 501c3 organization, this will limit the types of political activities that can be done on the premises.
HARISHI PATEL: There is something wrong in our society and culture when many activists feel that they have only three realistic options for survival in this globalized capitalistic structure: academia, non-governmental-organization jobs, or business start-ups. We demand more options for our brothers and sisters. We need a culture and philosophy of Resistance that raises our consciousness to inform our political visions and to prevent the oppressed from becoming the oppressor. The cultural center can be another option that is neither a not-for-profit entity nor a for-profit entity, but a lifestyle – a home where political becomes personal. We want a space where an issue- or community-based organizer can engage with the academics who write about it; where self-care is essential; where relationships make up the foundation; where young ones are allowed to make their own mistakes; where the lifestyle is simpler, communal, and less-consuming; where dogmatic political parties have no place but individuals are loved regardless; where all the different aspects of the movement can be blurred. We want a space where we can come together to dream and to create a more humane human being.