How We Learn: Building an Educated City

Daniel Tucker, AREA Chicago:
This exhibition, just to give you a little context, is called The Pedagogical Factory: Exploring Strategies for an Educated City. It was organized by the Stockyard Institute. Area decided to initiate a series of programs entitled How We Learn that would go along with the exhibitions. The way this particular forum came about is that last fall Area was talking about doing an education issue of our publication. I was talking to some people from the Neighborhood Writing Alliance and they said, “Well, we’re doing this issue on informal and formal education, we should team up on something.”. We decided that one of the most interesting ways to kick start this forum and connect into our different projects and concerns would be to survey what sort of opportunities there were for adults to engage in education within the city. But one aspect that we wanted to look at are those education opportunities that are not tied into things like job training, improving skill sets to do better in your job, or get new jobs. While those things are clearly important and we’ve probably all benefited from them, we wanted to look at other things that maybe aren’t so productive or aren’t somehow about moving forward in your career—but instead, those that are about other aspects of your life that are equally, if not more, important. And so we wanted to look at a wide range of examples of different practices, groups, and organizations across this city that were meeting this need for adult education in some different kind of way. So we’ve got reading groups, writing groups, discussion groups, archives, and all sorts of different organizations that you’ll hear from today. We hope that it can give us a better sense of the state of informal adult education in the city.

Annie Knepler, Moderator:
Hi everyone, my name is Annie Knepler, and I am with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance. For today, we asked our panelists to consider a number of questions about their work and the projects that they’re involved in. As Daniel said, we want this to be a larger discussion about the projects and the issues of adult education; while also asking, “What’s available in the city?” and “How do you build an educated city?” Let me just say who everyone is so that you know. To my left is Sherry Williams, who is with the Bronzeville Black Chicago and Historical Society. Next is Marie Shelton, who is with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance. Amy Thomas Elder is director of the Odyssey Project at the Illinois Humanities Council. Claire Pentecost is with Mess Hall. Ali McDonald is with the Chicago Women’s Health Center. David Eads is with Free Geek Chicago. Naomi Davis is with the Chicago Calumet Underground Railroad Project. And next to Naomi is Ian Morrison and Haseeb Ahmed with Platypus. So thanks everybody for being here.

First I just want everybody to talk about their project, how it got started, and why it got started? But then I would also like to ask each group two questions: “Who participates in the project itself?” and “How do people get involved?” And then as a follow-up to that, what do you feel people get out of being in the project?

Sherry Williams, Bronzeville Black Chicago and Historical Society:
The Bronzeville Black Chicago and Historical Society started out in an effort by my children to shut me up! Each day I would drive from my residence and head to my mom’s house. We would take King Drive north and I would point out different residences – whether it was Double-Duty Radcliff’s, who was at one time the oldest living Negro baseball player, or Ida B Wells‘ former home, or Robert Abbott’s former home. I would do this continually each and every day. Finally, in their brilliance, my children said “Mom! Would you write these things down and give it to someone else? We’ve heard enough of it!” And we decided it would be great if we could find out other things – more about their biographies, about their lives, and how they left a footprint that was significant to African-American history in Chicago. That’s how we began in 1999.
Who participates? Our demographics have changed so much. Initially, when we had a building we were using the Robert Taylor housing projects. Much of what we did in our initial programming was life-skills things: cooking, quilting, making cha-cha, jelly, and jam. Just basically transferring the knowledge of the elders of the community to the youth of the community. Our office was partnered with an organization called God’s Gang. And if you’re familiar with God’s Gang, you know that their training was for stewardship of the land. They had a fish farm, they did composting, along with growing worms. It proved to be an excellent partnership for us. In part the rite of passage has been to pass on these skills to young people. Once we moved from Robert Taylor, we moved to the Swift Mansion, and the participants there were mainly men who were released from incarceration. The audiences now in 2006 have been very diverse: Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, Black, White, Purple. Everyone has been a participant and primarily it’s been as a result of a partnership that our organization has with the Center for Cultural Understanding, which is part of the Field Museum. Our most recent audience was at the Polish Museum of America. We had an event where we partnered on the importance of dance within these two different ethnic communities. And so the dance partnership that we brought in was “Praise Dancing,” which is becoming more and more popular in black churches. And they brought in the traditional Polish dancers.

Marie Shelton, The Neighborhood Writing Alliance:
The Neighborhood Writing Alliance started under the guise of the Journal of Ordinary Thought, founded by Hal Adams in 1991 at UIC. In the past 16 years, hundred of Chicago adults have participated in JOT. In writing groups, in a range of settings – from the public library and schools, social service agencies and public housing projects. These are regular people, sharing their thoughts and stories. No educational background or writing experience is required.
Who participates? It’s an adult program that believes that everyone is a philosopher. So if you have pen-and-paper, or Word on your computer, you can be a member. I joined three years ago after retiring and feeling like there was nothing left for me to do. I happened to see a flyer on a bulletin board of the library. Some people joined by word of mouth. Sometimes they will see a copy of our journal, which is provided free in several public libraries. Or they may happen to hear someone reading at one of our workshops. Now, we are about writing, reading, and discussion. So you write whatever you have to say. And if you can come in for a couple of hours for a session you eventually read what you have wrote, and we discuss it. But it’s a wonderful discussion – you don’t have to worry about your writing being picked through and criticized. Usually, we have something wonderful to say and then we have something to say that will make your writing even more wonderful. We don’t have any different levels of standards: everybody comes in and writes. In our group we may even have somebody with a degree in literature. We have someone else who has no writing experience. Or like me who only started writing a few years ago in order to let my daughter know something about the kind of life that I lived in Chicago that was so totally different from hers. So there are people who write memoirs, stories, narratives, and poems.

Amy Thomas Elder, The Odyssey Project:
The Odyssey Project is part of the Bard College Clemente course, which began in about 1996 in New York City, with the work of Earl Shorris who was an author writing a book about poverty. His idea was that a Humanities education could help individuals coming out of inter-generational poverty to become more active shapers of their own lives and the lives of their communities through the kinds of critical thinking that the study of the Humanities fosters, as well as access to cultural goods. For 7 years now we’ve been offering The Odyssey Project, which is a free college-level humanities class for low-income adults – encompassing philosophy, literature, art history, US history, critical thinking, and writing. It’s a little less non-traditional than the other programs on this panel in that it has professors with textbooks and classrooms, but it is non-traditional in the sorts of partnerships and collaborations working together to provide it. We partner with social service agencies, with local community schools, with all kinds of volunteers who help to tutor, as well as professors from the universities who provide these courses.
The Odyssey Project has three locations. So we are close to many of our students – one is on the Southside, one is on the Northside, and another is in Spanish on the Westside. But the course is open to folks that live anywhere that they can get to it. We don’t even require that people have a GED or high school diploma to take the class. We have free babysitting during class. A lot of people have not gone to college for childcare issues and that’s another reason that the course has attracted them. We recruit through social service agencies, through our community partners, where the classes are housed. What participants get out of it is so individual to each student that I hardly know how to talk about it. But some say that they come to understand themselves as thinkers in ways that they hadn’t known that they could be. They come to realize that the tradition (our class is based in the Western canon) has something for them and they have something to say with it and to it, about it, or maybe for it or against it. But it’s a conversation that they can be part of. To sit down and read philosophy together with a professor and with other adults while realizing that “I can do this,” “I can learn from these questions,” “I can use these ideas to help me articulate wisdom from my own life” is truly liberating.

Claire Pentecost, Mess Hall:
Mess Hall is what we like to call an experimental cultural space. How did it start? The artists’ collective, Temporary Services, appeared in an article in the New York Times about the rise of artists’ collectives and a landlord, Al Goldberg, in Rogers Park saw this and thought he’d like to encourage the arts in Rogers Park. He asked Temporary Services if they would like to run a gallery. Well, they didn’t want to do that by themselves, and they certainly didn’t want to do a gallery on the model that we’re all so familiar with; the conventional model of showing one artist at a time with works for sale, etc. So they asked a lot of their friends if they’d like to become part of a team or a group that would run this space together with a really open, experimental perspective. The people who help run it are called “Key Holders” because literally we just have keys and we’re non-hierarchical. A lot of people who come through Chicago will do something at Mess Hall. So it’s a great matrix for people to spread their contacts or networks and reinforce or create new bonds.
Who participates? Everything there is free. There is no exchange of money at all at Mess Hall. We always have food and drink to the extent that we can. There are 11 Key Holders, and the diversity of the Key Holders brings in different people. The fact that it’s free is to recognize that differences in resources are never barriers. This Spring, we actually put together 10 points of things that we could agree on. I’d recommend to any group to try to do this. But on the issue of being “free” – one thing we’re definitely about is converting surplus. Our culture is just amazingly wealthy, and while we’re producing ourselves out of existence, the gap between who actually gets to have access to resources is widening. Mess Hall is really a place where people bring resources, share them, and generate more. To give some examples in the past couple months of who participates – one is a “Sewing Rebellion.” Every Sunday, a group of seamstresses get together with some sewing machines, and anyone can come and bring clothes that aren’t right for you and re-make them. You get taught sewing skills, and you exchange clothes. We have a series called “Marginal Travel,” where people who have had experiences around the wide idea of travel come and make a presentation of their experience. We had a whole month of “Re-use Workshops.” One thing was teaching how to make rope out of plastic bags. We had the Department of Geography at DePaul present their whole project on gentrification in Pilsen. Where else would they present that outside of their usual place? When someone proposes something to us, we always discuss it, and the questions are “Who does it serve?”, “Is this something that some other group would do already or better?”, “Is it something that’s going to bring in new networks, new exchanges?” And I just wanted to point out that it seems like everyone here on the panel is converting surplus. Everyone’s projects started out with an awareness of a surplus that they could create something larger from.

Ali McDonald, The Chicago Women’s Health Center:
The Chicago Women’s Health Center is the oldest collectively run women’s health center in the country. The health center is an off-shoot of the Jane Center, which was started in Hyde Park in 1968 when abortion was still illegal. A group of women got together to provide counseling to women who were seeking illegal abortion services and also to give them referrals to find underground abortionists. Eventually these women who had been performing counseling or referring started to perform the abortions themselves. In 1972 some of the women from Jane were arrested and a fund was started to pay for the legal services for them. But meanwhile while that was all going on, Roe v. Wade passed in 1973 so the charges for the women were all dropped and there was leftover money from all of that. With the money a health center was founded called the Emma Goldman Health Clinic in Rogers Park. The Emma Goldman Clinic sought to continue much of the work that the Jane Clinic was providing – though not so much abortion, but health counseling with women, providing political education on the lack of health care services, things like that. Eventually about a year after that a group of women who had been at the Emma Goldman Clinic really wanted to provide direct services as a way to react to these inequities in the health care system. These women wanted to partner with doctors, nurses, and other professional medical people and they started the Women’s Health Center.
All of the programs and services that we provide at the health center are based on a model of providing education. But what I’d really like to focus on today is our well-woman gynecology program, because that was the program that started the health center and it’s probably what we’re most known for in the city. In terms of who participates: there are generally two participants. One would be the client who comes to the health center to access services, and the other participant would be the health worker who meets with the client. The main role of the health worker is to provide information to our clients within a well woman gynecology appointment setting. All of our visits last an hour long, which is a lot different than the traditional time that the women have when they go into a health provider’s office. We think it’s really important for the client and the health worker to have a dialogue of questions and answers. Sometimes we’ll do instructions on how a woman can do self-care at home, how she can take care of certain illnesses with home techniques which can be a lot cheaper. This is important because all of our services are offered on a sliding scale and you see a lot of low-income women. So it can be a lot cheaper for them to be able to take care of things themselves, and also to do prevention themselves rather than just buying medicines and relying on traditional Western philosophies in terms of taking care of their bodies. And then we’ll also provide education about non-Western medicines, giving referrals and also information about acupuncture, nutrition, and both specific problems that brought her into the office, with broader things to increase her knowledge and her sense of agency in terms of taking care of her body.

Dave Eads, Free Geek Chicago:
About three years ago there was a tech conference and a bunch of geeks – none of whom knew each other – went out for drinks. We all got spectacularly drunk and started talking about how we were frustrated with traditionally-provided technological work: it was paternalistic, it was corporately-sponsored, it didn’t take into account free and open-source software, it didn’t take into account the environment. We heard that in Portland there were some people holding a collectively organized group called “Free Geek.” So we modeled an organization on what they were doing to bring in these sorts of things: free software, an environmental focus, responsible recycling, and so forth. In exchange for twenty hours of volunteer time, we train people how to tear down computers, test the components, and build them. At the end of that process, they get to take a computer home. If people don’t want to do that, they can buy a computer for $50; but we still teach them about free software, Linux, and all that stuff – we’re an anti-Microsoft zone.
So who participates in Free Geek? One of the things that we said when we started the group is that the traditional non-profits focus on poor people. And that’s important, and it’s our main participant base. But lots of people need technological empowerment. They need to understand how these things work better, if only for very practical reasons. But there are also important social and political reasons to understand how these things work and how to make them work for you. What’s wound up happening because we’re diffuse is that we’ve had this very diverse mix of peoples. Two weeks ago we had a “gangster disciple.” And a “daughter of charity” in her seventies. Working together. Building a computer. So far it’s mainly been word-of-mouth, word on the streets. So what do people get out of it? I think people get to learn in a very hands-on way. You know, computers are scary for people. They seem magical. They’re not so magical when you rip them apart with a crowbar! It’s a very liberating experience to just say, “You know, this isn’t that sensitive, this isn’t that scary.” We’ve felt like there’s a “geek culture” of problem solving. We don’t know the answer to every question, but what we do know is how to figure out the answers to those questions. So we’ve tried to enculturate people: we might not know the answer to the problem any better than they do, but we know how to find that answer. I know the magic words to type into Google, and you can too.

Naomi Davis, Chicago Calumet Underground Railroad Project:
We began as an organization back in 2001. Our mission at that time was to heighten the awareness of the great role of the Chicago area, and the Calumet in particular, in aiding and abetting the freedom seekers. As part of the secret nature of this work, we have a limited knowledge of the freedom seekers themselves. We have more of a story within a framework that has been put together on the structure of the homes where they stopped over. While, in a general way, we certainly celebrate these “unindicted co-conspirators,” we also understand the importance of framing a story about the people who were committed to freedom or death out of their voices as well. We are also recontextualizing the story as a primary focus on the voice of the freedom seekers themselves – their love of the land, their understanding of the stars, their ability to create networks in and of themselves, and the little-told stories in Illinois of the African-founded towns in the network of stopovers on the underground railroad.
We began the organization within the traditional model of a roundtable – you have experts, you have an interesting story, you have them come, you send out to your mailing list. And what we found as an organization was that the people who were coming and who we were educating were principally our Caucasian cousins. So we have evolved as an organization to ensure that our story gets out to all of us. So when we say “How We Learn,” we’re looking at different modalities for teaching – storytelling, we created a festival; putting together orators, exhibits, food, music, and dance under a big tent that allows us to have a multi-dimensional experience. And so, while the roundtables were a good place to start we found that to really create “stewardship” amongst other people – the community – where our site was located, we had to do some different things. The Oak Hill community has an annual family reunion and we found ways to merge into that and work together with the community to build that stewardship. And the whole issue of who participates and how they participate is very important to us in this regard because we found that there were many who knew, almost mythologically, that there’s supposed to be this underground railroad site in the area. And some of the old-timers actually knew that it was the <b>Ton Farm</b> or whatever. And so we found that it was indispensable to those who participated that we reached out to include our stewardship community and it was one of the main reasons that we created our Festival.

Ian Morrison and Haseeb Ahmed, Platypus:
What is Platypus? It first started as a group of intellectuals and academics who had been thinking about issues on the Left for a very long time. The impetus behind the reading group was that people didn’t have knowledge of the long historical trajectory of the Left. What were the historical problems that spoke to the present? So our goal as a group was to read texts from the Old, New, and Post-Political Left. “Old” meaning Marx, Lenin, Luxembourg, Trotsky, Adorno. “New” being sorta ’60s, “Post-Political” being more the contemporary writers. So the basis of our group is to have conversations; and it started with about 12 people but it’s grown to 30-plus. We have other projects to keep it together and allow everyone in the large reading group to speak and talk. We do film presentations that deal with the historical Left, we have forums – one on imperialism and two coming up, one about “Marxism after Marx” and another panel called “The Three Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance.”  We also have workshops that we do with different groups. Our main goal is to give historical depth and textual reading of the long history of the Left and to re-invigorate the Left because we feel that it’s in serious crisis.
Although we started out as a core group of people from the University of Chicago, the overall vision of the group is not limited to academics. The goal of the group is to reconstitute an emancipatory Left, which requires everybody to be involved across class and all of the different ways that society is broken down. Since its origin, the group has evolved to include a number of artists from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, some students from around the rest of Chicago, and other activists as well. We’re hoping with our upcoming activities to expand beyond that point. We have a number of activities coming up – we’re organizing a newspaper, and we have another couple of forums coming up. The kinds of activities that we do are usually structured by what the group itself is interested in. We have a central group – the Affiliated Society – and then there are subcommittees within that group which are based on the kinds of endeavors that people want to pursue. So, for example, people will be recruited and want to start a newspaper and it will go from there. Although a lot of this is oriented towards being able to communicate these ideas clearly to the world around us; a lot of the point of this activity is for us to start thinking and talking about these things in a way that is qualitatively different from the approaches of the past that haven’t worked. We want to find out why they haven’t worked and how we can find a way to make them work.

Annie Knepler, Moderator:
The questions of “access” and “resources,” which is a lot of what we’re talking about today, is something I hope we can dig into further. The next question gets at how these projects differ from more conventional education – conventional could mean school, or university, or classroom learning? One thing that’s come up in a lot of the answers already is removing some of the mystery of education, removing some of the mystery of the body, of philosophy, of computers. But are there other ways that you want to briefly talk about – ways that you see your project as different – and is your project based on any other models that you’re drawing from? Or are you creating your own models?

Naomi Davis, Chicago Calumet Underground Railroad Project:
As we’ve evolved, we’ve formed some different sorts of relationships than those you would normally associate with the Underground Railroad. For example, some of panelists have mentioned the environment. Well, because our project is located on an ecological wonderland in the Calumet, there’s a great consciousness about the environment in the area. Because we are committed to the stewards who are already there being beneficiaries of the legacy of the asset – we call it a place-based asset – we have evolved our project to the point where we are actually proposing a living heritage farm and village. A Ton family living farm and village; the farm as a museum, the barn as a state-of-the-art theatre, the village for living, eating, lodging and an organic demonstration farm. What is it that we can use to engage our community? Our stewards? Our cousins of all persuasions? What is it that can engage us as a people in servicing what is presently, quite frankly, blighted and underserved area in the Riverdale community? When we talk about educating communities, when we talk about who’s participating, when we talk about access, and new models – we think we’re breaking new ground in all of those areas. When development comes to the area, we realized that they could pave right over the whole Ton family farm, put up a plaque, and call it a day. Was this the highest and best opportunity for everyone concerned? We thought not. We thought about jobs-driven development, something where the culture of a place could be central. The idea that we can tie in oral history or genealogy – the families that live there now have been there long enough to see history happen. But does history happen if it’s not written? These are the questions that we’re engaging with young people right now when we tell them to go interview grandma: What is her story? What’s the story of your family, of your community? And we’re creating a real grounded relationship with history so that it’s not a far away esoteric thing, but instead that people say “It’s me!”, “I can move forward!”.

Ian Morrison and Haseeb Ahmed, Platypus:
Our group has a variety of different approaches to education. Two things make that different from a traditional academic approach. One, it’s never just to learn the history. It’s always a larger vision in mind. What holds our conversations together is a politics: how does the past task the present and how can we fulfill the potential of the past? It’s explicitly political. There are also organizational things that offset it from an academic approach. The night before the reading group, we have mini-groups that meet throughout the city to discuss the texts and the ideas that arose – so everyone gets to work out their ideas and relationships to these texts.

Sherry Williams, Bronzeville Black Chicago and Historical Society:
What do the participants get out of the projects? Primarily, what we try to share with each other is an expanded knowledge of Black history in Chicago. But typically what comes out of it is learning things about African knowledges as well. We’ll have soul food like greens, candy yams, okra, chicken. More so, we get to discuss how okra and watermelon and rice came to America as a result of the Africans. So again, the participants get an expanded history of African-American history and culture; not just in Chicago, but in the nation. Our project’s approach is modeled after what we did on front porches, backyards, and basements, and church socials. Just basically passing knowledge from one generation to another. Is it a strict model? No! Most times my hair is all over my head like it is now, mustard stain on the front of my shirt. It is just that you come as you are. But what I do know is that each community has a moral responsibility to share their history and culture. And I believe that this is pretty much what all of the panelists gathered here are doing. Passing on legacies and passing on information from one to another. In our organization it’s a generational process since so much is being lost – such as life skills. Many of us over thirty learned how to cook from someone, but our children know the drive-thru. We did some basic things like having a biscuit-making class and the response has been tremendous.

Marie Shelton, The Neighborhood Writing Alliance:
With the NWA I don’t think it’s like any other model because it’s not a formal writing group. You’re not critiqued and you’re not required to write better. But you do write better because you write. The more you write, the better you write. And then also, we’re able to take care of a lot of our own personal issues because you’re always told when you’re upset, “Write it down and burn it”! We write it down, read it aloud, and then publish it! So they are the reflections on our personal histories, our everyday experiences, expressing our thoughts with our four Cs: creativity, control, communication, and change. I was sitting in the car thinking about what could be the best thing to give you an idea of what we do….
And we just do everything for everybody!
So when you’re writing we’re able to express it or confess it,
Get rid of it or take a lid off of it,
Write as a suck or whine, or smile a shine,
Write free-wheeling or self-revealing,
It doesn’t matter.
We can write without fright, because whatever we write is alright.

Amy Thomas Elder, The Odyssey Project:
Well, I want to say that The Odyssey Project is traditional in the most subversive sense of the word – in that all great art is subversive. It portrays things the ways that they are, rather than the ways that the people in power would like you to believe they are. I see that as the function of education in all of the humanities: to allow people to see through things. We don’t use any secondary works. We read primary texts so that the student becomes the authority on the text, rather than accepting somebody else’s authority about the text. It’s traditional in the way that free people were educated. A lot of the education that is offered to poor people, I think, is education to pacify them, to make them “productive” and to relieve the conscience of the people who have too much. We’re teaching for transgression – in bell hooks’ terms, as one model we’ve talked about – rather than pacification or conformity. It’s traditional, but it’s not traditional in that way.

Claire Pentecost, Mess Hall:
Obviously, it’s very un-traditional. I think about what Raymond Williams said: at this point, the culture is teaching us all the time – we’re getting our education every day just from popular culture and things that are valued by the mainstream. But part of what we need to do is unlearn. To create the space to think about new ways to “be” – to be together, to be individually, to make the kind of lives we want. We have tons of models. They don’t stop. We’re constantly adjusting our model and taking in new influences and ideas. Certainly the great waves of self-education in this country – through the women’s movement, civil rights movement, and the black power movement – inspire us. And we’re acquiring new models all of the time.

Ali McDonald, The Chicago Women’s Health Center:
The center’s most obvious model would be the women’s health movement that started in the 1970s. One of our most important tenets is a peer approach to health care. That’s how we structure our well-women exams insofar as getting information to our clients. You aren’t just going into a visit with one person who’s an expert. There’s give-and-take on both sides. Our entire organization is also non-hierarchical, we operate as a modified collective. This has a great benefit in terms of health workers taking really important parts of the administration of our organization. Also, in order to be a health worker at the hospital, everyone goes through a ten-month, really intensive apprenticeship-training program, comprised of both workshops and classes. So the health workers really become informed in the sense of being book smart, but also in terms of interactions with people. Which is something we feel is really important in terms of the peer approach – you want people to feel comfortable opening up to you because a lot of us come from a background of health education of being only in the classroom at school. The boys go to one room, and then the girls go to another room. The teacher stands in front and gives the same lesson to every single person. That can really leave people out who have disabilities, or lesbian women… it can really isolate people and you don’t get to hear what’s important to you.

Dave Eads, Free Geek Chicago:
I think what’s been interesting is that our approach to education is both scrappy and sophisticated. There’s a project in Mali where American and Canadian technological waste goes to Mali, gets turned into touch-screen computers, and the Malians who do this are now at the forefront of touch-web interfaces. They’ve revolutionized health care in Mali using computers that they buy for $10 and convert for $5. In Brazil they have articulated a theory of the kind of practices that we’re aspiring to with Free Geek. The “Hacktivism” movement that’s all across Europe that tries to combine radical politics and social practice with how we use technology. So I think that because of certain cultural parameters in the US, we have to look elsewhere to see how people are doing this stuff at sophisticated levels. The other motivation for us is the free software movement. As Sherry mentioned, we have a moral responsibility to share culture. The free software movement is interesting in that it is inclusive of very many people, but it’s also very competitive. But it’s not acquisitive. You’re not competing to make more money. You’re competing for stature in the community, you’re competing to write the best code. But it messes with market dynamics: if people are going to compete in certain ways, let’s not tie that to a cash economy, let’s not tie that to corporately-owned intellectual property. Let’s compete – but share the results of our competition. As far as moral responsibilities: one of the things that we’re trying to do with Free Geek is to not lock this stuff up, not lock our knowledge up in perpetuity within Microsoft’s vaults. Free Geek is one of many, many ways of resisting that on a global scale.

Annie Knepler, Moderator:
We’re now going to open it up for questions, but I thought I would throw out some of the questions that I have based on these fantastic presentations. One of the things that came up in Daniel’s introduction but also in Amy’s talk, was the difference between the spiritual and the practical – what are the relationships between intellectual fulfillments and the practical things like how to read a book, how to use computers? The other question I had came up in issues of shifts in neighborhood. At some point could someone address issues of space? Both public spaces and the importance of opening them up for educational opportunities as Mess Hall has done, but also, what are the issues behind having access to space, which a lot of programs need? Is that something that we need to be talking about more seriously in a practical way?

Audience Member:
I have a feeling that “experts” work in different ways for some of the groups involved in the panel. Maybe in the Neighborhood Writing Alliance everyone is an expert in their own experiences and their own lives; whereas some of the other groups have technical or theoretical particularities that they have to somehow transmit. Could you talk about what role experts have in your organizations and what problems those folks with specialized knowledge can bring up?

Ali McDonald, The Chicago Women’s Health Center:
I suppose the experts of our organization would be the doctors who provide training to our health workers. But in the eyes of the collective, there’s really no difference between the doctor who has the degree and the health worker who does the education component. It’s just that the doctor gives the knowledge that she might have gained from medical school to the health worker in terms of how to approach clients and how to speak with clients. One thing about the health center is that there’s ways to value the traditional types of education that people have received, but also the education that you get just from lived experience and from speaking with people.

Ian Morrison and Haseeb Ahmed, Platypus:
We are different in that we’re totally fine with hierarchy. Experts are important to our group. For example, we had found out that some local authors were going to write about <b>Foucault</b> and his views about the Iranian Revolution. They’d been thinking about questions of Iran and its political situation for a very long time. So we wanted to engage them and their expertise. We did some readings for background, we read through the book to discuss what we thought was problematic about it, and then we invited them to our reading group. We maybe have a different approach to history – we’re trying to look at history so that we can do something politically in the present. That’s our ultimate situation – we have a trajectory and an end-goal.

Marie Shelton, The Neighborhood Writing Alliance:
For the NWA, I did not want to give you the impression that we drop into this place without some material and just read, and write, and get along. We do have trained group leaders who sit at the front sometimes with a little timer and with very good questions to make things go along. Now the group leaders are very laid back and you don’t realize that they’re leading you. Often, we think that what we do is our own… but we know where it started. So we do have some leadership, because we do have a great diversity of writing styles, ideas, ages of members that are from their twenties to eighties. So we do have someone to keep us focused.

Amy Thomas Elder, The Odyssey Project:
I would want to say the same thing about the professors in The Odyssey Project. There are two things that the professors have that the students want. One is knowledge of the larger context in which to read and understand works of art or philosophy. And the other is a method for reading the books and for getting stuff out of them. And these are both things that the students come to grasp. But it’s through seeing the relationship of the professor to the material as well as the love that the professor brings to it that motivates a lot of the learning and work in the classroom.

Claire Pentecost, Mess Hall:
We certainly respect experts and we have people sharing their expertise all of the time. But right now we have no shortage of expertise floating around and calling attention to itself in our culture. What we really need to learn is something that no one can teach us. We need to learn how to decide – with each other – what kind of culture, what kind of society we want to have. And these are things we can only do by experimenting, by trying things out ourselves. You know, what expertise is even useful to us? We’re such a rich culture, but we’re a walking disaster – not just the US. And we have all kinds of expertise. The real problem is how we can get people to make value judgments and consider each other, and then work together through differences to create an alternative. Experts just aren’t doing that for us right now.

Sherry Williams, Bronzeville Black Chicago and Historical Society:
We do consult with experts. We make inquiries with academic institutions, libraries, the National Archives, the Newberry Library. But what happens with us quite often is that there’s always some conflict. For instance, coming up in December, the Bronzeville Historical Society will be doing a presentation on the value of the quilt in the African-American community. I thought of it immediately as a tool for signaling safe passage on the Underground Railroad. But the academic community said, “No! There isn’t any documents that say that it was used as a tool.” So I said, “Well, show me where it shows that it wasn’t used?” So we will have to frame how we will present the quilt and how we will convey that all history has a merit, as they saw where we’re presenting it at the Chicago Historical Society. So when it comes to expertise – depending on who believes in experts and who values their judgment – it can sometimes be tough for you.

Audience Member:
I am always concerned about what methodologies or what ways do you find to judge non-professional or non-scholarly expertise amongst folks who have only their experience to bring? How do people who are more learned or from other cultures assess others’ contributions? How do you assess the level of their communication? You come with the passion and the eagerness to assimilate to a choir, to have this dialogue – but how does anyone know they are fit to interpret others’ communication? How do you assess that the dialogue is coming through?

Claire Pentecost, Mess Hall:
I think that you have to learn to evaluate the non-expert in the same way that you have to evaluate the expert. They both need to be evaluated. And one thing that makes this really obvious is that experts disagree all of the time. You have to evaluate where the knowledge is coming from, and whose interests does it serve? And doing this process in dialogue with other people is the best way. You have an organization and space like the Women’s Health Center. It takes energy… it takes energy all the time, but I think the social aspect of it is the best assurance because your experience is just one person’s and you should be able to compare it with other people. The more and more people realize it – the spaces we do have – like this space right here. How many museums and cultural institutions could be used for really open, inclusive, new kinds of things? But they’re not. Because we don’t take advantage of it. Much like the freedom granted to artists – or the freedom granted to any of us.

Ian Morrison and Aseev Hamed, Platypus:
You know, that is really a tricky question. Certainly a lot of damage has been done by not developing a framework within which to assess knowledge and information. We’re not a political party and we don’t have firm stands on anything because that’s really what we’re trying to figure out. But we do have a very useful category for assessing the things around us. And that is whether the things actually constitute an emancipatory politic. Meaning – do they point beyond to show that another world is actually possible? There’s an endless amount of strategies, tactics, and alternatives that continue to proliferate – and they will continue to proliferate. But anyone of them taken individually do not point to the way beyond. They just serve the basis of a resistance that is a permanent, endless resistance.

Annie Knepler, Moderator:
At this point I’d like to close out the official panel with a few words. One of the things that we wanted to do today was bring together groups that normally you wouldn’t necessarily see together on a panel. And I think we’ve come to see both the differences and the similarities between them, though I know that’s really simplifying it because we’ve gone much further than that. But to start to really think about what are the different possibilities out there for these kinds of projects is one of our goals. We really appreciate everybody coming together and doing that.

This event was supported by the Illinois Humanities Council. The event was recorded by Chicago Public Radio’s “Chicago Amplified” and audio is available on their website. The event was opened up with a reading by Arthur E. Holland, Sr. from his published work in the Journal of Ordinary Thought. Parts of this conversation were edited out to balance the contributions and because of space constraints. Anyone wishing to read the entire unedited transcript should get in touch with Area or listen to the “Chicago Amplified” audio archive.