Inhabiting and Learning Together: Tracing the first five years of AREA Chicago

An earlier version of this essay was written in May 2011 for a “Pedagogic Notebook” edited by Sitesize (Spain), but was revised in March 2012 for publication in areachicago.org.

“Healthy social movements need spaces for learning and experimentation, healthy democracies need wise citizens to make wise decisions about resources and politics, and healthy people need outlets for dialogue in order to learn about new ideas and form cooperative tendencies to help one another.” From the Call For Proposals for AREA Chicago Issue #5[i]

AREA Chicago is a print publication (a “reader”), web platform, event series, and a group learning experiment for adults who identify as artists, researchers, educators and activists inhabiting the city of Chicago. I was involved in founding it in 2005 and after the 10th published reader was released in 2010, I stepped out of the organization to pursue new efforts. This is the first writing I have attempted on the subject of AREA, from the position of being outside the organizational effort that was my primary political and community practice for over five years. I will attempt to weave my personal opinions with quotations from the publications and with some more general notes on AREA as a collaborative effort by a rotating cast of individuals. The project continues to evolve in new directions and my writing cannot speak to that, therefore I will focus on the period of time between March of 2005 and October of 2010 in which I was a central organizer.

The first reader published by AREA Chicago set the standard approach which has been used ever since: each reader had a theme or a question guiding the content and this one focused on critical and creative responses to the privatization of public space in Chicago. In the introduction to AREA #1, I stated “AREA will aim to be a shared space to fuel, debate, refine, express and implement our collective goals for a more desirable and livable Chicago and world”.[ii]

Each reader included some consistent forms of inquiry: maps, interviews, report-backs on events, translations of academic writing into shorter and more popular forms, and what we called “city-wide interviews” where many people who did not know one another would be asked to respond in brief to a central question which arose in the making of that issue of AREA.

AREA in the context of local activism, art and education

“Chicago hit its growth spurts in the waning days of the old imperial metropole, as empires shrunk but market logics expanded, creating centers and therefore peripheries throughout the world. Ever since the time of Chicago’s late nineteenth-century ascent, the tension between centers and peripheries in the colonial mold has informed all economic and political relations conducted over distances of every scale, whether that be between downtown and the neighborhoods, between the city and the suburbs, between the metropolis and rural outstate, between Chicago and the multi-state Midwest, or between this part of the developed world and those regions on the global periphery. The interchanges and flows between these places, and all combination of them, collapse distance. The uneven distribution of resources, economic benefit, and cultural reach reinforces and amplifies it. This tension shapes not only our experience of place and political understanding, but our psycho-social constitution as well.”  Editorial Introduction by Dan S. Wang in AREA Chicago #9[iii]

That AREA was conceived of and cultivated in Chicago, Illinois is not a coincidence. There are numerous factors about this place in particular that precipitated the work and ideas that inspired this project. And undoubtedly there are factors about the people and organizations whose work was either documented in the pages of AREA or was happening alongside in the common space of the city that made the project what it has been and continues to become.

“In the summer of 1967, organizers in Chicago created a “School of Community Organization,” an outgrowth of the Chicago Freedom Movement. The program was intended to attract recruits from around the country, mainly to train Black and Latino organizers to work in Chicago neighborhoods. Chicago was a testing ground for movement work because it was considered the most segregated city of the north, with the most powerful political machine. While classes for organizers were held in Garfield Park, college students, most of whom were white, were advised they could participate by conducting research into topics essential to grassroots work in order to produce handbooks for the teaching and practice of community organizing. These students also had the opportunity to take “free university” classes with radical faculty and invited lecturers such as Staughton Lynd, Jesse Lemisch, Rennie Davis, Heather Booth and Naomi Weisstein. This collaboration at a distance between middle-class white college students and Black and Latino organizers followed the emerging Civil Rights movement ethos of “organize your own,” articulated by Stokely Carmichael in 1966.” – “The School of Community Organization and the Center for Radical Research” by Rebecca Zorach in AREA Chicago #10 [iv]

Upon my arrival in Chicago in January 2001, it quickly became apparent that there were generational and political divides in the city’s political and cultural movements, in addition to the geographic divides that segregated different races and classes from one another. There were “old school” organizations with rich history and deep knowledge, and then there were younger groups that looked and felt very different, employing creative new tactics and embracing complex subcultural, queer and globalized identities.

It also became quickly apparent that these different worlds within the city had to find a way to interact with one another in a manner that was neither coercive coalition building nor issue-based professional networks. The idea for forming AREA was inspired by a number of ephemeral events such as the Department of Space and Land Reclamation, Teachers for Social Justice Curriculum Fair, Pilot TV, Haymarket Eight Hour Action Series, protests against the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue, Ladyfest Midwest, Cafe Intifada, Leftist Lounge, Indymedia and Discount Cinema screenings, Feel Tank, Rock Lotto, Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry and Version Fest[v], that irregularly brought unique coalitions of people together to find commonality and explore their differences.

“Our focus on discussion arose in the course of our collective activity and our many disagreements. The people who came together to found the 49th St. Underground had many different ideas for action. But we shared the feeling that we could benefit from discussing these differences. We thought that activists’ discussions too often remain confined to particular activist groups, and that revolutionary organizations too rarely engage one another in serious debate. We thought, further, that we could benefit from critical reflection on our activity. And we hoped that our discussions would interest new people who may not already be radicals.” – “Introducing: 49th Street Underground” in AREA Chicago #1 [vi]

One dimension of AREA was an event series that roved around the vast and diverse geography of the city, slowly accumulating connections and building relationships. Events included a series called “Infrastructures” which focused on learning from self-organized infrastructures such as “community land trusts” in San Francisco and independent media centers like Spain’s “Hacklabs.” With hundreds of events over six years, the organization collaborated with dozens of new venues and engaged different and divergent communities. Along the way traces of each event would inform the others, as some participants would curiously engage in subsequent gatherings that piqued their interest. The publication employed a similar organic editorial method for finding content and contributors. On a personal level, it was becoming a device for deepening my relationship with this city and learning from this place. The people, the histories they brought and wrote about, and our conversations all left incredible traces on my sense of the city.

AREA in the context of theories of “Life-long Learning” and Educational Activism

The concept of “Lifelong Learning” gained popularity in the U.S.A. after the educational infrastructure of the country had been disproportionately structured around young people, rendering adults as workers focused on production and consumption. Today “Lifelong Learning”  is a buzz word which is almost synonymous with adult education programs. Miguel Ferrero explains in his summary of the concept that the origins “can be traced back to authors such as Basil Yeaxlee and Eduard Lindeman in England in the 1920s. They understood education as an ongoing process, affecting mainly adults, and certainly not restricted to formal school…From the 1930s and up until the 1970s, Lifelong Learning was closely linked to adult/popular education and the workers’ education movement. The focus at the this time was on training workers, linking them to formal education and increasing the influence of the trade union movement by building their activist base.”[vii]The parallel concept of androgogy was cultivated in Europe as co-learning among adults distinct from pedagogy that implied a teacher’s transmission of codified lessons[viii]. It was adapted in the US context as a theory of education that was intended to fight the passivity amongst adults that was encouraged through the capitalist work ethic[ix].

In Chicago, a rich tradition of extra-institutional and explicitly political educational programs has traced much of the city’s history. Starting in the 1880s and lasting till around 1915 there were experiments in Anarchist schools such as the German Sunday Schools, Francisco Ferrer School and the Chicago Modern School that offered classes for adults and children, free libraries and reading rooms[x]. These experiments continued in a more social-democratic fashion with the Settlement House organized by Jane Addams who said “Settlement is a protest against a restricted view of education”[xi] and described a practice in which summer schools were set up where professors and students all paid equally to attend, live together and be fed, where working class immigrants cooperatively taught each other courses in world history and where “intellectual enjoyment” could be experienced by all regardless of class as an essential part of a “common life” that people in the Settlement House created together[xii]. Throughout the 1920s, initiatives like the Dil Pickle Club, Bughouse Square and Hobo College[xiii] provided room for “bums who talked like college professors”[xiv] and eventually led to the creation of the College of Complexes in the 1950s (which is still an ongoing discussion salon!).[xv] Later in the 1960s the Chicago Free School was launched as well as political education programs by “new left” groups like JOIN Community Union, The Black Panther Party, Young Lords, Rising Up Angry and the Young Patriots Organization[xvi] (all of which were written about in AREA Chicago).

“What is shared between students of 1968 and today? The social conditions propelling calls for revolution are remarkably similar: a highly unpopular and politically motivated war, repression of civil liberties, excessive materialism, a neglect of human rights. As in the 1960s, some radical students today are beginning to band together to provide opportunities once again for free and democratic education. When speaking to free school organizers of Chicago, I heard familiar themes re-emerging. Some attempt to make their own universities more democratic; others oppose conventional schooling altogether because of its connections to perpetuating social harm. Most free school classes, workshops and dialogues aim to be anti-capitalist, anti-hierarchical, anti-specialized and anti-competitive. Instead, free schools reclaim the ideals of education by embracing cooperation, community, mutual aid, responsibility, accountability, autonomy and liberation.” “Free School Movement” by Ashley Weger in AREA Chicago #7 [xvii]

In the 1970s interesting community education experiments continued to be developed in the form of the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School created by Puerto Rican independence activists and the People’s Music School in the Uptown neighborhood[xviii]. This rich tradition was expanded upon in the 1990s with the “info-shop” known as the Autonomous Zone and the ongoing Open University of the Left, and continued at the turn of the century spaces like Buddy, Highschool, Mess Hall, Biblioteca Popular, Platypus, Dorkbot, Co-Prosperity School, La Casita, Centro Autonomo and other shorter-lived experiments such as ARC, Chicago Political Workshop, Chicago Free School and the local branch of the LA based The Public School. Universidad Popular and Chicago Freedom School expand on the limited offerings of more established and traditional adult education in City Colleges and after school programs like After School Matters[xix].

“There is a core group of eleven “keyholders” that coordinate and organize all of the events the take place at Mess Hall—or under the Mess Hall name, since sometimes Mess Hall projects happen at other places too. I am one of the people in that group. But beyond that group there are so many people who have contributed huge amounts of energy, thought, time, material, and emotional support to this experiment: neighbors, scholars, speakers, activists, introverts, artists, technicians, organizers, locals, tinkerers, eccentrics, landlords, hoarders, travelers, archivists, cranks, writers, cooks, talkers, audience members; all of them are cultural contributors: the foundation of Mess Hall.

Egregiously, I left educators off that list. Certainly many professional educators have contributed to Mess Hall and wonderful things have come out that, but Mess Hall has also been a place for co-education, a place where non-professionals can educate and where there is some possibility for anyone to become a teacher. Sometimes teaching happens by overt, formal lesson; sometimes in spontaneous situations where lessons can’t help but bloom, and other times there are difficult situations that can only be navigated by on-the-spot learning.” – “Can Experimental Cultural Centers Replace MFA Programs? by Mike Wolf in AREA Chicago #5 [xx]

These efforts often parallel inspiring activism and social-justice education happening within public schools and universities to reform them from the inside, the most notable of which include Caucus of Rank and File Educators and Teachers for Social Justice representing those working in primary education, and ethnically or culturally identified student unions, student worker organizations, and labor unions representing staff, maintenance and service workers and faculty within public and private colleges[xxi].

“So the question is: Who will decide what kind of education our children should have, the Commercial Club of Chicago, mayor Daley, and the big real estate developers? Or parents, communities and teachers?

There is an alternative beyond failing schools and business-led education. There are examples of city schools that are grounded in children’s lives, cultures, and identities, that are anti-racist and pro-justice, that have a rigorous curriculum and are hopeful, joyful, and visionary, and that teach children to think critically about the world we live in so they can actively participate in making it more just.” Position on Renaissance 2010 by Teachers for Social Justice in AREA Chicago #1[xxii]

In this rich context of education about politics and engagement with the politics of education, AREA has attempted to provide a sustained space for dialogue and inquiry related to the relationship between education and social movements.

“Woodlawn is a neighborhood with a rich history of social and political struggle and a long tradition of community organizing. For decades the neighborhood has been home to an array of civil rights organizers, black power activists, community organizations, musicians, and artists. In the 1960s, residents forced the University of Chicago to halt its southward expansion at 61st St. and built power to address a wide array of community issues. The idea behind STOP/Student-Tenant Organizing Project was to build a principled solidarity based not on service, hand-outs or dependence but rather mutual learning and action to address displacement in Woodlawn. Immediately, questions emerged: what role would students play? Who would train the student and tenant organizers? Which buildings should we start with? How can real trust and solidarity be built given the transitory nature of students?” – “Introducing STOP” by Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle in AREA Chicago #3[xxiii]

AREA as a collaborative learning experiment

On a Sunday morning in early spring we gathered in the first floor of the home of local artist Claire Pentecost, unfolded chairs, put them into chaotic rows and stood around the coffee pot waiting for the show to begin. We were not setting up a house church. We were setting up for a seminar entitled Chicago As Neoliberal Policy Laboratory that would include presentations by Mackel Garrison about public transportation, Pauline Lipman on public schools and public housing, Nik Theodore on his research about how municipal governments borrow policy models from one another and Brian Holmes on the University of Chicago School of Urban Sociology that has rendered Chicago one of the most researched urban areas in the academic universe. But just as the setting was not a house church, the gathering was also not an academic panel – it was a training for contributors to AREA Chicago #6: City As Lab. The activists, artists, journalists and teachers gathered in the room were not getting paid to be there, they were not beefing up their resumes, nor were they engaging in a conceptual school-as-art project so fashionable in the contemporary art world today. This seminar was intended to provide a common ground for people writing articles for the upcoming AREA issue reader to discuss the broader conceptual themes related to the issue. The intended goal was to give back to authors who voluntarily contribute their time and energy to AREA through offering a co-learning educational space. Editorially, the objective was to see if by giving contributors some time and space to discuss ideas before they started writing, if the contents of the publication might be more coherent than typically allowed for in the AREA editorial process, where authors communicate only with editors and not each other and have their ideas curated together behind the scenes.

The most rewarding part of working on AREA for me was the immense amount of learning it facilitated in the form of new skills, ideas, and relationships. This was consistently echoed in evaluations by others within the organization as we underwent a transition from an informal leadership structure, in which a few people directed, to one that was guided by six “COREdinators.”

“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.” – What Does City-Wide Movement Building Look Like? by Mia Henry in AREA Chicago #10 [xxiv]

It has always been my dream to operate a movement-building educational center. So many of the existing and historical models for political education described above have either intentionally been organized around a neighborhood or group, or they have un-intentionally had geographically or culturally specific audience/participants that created a distinct inside and outside for who could engage in the effort. It occurred to me in the early years of AREA that perhaps what we were doing was laying a solid foundation for the eventual creation of a movement-building educational center. Perhaps one way to avoid the limited reach of existing political education projects and political activism in general would be to start a very slow and thoughtful research process that developed the analytical and communications skill-sets of hundreds of people throughout diverse sectors of the city through a magazine? It would not be the obvious pathway, but perhaps incidentally the experimental process of this magazine was the pre-requisite to becoming our own school?

While intellectuals and artists around the world are engaged in short-lived experiments at starting alternative schools ranging from Nightschool to Teach for Amerika[xxv] , these efforts generally have little staying power or relevance to local history or concerns. And in general, even the critical pedagogy discourse often lacks a certain site-specificity, which has promoted calls for “Place Based Critical Pedagogy” that “means making a place for the cultural, political, economic, and ecological dynamics of places whenever we talk about the purpose and practice of learning.”[xxvi]

Perhaps the alternative school should not begin with a school at all – but the formation of a learning community. Last year the organization began describing itself as a space for “shared and mutual self-education.”[xxvii] Through AREA, deeply situated learning experiences have been facilitated for authors who contribute to the publication, editors who guide authors and temporary editorial collectives that work together to research themes and frame the work of dozens of subjects for each issue of the reader. At the events, participants have their ideas and perspectives tested in real time and space with others who want to learn from them as well as critique them. And the advisory group that guides the work of AREA gets to learn together as they experiment with creating an institution to support these activities. We do not know if AREA will ever become a school or a physical space for movement building[xxviii]? Only through the ongoing engagement of people like you will the future be determined.


[i] Tucker “Inheriting the Grid: An Introduction to AREA Chicago #5”; Summer, 2007 http://www.areachicago.org/p/issues/how-we-learn/inheriting-the-grid-5/
[ii] http://areachicago.org/p/issues/issue-1/inheriting-grid-1/
[iii] http://areachicago.org/p/issues/peripheral-vision/introduction/
[iv]http://www.areachicago.org/p/issues/institutions-and-infrastructures/school-community-organization-and-center-radical-r/
[v] For information on many of these projects see “Trashing the Neoliberal City” edited by Forman/Tucker 2006 at http://www.learningsite.info/trashing003.htm
[vi]http://areachicago.org/p/issues/issue-1/notes-from-the-49th-street/
[vii]http://trainingdirectionsnetwork.blogspot.com/2009/01/lifelong-learning-2-history.html
[viii]http://nlu.nl.edu/academics/cas/ace/resources/malcolmknowles.cfm
[ix]http://www-distance.syr.edu/andraggy.html Moving from Pedagogy to Andragogy; Adapted and Updated from Hiemstra, R., & Sisco, B.
[x]P. 62 and p.67 The modern school movement: anarchism and education in the United States By Paul Avrich (AK Press, 2006)
[xi] p.136 Twenty Years at Hull-House: With Autobiographical Notes By Jane Addams (The Macmillan Company, 1911)
she explains how their experiments in communtiy organizing always included reading groups; on p428 she explains the University Extension program; on p.429 she explains how their experiments with summer schools for poor adults should be reproduced on all normal college campuses which are underutilized in summer months.
[xii]ibid. p.452
[xiii]http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/589.html and http://www.newberry.org/collections/FindingAids/dillpickle/dillpickle.html
[xiv] “Memoirs of a Dil Pickler” from The Rise & Fall of the DIL PICKLEJazz-Age Chicago’s Wildest & Most Outrageously Creative Hobohemian Nightspotedited by Franklin Rosemontwith contributions by Sam Dolgoff (Charles H. Kerr Press, 2003)
[xv]http://www.collegeofcomplexes.org/
[xvi]http://www.areachicago.org/p/issues/6808/free-school-movement/
[xvii]http://areachicago.org/p/issues/6808/free-school-movement/
[xviii]http://www.pedroalbizucamposhs.org/ and http://www.peoplesmusicschool.org
[xix]http://www.openuniversityoftheleft.org/, http://www.lumpen.com/buddy/yes.html, http://messhall.org, http://bibliotecapopularpilsen.wordpress.com, http://dorkbotchicago.blogspot.com, http://coprosperity.org/co-prosperity-school, http://www.saveourcenter.com, http://www.mexicosolidarity.org/centroaut%C3%B3nomo, http://www.arc109.org/, http://chicagopoliticalworkshop.webs.com/, http://www.universidadpopular.us, http://chicagofreedomschool.org,
[xx]http://areachicago.org/p/issues/how-we-learn/can-experimental-cultural-centers-replace-mfa-prog/
[xxi]http://www.teachersforjustice.org, http://coreteachers.com, http://www.uchicagogsu.org, http://uchicago.usas.org, http://uicunitedfaculty.org and http://www.uic-geo.net as a few examples.
[xxii]http://areachicago.org/p/issues/issue-1/position-on-renaissance-2/
[xxiii] http://www.areachicago.org/p/issues/solidarities/stop/
[xxiv]http://areachicago.org/p/issues/institutions-and-infrastructures/what-does-citywide-movement-building-look/
[xxv]http://museumashub.org/node/48 and http://www.teach4amerika.com/
[xxvi] The  Best  of Both Worlds:  A Critical  Pedagogy  of  Place by David A. Gruenewald in Educational Researcher, Vol. 32, No. 4 (May, 2003), pp. 3-12 http://www.jstor.org/stable/3700002
[xxvii] http://www.chicagoartistsresource.org/dance/node/33861
[xxviii] See Toward a City-Wide Movement-Making Centerby Bill Ayers, Alice Kim, Harish Patel, Barbara Ransby and Daniel Tucker 10/11/11 http://areachicago.org/b/grid-city/toward-city-wide-movement-making-center/