Piecing Together a New Institution

In the early fall of last year, after years of anticipation, a small team of folks began building a new institution in Woodlawn, the neighborhood just south of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, called the Woodlawn Collaborative. Our idea was (and still is) to operate a physical space for effective and daring programming, focusing on three main areas: arts, education and activism. It was to be a collaboration between students and community members from the South Side, especially Woodlawn.. Rather than individual projects that happen once a year, or groups that focus on single issues, we wanted to create a stable institution. By building something that went beyond issues and cohorts of people we hoped to incubate not only new leaders and ideas but also new relationships and community.

This project bridges a traditionally tense relationship, mired in both past and present antagonisms. Learning the history of the relationship between the university and Woodlawn is one of the most powerful politicizing moments for campus activists at the University of Chicago. I myself, now a recent graduate, owe a great deal of my path to social justice work to resisting the feeling of separation and fear instilled in me during my first few months in Chicago. The Woodlawn Collaborative hopes to channel this energy into something that will transform the relationships the formed it. We picture an exciting space where during the day students and artists work in studio space together and offer free classes to the public at the same time as free music classes and effective after-school programming. In the evening there will be organizing meetings where students and community members build power together and free concerts where students and community musicians share and collaborate.

With this vision in mind we opened our doors in First Presbyterian Church (First Pres) at 6400 S. Kimbark and faced a suite of challenges both foreseen and unforeseen. Some were matters of principle, like navigating the history of the University’s presence in Woodlawn, others were implicit in the institutional frameworks in which we operate. These constitute the lay of the land on which we’re trying to build, which is far from unique. In this article I’d like to discuss what we’ve learned about that topography and draw some general conclusions about building our collaborative vision.


The Woodlawn Collaborative is a new phase in the long legacy of student engagement this fault line has sparked. During the 1960s the U of C attempted to exert the same kind of gentrifying influence over Woodlawn as it did in Hyde Park, using political clout to impose dubious urban renewal projects. Woodlawn residents, however, fought back. With the help of the Industrial Areas Foundation (the national network of Saul Alinsky, the father of the concept of “community organizing”), they created The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) and successfully challenged university efforts, culminating in a gentlemen’s agreement that the U of C would not acquire property south of 61st Street [See: http://www.areachicago.org/p/issues/6808/woodlawn-organization/]. Subsequently, though, Woodlawn followed the pattern of decline of much of the rest of the South Side and TWO lost much of its positive reputation. This story of cutthroat, unchecked university power, economic injustice, and community resiliency has inspired indignation and hope in generations of students.

The contemporary student story starts at the early part of this decade with the origins of Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) [See: http://www.areachicago.org/p/issues/solidarities/stop/], which began as a joint effort between university students and Woodlawn residents to organize tenants and eventually saved the Grove Parc housing development from demolition. As part of the organization’s evolution toward leadership by residents, the role of students diminished. Campus activists created a new project for engaging the community, a yearly block party known as Art in Action. Art in Action, held at First Pres, aims to create a fun and political environment to empower the community. The event and its year-long planning process foster stronger bonds between students and Woodlawn residents.

However, it appeared that the stakes of gentrification were rising as condo development continued Woodlawn and property values increased. The concept of the Woodlawn Collaborative was born as an effort to raise the stakes of our own work by institutionalizing many of the themes explored previously in STOP and Art in Action. It would be planned jointly with students and community members, would host artistic projects as well as space for organizing (meetings and political education), and ultimately it too would become independent from the university and led by members of the Woodlawn community. It would be an experiment in community organizing — not to build power, but to build a space for building power.

We faced a major challenge that has plagued all student engagements with Woodlawn: how to stand in solidarity and work with Woodlawn residents without having our association with the university be part of the very processes we’re fighting against. We worry it might follow this sketch: as a student-initiated project, we largely program for and by students, leading to increased numbers of students being comfortable in Woodlawn, which leads to more students moving in further south. This influx of students would support increased rents, and give the university justification to increase policing and push redevelopment projects that make the neighborhood more student-friendly and ultimately less friendly for those who already live there. While redevelopment is certainly needed (63rd Street can sometimes feel like there should be tumbleweed rolling down it), it’s a matter of who controls and benefits from that redevelopment.

This possibility meant that we needed to ensure that this did not become a student-centered space. We saw two ways to do this, first to have programs run by respected community-based organizations and second having community members take on leadership roles in organizing the space. For the remainder of this article, I’ll focus on the ways that the institutional frameworks we were in inflected and affected our attempts to achieve this.

This came in two main forms, issues with tax status (i.e. being a 501c3 organization) and insurance. We expected to deal with many non-profits (501c3) but not exclusively as we shared many of the current critiques of the limits to the non-profit model; namely regarding being beholden to funders and restrictions of certain activities like supporting political candidates. Little did we know that all Presbyterian churches could only offer their space to registered 501c3 groups. This is because the tax-exempt status of the church is dependent on its being a house of worship. If the building is used by a for-profit group (legally anyone not a 501c3), the church property risks becoming subject to taxation. (Even Weight Watchers programs have gotten churches into trouble.) This placed a number of restrictions on what we could do in the space. First of all, efforts to have programming rooted in the community had to operate through a non-profit organization. In more than one instance, we had the potential to open the space to an organization or individual whose work we found very exciting, but they were not 501c3 and so could not be independently in the space. Moreover, our very goal is to foster new projects that might not yet be established enough to have a non-profit status.

The Collaborative itself is not incorporated and so does not have an official non-profit status, but because we are mainly funded by the University of Chicago we are able to use their status. This, however, means that we cannot become independent from the university and stay in First Pres without the Collaborative getting its own non-profit status, an option we are ambivalent about. Thus, tax status has restricted both our efforts to have community-rooted programming, and our desire to be independent from the university.

The problem of insurance functions similarly but has murkier rules. The problem is simple: if something goes wrong in the space, whether a personal injury or property damage, anyone who could be held liable must be insured. But with so many parties involved, students, non-profits doing programming, the Collaborative itself, etc. it entirely unclear who’s covered by whose insurance at any given moment. Because of this we must often operate in grey areas to make sure everything is covered.

An excellent example of this occurred early on, when the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society tried to hold a meeting to organize against University Hospital policy. The meeting was attended by several community members unaffiliated with the University, and the church was confused and worried whether these non-students were covered by insurance since a student group was hosting them. These kinds of concerns came up again and again and at times even jeopardized the ability of non-students to attend planning meetings. Without the money to buy our own insurance, the Collaborative has had to navigate grey areas whenever it fulfills its very mission of bringing students and community members together.

I think both of these problems are rooted in a certain kind of institution-building. Instead of figuring out how to solve these problems according to the frameworks given, we might be able to circumvent these problems by changing our thinking about what we’re doing. Both tax status and insurance issues set conditions for what a new institution must have in order to be viable in our context. If we think that we must create something new that meets these conditions we run into the kinds of problems discussed above; each new project must have its own proper insurance and tax status.

As we’ve become more frustrated with these constraints we’ve begun to explore new ways of solving problems, based on a different model of institution-building. In this model we create institutions that are actually networks or collaborations of multiple projects and organizations that can share resources and open new possibilities. An excellent example of this is our new approach to coordinating partner groups. Formerly each group was assigned a liaison to communicate to the programming coordinators. This situation gave groups individual support but did not foster any dialogue or strategic thinking across projects. We’ve now organized groups into four thematic areas: visual art, music/performance, activism/organizing, and social services. Each theme has an elected liaison (ideally someone who was already heavily invested in this area of programming), and the four together coordinate the themes and inevitable overlap. By collecting groups by theme and having one person in charge of that theme we hope to facilitate resource sharing and more unified projects. Resource sharing will reduce the necessity for each group to fulfill all the conditions (tax status, insurance). Ideally this might mean that new projects could be officially affiliated with one non-profit, and be covered by the insurance of another group. Other initiatives under development also have this model: a new initiative takes what it needs from several places. These are new ideas and will obviously have their own difficulties, but they may also open the space for the kinds of creative programming that seemed impossible before.

Essential to the project of the Collaborative is that it be an institution; that it exists beyond any individual or group working on it. I’ve tried to explore what challenges have arisen from that fact. It’s hard to tell after a year whether we’re succeeding in our vision of the Collaborative and on matters of principle. We have certainly discovered that we are more restricted than we thought in our attempts to do so. Thus it seems crucial we figure out creative ways to give ourselves more freedom. We are thinking of doing this by moving out of the church and finding funding other than the University to the world of grant funding, but that does not solve all our problems, and it doesn’t negate the value of the lessons we’ve learned. I believe the model of institution building we’re learning will ultimately prove invaluable by following the core spirit of the project — creating a truly collaborative institution.