I Ask The Chicago Community Trust for $5 Million

CL-TIP logo bannerRequest to the Chicago Community Trust for Support for the CivicLab

August 18, 2016

Terry Mazany
President & CEO
Chicago Community Trust

Dear Terry:

I am requesting $5,000,000 in support from the Chicago Community Trust to build out 50 CivicLab spaces – one for each ward in Chicago.

This, no doubt, seems out of left field, unasked for, out-of-channels and a rather large ask.

However I would like to make the case that this is a reasonable request in line with your own stated priorities.


First, I was at the public meeting at Malcolm X College on November 16, 2015 when Jim Lewis and Dan Ash ran through the Trust’s Centennial initiatives in civic engagement and innovation. You all said that the Trust seeks to:

(1) Inspire more giving – where people will give more time, talent and treasure to solving civic problems,
(2) Work with residents to make change and to “create new ideas for positive change” in Chicago, and
(3) Convene civic leader to apply their expertise to “tackle the toughest issues.”

At the meeting a new focus on giving was announced. There would be general operating support dollars given for two years to selected organizations, and there would be an Innovation Fund – open to individuals and organizations – for ideas that “could help our region leap forward” or “to build the public square” and that you would have a high tolerance for risk and failure.

I specifically asked Dan if you would privilege what I call the Voice of Opposition. The answer was that the Trust is seeking to be “fierce” amplifier of this voice and that you all are “prepared to called into the Mayor’s office.” “We take our role as a conduit for community voice very seriously.”


So almost 10 months later we see no guidelines for these initiatives. But after reading your “On Table 2015” and “Spaces for Community Connections” reports I see enough encouragement to believe that my work fits your new focus and statements of direction perfectly.

The “Spaces” piece said “Residents need ways to engage; they need encouragement and safe spaces to connect. However, research shows that some people don’t know how to engage or work together on local community issues. Too often, residents feel they lack the power and resources to make decisions, lack trust in others to work with them, and lack the space and opportunities to engage in community-based solutions.

How true.

I visited with Cheryl Hughes and Dan Ash on December 2, 2015 and explained my work over the past seven years. Although I’ve received no support from the Trust (or any other major funder), I made the point that my work has delivered on all your stated priorities.


My work has activated hundreds of volunteers. In the case of the TIF Illumination Project – since 2013 we’ve galvanized 4,700 people to attend public forums. Each meeting was organized and staffed by community groups. Dozens of volunteer organizers pulled off these meetings. The research that went into our TIF work was almost completely volunteer powered. The meetings were marketed and run with no budget  whatsoever.

I would say this work has seriously impacted the civic environment here. Every time you hear the phrase “Where is our $1.4 billion” in conversations about Chicago’s budget, you are hearing the ripples of our research into the unspent balance that sits in Chicago’s TIF accounts at the end of the year.

In order to support the research of the TIF Illumination Project, two TIF training videos and the subsequent publishing of a book inspired by that work, “Chicago Is Not Broke. Funding the City We Deserve,” we launched four crowdfunding campaigns. 451 donors contributed $20,460. Now the book is starting to be read and talked about.

But this is not the first time my work has impacted Chicago’s civic arena.

In 2008 I co-founded Protect Our Parks (www.protectourparks.org) and we sued to stop the privatization of Lincoln Park. We won that fight – despite having no office or budget or allies.

In 2009 I became the co-leader and a spokesperson for No Games Chicago (www.nogameschicago.com). Now – this is where we get very REAL if you want to encounter the Voice of Opposition. Talk about being a “conduit” for the voice of community residents and grassroots concerns. We attended over 75 meetings and forums to listen and to explain why hosting the modern summer games is a city-killer. Again, with no budget, no office and no allies from the mainstream civic world – we made the case that the plan to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago would destroy the city.

Since no real reporting was done on our work – who we were, why we were doing what we were doing and how effective we were – it would be no surprise to hear you scoff at what may be sounding like an unsubstantiated boast. But we know – with a certainty – that the International Olympic Committee listened to us and that our work had a direct impact on Chicago being eliminated from consideration in the first round of voting.

Where was the Chicago Community Trust in what I call “The Battle for the Bid”? Quite a few local foundations gave a total of some $6 million to the 2016 Committee.

Frankly, I’ve seen more public debate on where to site a dog beach that I saw during the entire run up to the October 2, 2009 IOC vote in Copenhagen.

By the way, we were in Copenhagen then and in Lausanne, Switzerland in June of 2009 – delivering materials directly to the IOC. A feat that was dangerous and unprecedented.

Now, seven years later – all of a sudden – everyone is a No Games Chicago supporter. The Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, both Olympic boosters and material supporters, editorialize that Chicago is SO lucky to have escaped the fate of Rio and Brazil. “Imagine what would have happened” they write. Well – we DID imagine and we acted on what we learned and imagined.  Interestingly, you will find NO mention of No Games Chicago in any of these revisionist articles.

When your elected leaders fail you. When local civic groups that are SUPPOSED to be watching your back fail you. When the media becomes an echo chamber for the Mayor and his close advisors and donors – then your civic environment is almost comatose.

That’s what has happened to Chicago.


So you say you want to bring people together in some sort of space where civic engagement can happen, people can co-create and actually SOLVE real problems. You say you want to be “called into the Mayor’s office” through your work.

Allow me to tell you how to do this. I’ve been about this work for many, many years.

In 2013 I created the CivicLab in Chicago’s West Loop. With a modest investment, Benjamin Sugar and I opened the first co-working space dedicated to collaboration, education and innovation for civic engagement and social justice. We had two fantastically productive years and closed our doors on June 30, 2015. No one, as far as I can recall, from the Trust visited us or expressed the slightest interest in what we did or what we learned. I tried to get some funding but your grant system returned an email saying that we were not able to submit a proposal.

At the November meeting Dan expressed interest in learning more about the CivicLab but I never heard back from him.

It would take quite a lot of time to tell you all the things that happened at the CivicLab but you can get a summary here: http://www.civiclab.us/our-work.

Bottom line: if you are looking for a way to bring people together to get smart about Chicago, to prepare them to lead, to act and to change Chicago for the better – and to do so in fun, democratic and engaging ways – and you are prepared to piss off the Mayor – then the Chicago Community Trust should make an investment in my work.


I won’t presume on your time and further. I will just say that for $5,000,000 I will give you a necklace of 50 storefront CivicLabs – one for every ward – and a centrally located hub or “factory” base that can create products and programs for roll out to the community spaces. This is a one-time request. We will not ask for, nor will we need, any further support from the Trust.

I will give you an architecture for educating and training civic leaders.

I will give you a sustainable system of peer-to-peer grassroots investigators or civic journalists who will do original research reporting and documentary work.

I will organize a media platform for original reporting and civic dialogue.

I will give you 50 stages for civic creativity that will do all you say you want for Chicago.

I know I can do it. I’ve done it already.

I would be happy to discuss this proposal with you at your convenience.

Tom Tresser
Civic Educator
Public Defender

Personal site: www.tresser.com
Current civic work: www.wearenotbroke.orgwww.tifreports.com
Recent civic work: www.civiclab.us
Past civic work: www.protectourparks.org


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