Zelda Galewsky

In 2003, Danielle Allen, then a professor at the University of Chicago, founded the Civic Knowledge Project (CKP). In the organization’s mission statement, she wrote:

The Mission of the CKP is to develop and strengthen community connections, helping to overcome the social, economic, and racial divisions among the various knowledge communities on the South Side of Chicago. We believe that the free and reciprocal flow of knowledge is empowering. Working with our many local collaborators, we (1) Provide educational and humanities programming linking the University of Chicago to other knowledge communities surrounding it; (2) Develop institutional policy for the exchange of knowledge among different local knowledge communities; and (3) Serve as an educational and organizational resource for our community.

After Allen left for Princeton, Bart Schultz, a professor in the UofC’s Philosophy Department, took over as Executive Director of the CKP. This December, he released an essay,“The New Chicago School of Philosophy,” in which he writes:

It must be flatly admitted that the University of Chicago Civic Knowledge Project has failed in its mission. Overcoming ‘the social, economic, and racial divisions among the various knowledge communities on the South Side of Chicago’ will probably take nothing less than the democratic socialist transformation of the U.S., but in any event is certainly beyond the capabilities of a comparatively small-scale initiative such as the CKP.

Nevertheless, Schultz uses part of the essay to detail “some of the paradoxical ways in which, in this context of failure, some signs of hope emerge,” including the CKP’s efforts to highlight the presence of African-American UofC students during the early twentieth century, and the fruitful friendship between Schultz and prominent South Side civil rights activist and philosopher Timuel Black. The Weekly sat down with Schultz on a recent afternoon for a discussion of his essay, the forgotten history of activism at the UofC, and the possibilities of the Obama Presidential Library for the South Side. Schultz wished to make it clear that he was speaking as an individual, not as a representative of the UofC.

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Can you start by talking about some of the goals of the CKP?

Danielle [Allen] had this vision for creating a different vehicle for the University to develop better relationships with the mid-South Side neighborhoods. She was really trying to talk about the importance of talking and listening to a diversity of people in a genuine public sphere, as part of being a citizen in a more robust form of democracy. Being open and vulnerable to news sources that you haven’t edited or censored and so on.

In the essay, you write, “In a context of ‘fossilized distrust,’ the simple act of talking to strangers represents a powerful democratic gesture.” A lot of the activists working in Chicago right now might say that’s a naive approach to take, and what you need to do is simply fix the underlying structural problems of racism and discrimination. What’s the response to that?

I’d actually agree with it, which is why in some ways I think John Dewey is the better model. Dewey was so attuned to the importance of a kind of democratic life, a kind of community, that was both participatory and deliberative. You were deliberating by participating, and participating through various ways of deliberating. He saw that the facilitation of an undistorted public sphere was part and parcel of a democratic socialist agenda. He certainly identified himself as a type of socialist. While he was at the University of Chicago, he actually tended not to loudly proclaim his real views.

There is that question of naiveté in thinking that you just go out and talk to people somehow, and it’s easy to make fun of that position by saying that if you have a bunch of academics trying to do that it’s likely to end up as talking at people, right? It’s not really listening. But if you look at this approach as … something to which we should aspire as a facet or an aspect of genuine democratic community, then you get a better, more meaningful sense of the community and power sharing at issue.

Some of the best things of this nature are really the result of people mobilizing in activist community organizations that might be partly, but only partly, populated by faculty, staff and students. They’re not just identified with the University of Chicago, and there is a much more dynamic interaction. So in a way those groups represent in part what Danielle hoped to see. For example, in getting the University to take calls for a trauma center seriously.

Do you think that’s a new development, the integration of activism between university members and community members?

What I find interesting about it is that the history of the UofC holds so many surprises. I had never quite appreciated, prior to the CKP, how difficult it was to just understand, much less come to terms with, the University’s history. Up on our website, we have the documentary about the founding of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). I got interested in that after seeing the movie The Great Debaters, which portrayed the early student career of James Farmer. Farmer ended up coming to Chicago as an activist and working with many different organizations and individuals, like the Fellowship of Reconciliation (and George Houser in particular) and a bunch of University of Chicago students. They just started doing things, such as forming interracial cooperative living arrangements. They were integrating in defiance of restrictive covenants and official university policy. They were the ones who challenged the discrimination that went on in the Faculty Club and the Reynolds Club barbershop.

They developed some of these classic techniques for protesting discrimination in restaurants. So they would send their friends in to a place—they did this at a number of restaurants (starting with the Jack Spratt Coffee House on 47th Street) and at the White City Roller Rink—and they sent in this one group of friends who were all white and they would be seated or admitted or whatever, then they’d try sending in a mixed group. They’d be told they couldn’t go in, there was a private party or some such nonsense. The second group would then say, “Oh we’re with them.” Then they’d try an all-black group, and the staff would try to turn them away, and they’d say, “Oh well, we’re with those other groups too.” They developed a lot of these really brilliant techniques, applying Gandhian tactics to the problems of racism in the United States. They organized Gandhian workshops on campus.

I want to get your perspective on a lot of the forays made by the University in recent years into the surrounding community: the Obama library, the charter school expansion into Woodlawn, the employer-assisted housing in neighborhoods surrounding the University. Do you think that’s along the right lines?

I think it all remains to be seen. I hope it’ll turn out to be along the right lines. I think something like the Obama center could be such an amazing development, altogether different from any presidential library that’s come before. It could be about the socioeconomic injustices present on the South Side, and feature the South Side communities that made Obama, and Michelle Obama. That’s certainly what Timuel Black wants to see. He’s been very vocal in favor of bringing the library to the South Side, but he has also been very consistent in saying this should be the voice of the South Side, and that we’ve got to keep that voice speaking up, because we don’t want it to turn into some mere publicity mechanism for his triumphs in office. It should be educating, inspiring, really dynamic. Is that going to happen? It won’t happen unless people fight for it. Nothing does. But it holds the potential to really change the whole picture of how to do urban development in a way consistent with social justice.

What I tend to worry about personally—and I should stress that I am not speaking in any official capacity here, but simply voicing my own views—is not so much the intentions of the powerful players involved, but how the South Side knowledge communities can get heard so that everyone knows what the opportunities are. I think that the Obama foundation needs to get involved with organizations like the Bronzeville Historical Society, which represents this dedicated effort by Sherry Williams and others to preserve the history of Bronzeville, save material that’s vitally important to the history of Bronzeville. She has all of these death records from South Side funeral parlors, an amazing archive of information about life on the South Side and what was killing people. She has no place to keep it. She’s housed in this little cube-like building over by the Douglas Tomb with some extra room down at the Hotel Florence in Pullman. She has been devoting herself to this effort for so many years, collecting all this information. That’s the kind of work that I think the Obama Center should reflect and honor.

If people come back ten years from now, or fifteen years from now, and it looks as though what happened was urban renewal or gentrification under another name, well, you’ll be getting the same kinds of critical histories you got about urban renewal in the fifties and sixties, right?

Does the CKP have any projects in the works?

I’ve been the director of the CKP now for ten years, and so I’m trying to ease out of things, and move programs into sustainable paths where they’ll keep going. We’ve connected with this great organization, the Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP). They’re following in the footsteps of the great Margaret Burroughs, teaching arts and humanities courses to inmates at Stateville prison in Joliet, a maximum security prison, very difficult to work in and suffering from all the budget cuts. Last autumn, we supported a graduate student in history who taught a course on black history there. A number of faculty, including some from the School of the Art Institute and other institutions, are teaching down there. We’re getting guest lecturers. I’m hoping Tim Black and I will go down there to have a kind of dialogue. Work like this is important for the incarcerated individuals themselves, but in this case so many of the individuals we’re working with are from families on the South Side or have families on the South Side of Chicago. We think of it as opening up through the humanities and through this great partner another channel of communication through which people can be reunited with their families through art, through writing projects, and so forth.

I always go back to a conversation I had a long time ago, when I was just beginning at the CKP. I had a very candid conversation with Dan Peterman, a cofounder of the Experimental Station. A very wonderful individual, very devoted to community arts. He was so troubled by the paradoxes that opened the Experimental Station. How can you do this without being part of the problem? Where you’re really creating opportunities, you’re not pushing people out, you’re really being inclusive. I hope that the [UofC’s] arts work will all go in that direction. I don’t like that language you often get with foundations. They want everything to be scalable. So much is based on local knowledge and certain community roots and people and individuals and things like that. You should be doing good things, even if they aren’t scalable. What’s going to work in Chicago isn’t necessarily the same thing as what’s going to work in Miami. It’s always hopeful, but I guess it’s the same message as with the Obama center: we’ll see.

On Thursday, March 10, 4:30pm–5:30pm at the Seminary Co-op, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., the Civic Knowledge Project and the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP) will host a discussion about PNAP’s work educating inmates in Stateville prison through classes and lectures. The event will be free.

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Bart Schultz’s Recommended Reading List

Over the course of the Weekly’s interview with Schultz, a number of works related to the mission of the Civic Knowledge Project came up. Here are some of them.

Talking to Strangers: Danielle Allen, 2006. A theory exploring the benefits of engaging with strangers in an effort to build civic bonds and strengthen democracy

Making the Second Ghetto: Arnold Hirsch, 1998. A look into how, as black immigrants moved north in the middle of the twentieth century, Chicago maneuvered to keep its neighborhoods firmly and permanently segregated

Bridges of Memory, vols 1 and 2: Timuel D. Black, 2003 and 2007. A two-part oral history exploring the effects of the Great Migration north to Chicago, told through the eyes of immigrants and their descendants

Challenging the Daley Machine: Leon Despres, 2005. A memoir from the iconoclastic, long-time Hyde Park alderman detailing his attempts at reform.

The Public and Its Problems: John Dewey, 1927. An argument for the value of a publicly engaged democracy, from UofC’s famous educational philosopher

“The New Chicago School of Philosophy”: Bart Schultz, 2015. An essay detailing the mission and accomplishments of the Civic Knowledge Project

“The CKP Remembers 1942-43”: Civic Knowledge Project, 2008. A short documentary recounting the history of the Congress of Racial Equality on the South Side

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