Expanding Chicago’s public square

Expanding Chicago’s public square

Ben Aaronson

“You don’t have to be Kissinger to know that bombing people in Iraq is wrong,” insisted Mary Rickard, drawing several groans of disagreement from the strangers she was addressing. Rickard, a 50-year-old public relations and marketing consultant from Logan Square, spoke recently at a weekly discussion series that attempts to get Chicagoans talking about serious public policy issues with those outside their social circles.

The series, called Cafe Society, has become increasingly popular since its inception last fall. But organizers are not satisfied, and hope to improve its racial and philosophical diversity.

Sixteen people–some spouses, some friends, some strangers–gathered with Rickard at a Bucktown coffee shop to discuss the role of art in politics.

John Lee, a 41-year-old resident of the Near North Side, argued that a poem won’t reach as many people as an editorial. “Artists don’t reach the masses they think they should,” said Lee.

“Poetry reaches people on an emotional level, as opposed to an intellectual level,” countered Rickard.

As more people got involved, the conversation kept its momentum. The debate continued for an hour before Steve Gardiner, the moderator, regretfully announced that time was up.

Each week, Cafe Society hosts discussions in coffee shops in the Loop, the North Side’s Lakeview and Andersonville neighborhoods, Bucktown on the Northwest Side, Hyde Park on the South Side, and west suburban Oak Park. About 60 participants attend each week.

But in the struggle to achieve greater diversity, program organizers have had to guard against the perception of intellectual elitism. Cary Nathenson, program director for The Public Square, the Chicago-based education and social justice nonprofit that sponsors Cafe Society, said leaders are hoping to add discussions in Spanish at a location in Pilsen or Little Village, both mostly Latino neighborhoods southwest of downtown. They’re also exploring the use of a barber shop in Austin on the West Side. In April, Cafe Society began a series of discussions on the meaning of race.

Intellectual Work

Cafe Society is an attempt to tap into Chicago’s “coffeehouse culture” to create a place where people can form active communities, Nathenson said.

“Cafes are becoming this notion of a third place, outside of home and work, where community happens,” he said. Nathenson hopes the discussions will help residents become “informed enough to be involved constructively in the decision-making process” on public issues.

Three years ago, Nathenson, his wife, Katrin Voelkner, and Lisa Yun Lee, now chair of The Public Square’s board, founded what was then known as the Center for Public Intellectuals.

Last fall, Barbara Ransby, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, became the group’s executive director. She and other members decided to change its name to The Public Square, which they felt “reflected a more democratic process,” Ransby said. (Ransby serves on The Chicago Reporter’s advisory editorial board.)

The name change was well-received. “‘Intellectual’ conjures up an image of some snobby, maladjusted, holier-than-thou, socially inept person,” said Corey D. Gimbel, 54, a realtor who attends Cafe Society in Oak Park.

“We were never a center for intellectuals–[that] made it seem like it was some sort of club for smart people,” Nathenson said. “We are a center about intellectual work and public life, and the importance of [that] work in changing society.”

Ransby also launched Cafe Society last fall. “It’s critically important that not only friends but strangers talk to each other about social issues,” she said.

Discussion topics are usually drawn from “Odyssey,” a public affairs show on Chicago Public Radio. Topics have ranged from the effects of sport utility vehicles on the environment to intellectual property.

On average, 10 to 12 people attend Cafe Society discussions, according to Voelkner, the program’s coordinator. Discussions are moderated by trained facilitators.

Facilitator Kavita Das, 28, said she was drawn to Cafe Society’s unique setting. “It facilitated discussions of consequential issues that affect people, but made them accessible by having [them) in informal, public settings like cafes,” said Das, a special projects manager for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Not Satisfied

Cafe Society does not actively sponsor any type of activism, and most facilitators and participants think that’s appropriate.

“If [Cafe Society) encourages specific types of activism, it loses the validity of promoting open discussion,” said John Lee, who attends discussions weekly. “It’s an opportunity to get alternative viewpoints.”

Little racial diversity was evident among the groups who gathered for three Cafe Society discussions the Reporter attended in late January and early February. Das led three white men in a discussion in the Loop, while two African Americans joined two white attendees at a gathering in Hyde Park. The Bucktown debate attracted seven women and eight men; all of them but one were white.

While administrators, facilitators and participants say they have observed some diversity across race and age, they also cite a need to broaden participation, particularly in political ideology. “We’re not satisfied yet,” Voelkner said.

Typical participants range from “oldschool Leftists to mainstream liberals, with a sprinkling of libertarians, cultural anarchists and unclassifiable gadflies,” said Gardiner, a doctoral student at Cornell University.

“I don’t think the experiments in community are any less valid even if they are not the most diverse groups of people,” Nathenson said. “What each Cafe Society group is doing does contribute to building a community; it’s just not the end of the process.”

COPYRIGHT 2003 Community Renewal Society

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group