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Early History - Reawakening Hope


photo "exquisite corpse"

In 1992, Bliss Browne dedicated nine months to learning Chicago history, and listening to people's concerns and hopes about what might constitute an effective visioning and community regeneration process in Chicago. She visited other cities with emerging citywide initiatives including Atlanta and Pittsburgh. She worked with the Council of Religious Leaders on their vision for Chicago's future. During that time, an informal network of Chicago leaders began to gather around the questions at the heart of Browne's inquiry. In September 1992, twenty of them -- educators, corporate and media executives, philanthropists, community organizers, youth developers, economists, religious leaders, social service providers -- were convened as a design team for the project. A private philanthropic foundation supported Browne to pursue the work of designing the project's first phase, testing its viability, and getting the project organized.


From September 1992 to May 1993, the design team designed a process of civic inquiry. This was the starting point for engaging the city of Chicago in a broad-based conversation about its future. Two ideas shaped the ultimate process design. First, that the pilot should attempt to discover what gives life to the city, and second, that it should provide significant leadership opportunities for youth, who clearly represented the city's future. A design team member noted that the process was quite consistent with "Appreciative inquiry" , an emerging change methodology developed by David Cooperrider and others at Case Western Reserve University, which fosters innovation in organizations through gathering positive stories and images and building on them to construct the desired future. Imagine Chicago's citywide interviews exemplified this mindset and approach.


The design team expected that positive intergenerational conversation would provide a bridge between the experience and wisdom of seasoned community builders and the energy and commitment of youth. They hoped that a common search for purpose would yield deeper insights into the collective future of the community.


BlissTwo types of pilots were implemented in 1993-1994: a citywide "appreciative inquiry" process to gather Chicago stories and commitments, and a series of community-based and led processes. Young adults and community builders in Chicago came together to share their hopes and commitments, within a setting of mutual respect. Intergenerational teams, led by a young person in the company of an adult mentor, interviewed business, civic, and cultural leaders, about the future of their communities and of Chicago. The interviewer asked positive questions about high points in the lives of citizens who had made a difference and their hopes for the future. The youth distilled the content for public view in ways that inspired public action and reinforced commitment. The premise was that young people could be effective agents of hope and inspiration, if released from the negative stereotypes held by themselves and others.


In late 1994, a formal evaluation gathered feedback on the effects of Imagine Chicago's intergenerational appreciative inquiry. Both the power and the limitations of the intergenerational interview process became clear. The process was successful in establishing a lively sense of shared civic identity, creating effective methods for constructive intergenerational dialogue, and expanding the sense among the young people that they could make a difference. However, sustaining structures were needed to move the participants from inspiration to action and leverage the connections. Imagine Chicago recognized that the appreciative intergenerational interview process would be more effective if it could be embedded within structures that could move more readily to action.


Therefore, Imagine Chicago spent 1995 designing structured intergenerational initiatives with identified public partners (like schools, community development organizations, cultural institutions and faith communities) who shared a common commitment to the city's future. Each gave participants a chance to be city creators in more concrete and sustained ways. Each initiative moved toward visible outcomes through dialogue, curriculum development and network formation. This enabled individuals and organizations to develop skills which deepened their hope and helped forge meaningful civic connections.


A common framework to recognize and build capacity to make a civic contribution linked the initiatives. Imagine Chicago challenged individuals and organizations to consider three fundamental questions relevant to Chicago's future: What is? What could be? What will be? Through structured dialogues and opportunities for joint action, more and more citizens asked the questions and learned how their visions, choices, and commitments could help shape broader systems and communities in the city.


The initial city dialogues led to many innovative partnership programs -- with institutional impact -- that created meaningful connections across generations, cultures, and neighborhoods and which developed responsible citizenship. The focus was on education, leadership formation, and community development programs that supported personal development for public service. For a detailed description of programs please visit the Programs section of the website.


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