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What is Imagine Chicago?

  • a non-profit organization that has been working since 1992 to cultivate hope and civic engagement in a variety of cross cultural and intergenerational initiatives, projects and programs.
  • a catalyst for creative connections
  • a trainer, facilitator and mentor of community visioning practices and strength based communications and community organizing processes
  • the inspiration for a self-organizing global Imagine movement on six continents.


Imagine Chicago helps harness imagination for public good, encouraging and equipping people to become engaged in imagining and creating hopeful futures for their families and communities through both discourse and action. Working in collaboration with local organizations--schools, faith communities, cultural institutions, businesses, and community groups--Imagine Chicago has initiated and facilitated dozens of creative partnerships in which people have worked together to understand, imagine and create the future they value. Imagine Chicago has built intergenerational and intercultural partnerships across well-established divides of race, income, culture and class. People previously disengaged or disaffected have found meaningful ways to contribute their gifts to the communities in which they live. Imagine Chicago has bet on young people as its core staff and as a catalyst for expanding community imagination and hope. Constructive experiences of difference have nurtured in a new generation of leaders a passion for the common good. A new set of strength- and arts-based tools and practices for liberating imagination, improving communications and helping communities listen for and organize collective visions and actions have emerged out of Imagine Chicago's work.


Imagine Chicago has served as a catalyst and connector, remaining a small organization with many partners. Each year, individuals and organizations have worked with Imagine Chicago on initiatives that invite civic reflection about the city, link communities, and stimulate ideas for collaborative action. The development projects have been funded separately, with each developing capacity to continue the process of civic innovation. From 1992-2001, Imagine Chicago designed and managed small and large scale civic programs in Chicago focused on renewing public education, revitalizing civic commitment, developing and connecting community leaders, and linking spirituality and public life. Extensive program curriculum archives are available from those projects on this website.


In June 2001, Imagine Chicago reached the end of a program cycle which began in 1996 with the creation of a number of major citywide programs supported by multi-year grants including the Urban Imagination Network, Citizen Leaders, and Making Civic Connections. Imagine Chicago’s original intention had been to serve as a catalyst and connector rather than a program developer and manager. We were receiving an increasing number of requests to share our approaches and tools nationally and internationally. The time was ripe for a restructuring of the organization to harvest and disseminate the lessons of ten years' experience so they would be more accessible to and replicable by other communities. 


Imagine Chicago devoted 2002 to posting curriculum resources developed in its core programs to a website and hosting a global Imagine conference in which it could share its work and learn from the experience of others. The conference, which attracted 150 people from six continents to a six day learning exchange, showed how extensively a global self organizing Imagine movement was taking root. Shortly after the conference, Imagine Chicago closed its downtown office, chose against applying for new program grant support, and announced its intention to shift from being a creator (mother) and manager of community projects to being a mentor/facilitator and trainer (grandmother) working alongside a new generation of creators. Imagine Chicago's financial structure was shifted to generating revenue primarily from consulting and speaking fees, with interns continuing to provide additional staffing when individual contributions could be raised to support their involvement.


Since 2003, Imagine Chicago has worked primarily as a keynote presenter and facilitator at national and international conferences and as a trainer, consultant and mentor of emerging initiatives Read testimonials here. Telling Imagine Chicago's story and coaching Imagine and other initiatives on six continents has afforded great perspective on Imagine Chicago’s core ideas, frameworks and foundations of facilitation. Sharing and applying those are the core of our current work. In 2009, we added executive coaching and formal master classes to Imagine Chicago's offerings. We hope thereby to help equip and connect a global Imagine community of practice who can, in turn, train and work with others in developing imaginative, engaging and socially inclusive community futures. We want to encourage the world not only to imagine but to visit the great city of Chicago! 

Imagine Chicago's Institutional Structure

Imagine Chicago is a non-for-profit corporation with 501©3 status which has facilitated eligibility for philanthropic support. Imagine Chicago’s board consists of highly respected and well-networked interdisciplinary thinkers who provide strategic oversight and serve as brainstorming partners and connectors.


Imagine Chicago has functioned primarily as a catalyst and lead partner of collaborations involving multiple organizations, creating opportunities for sharing understanding and resources that lead to social innovation. The networks encourage learning by bringing together different discourses, practices and understandings around a common goal. Imagine Chicago is an organization with very open boundaries with respect to how it does its work and who does it; its operating structure is constantly reconstituted.


Each project (of which there have been many)  has begun with a design team gathering around a powerful idea, question or topic, attracting unusual and interested partners, and devoting many months to brainstorming possibilities before making any project or institutional decisions or funding requests. Good information technology and administrative support have been critical to continuity and effective organization of key documents, financial systems and databases. We were very fortunate to have a foundation executive recognize this early on and provide critical funding for developing excellent, flexible administrative systems. This allowed Imagine Chicago to serve as an effective fiscal agent in the partnerships it brought together.


Imagine Chicago’s staff has been intentionally tiny and comprised primarily of the founder working with young interns on a rotating basis. This has modeled the intergenerational, intercultural partnership we value, renewed and expanded the organization with a constant source of fresh ideas and energy, and been cost efficient. Staying small has also precluded doing other people’s work for them rather than empowering communities and partner organizations to do their own work. Key decisions have tended to be made jointly, often on the fly, in the absence of clarified roles.


Imagine Chicago has also leveraged extensive networks of friends across a wide range of sectors, and encouraged and relied on volunteers. This is evident not only in the board but also in the many highly experienced volunteers who contribute invaluable professional services and ideas. Permeable staff/volunteer boundaries allow responsiveness, creativity, flexible work roles and a high degree of production innovation and diversity. Authority resides not in position or compensation but in the ability to add value through knowledge creation and application in a changing mosaic of project teams.  Since boundaries are permeable and relationships continually shift, Imagine Chicago has devoted many meetings to redefining programs and strategies. A simple mission, “to cultivate hope and civic engagement” has made it possible to have many partners and projects, and for them to inform each other. It has, at times, been quite challenging to articulate a coherent strategy given multiple diverse and loosely coupled projects. The multifaceted nature of the work has challenged and stretched understanding of organizational identity; the nature of the particular partnerships has affected the organization of the work and services. After many tries, the board finally abandoned the attempt to create a "strategic plan", realizing that the organic and socially constructed nature of Imagine Chicago defied strategic planning except on a project basis. The very nature of the work is to listen for the future as it emerges and be open to surprise.


The role of the leader in the organization (which, in this case, has been Imagine Chicago’s founder since the beginning) has been to articulate and interpret the core ideas and values, build consensus around the mission that includes voices of diverse constituencies, listen for high value emergent initiatives, weave diverse voices and projects together, identify potential partners, and lead process and project design. The most important leadership skill has been effective communication—generating interesting and inspiring questions, active listening, an ability to speak and interpret multiple languages of the diverse communities that constitute the virtual organization (speaking ”corporate” to funders and business partners and ”mom speak” to parents struggling to raise their kids), organizing effective ways to gather and synthesize information from program partners and participants, embodying effective bridge building, and articulating the mission in constructive language.  Developing and maintaining effective communications with an ever-expanding interested public worldwide has been a wonderful, impossible challenge, given the large scope of the work and the tiny size of our staff. We have tried to be faithful in posting tools and resources to a website as they were developed (time permitting) so they could spark the imagination of others.


The Imagine approach pioneered and practiced by Imagine Chicago has informed civic engagement efforts in government, business, education, culture, health, and youth and community development on six continents-- involving universities in Nepal, health workers in London, UNICEF in India, business leaders in Beijing, municipal planners in Central Singapore and Calgary, community activists in South Africa, aspiring political leaders in Chile and Argentina, policy makers in Scotland and Denmark, and rural parishes in Western Australia, to name but a few. Each global Imagine project has been locally designed and implemented.   A new world of possibilities is taking shape as the imagination, hope and hidden assets within individuals, institutions and communities are activated and citizens of all ages become engaged in defining and realizing a future worthy of their collective creative potential. It has been our great privilege to witness the fruits of this commitment and transformation which continually reanimate the hope which brought Imagine Chicago to birth. 

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