Something extraordinary is happening on Chicago’s West Side. CivicLab, a coworking space dedicated to collaboration, education and innovation for civic engagement, is building community around citizen participation in government. Featuring a number of social change, policy and organizing projects, CivicLab also builds and deploys tools for government accountability and civic involvement.

Shareable caught up with CivicLab co-founders Tom Tresser and Benjamin Sugar to find out what inspired the project, the importance of DIY democracy, and what kind of response they’ve received to the project. Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Shareable: CivicLab is a co-working space, a hub for civic engagement, and an event venue. What’s the big picture here? What’s your grand vision for CivicLab?

Benjamin Sugar: CivicLab is a community space devoted to supporting DIY democracy. We do this by building a community of practice through affordable coworking, meeting, and event space; holding educational master classes and workshops at the intersection of civics and DIY culture; and developing original tools and research to mobilize networks of change agents. CivicLab combines Chicago’s emerging DIY culture and its rich history of community organizing to create new tools and solutions for the common good.

Our grand vision is of a world where solutions to our problems are developed from the bottom up and can bypass the slow bureaucracy whose decisions are often based on the ideas of a select few that benefit a select few. In the medium term, we hope to see CivicLabs on a ward-by-ward basis, and perhaps as a model that can translate to other cities as well.

Chicago Time Exchange organizing session at CivicLab

What was the inspiration for CivicLab?

Tom Tresser: My inspiration was born from my decades-long experience in community organizing and working on social change efforts and seeing the lack of progressive infrastructure that supports and nourishes change agents. We've also had a set of circumstances in Chicago where massive corruption, coupled with a loss of community-championing civic organizations and the hollowing out of the daily press and the arrival of massive privatization efforts by big business, has led to a perilous state of local democracy and social justice here. I felt that no one was really looking out for grassroots community interests and so felt compelled to help create a new instrument for strengthening civic engagement work here. I believe in the power of a physical space to spur community and innovation and in the blend off offline and online technologies to accelerate social change.

Benjamin: My inspiration for CivicLab came from a number of ideas and spaces I encountered during my time in the Boston area. Early on I was exposed to the ideas of the MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten Lab whose students showed me that learning how to use technology was not only empowering, but given the right pedagogy, could be learned by anyone regardless of background. This led me to a community space called Sprout which is dedicated to support learning and investigation and provide the necessary tools to do so including things such as precision machining equipment, 3D printers, and even a wet lab for biology. My final influence came from working on a project called Between the Bars, a paper-based blogging platform for people who are incarcerated. This led me to the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab where I found people creating tools for empower people in the civic space using low-tech devices to create high tech impact.

Want to run for public office? CivicLab has a class for that!

What kind of community has emerged at the space? What are some of the projects and organizations that have come on-board and how do they utilize the space?

Tom: It's a wonderful and dynamic space with co-working, classes, meetings, and events, happening almost every day, sometimes all day. Our co-workers have developed personal and professional relationships. People care about one another and their issues and problems.

Groups that have used the space so far include our anchor tenant Chicago Votes, the Raise Your Hand Coalition of parents of students in public school, the Working Families Party, the Young Invincibles, the Roosevelt Institute, Move To Amend, the New Organizing Institute, the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, and Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration. Groups are collaborating formally with major projects, such as a youth summit in the fall of 2014, and also informally, sharing resources, leads, knowledge and contacts.

We've had nearly 50 classes including Design for Empowerment Extended, Privatization 101, Storytelling 2.0, How to Run for Local Office, DIY Hydroponics, Art for Social Change, How to Investigate Elected Officials and The Commons 101.

Some of the meetings at CivicLab are Restore the Fourth Chicago who meets here on a weekly basis to advance mobilizing against mass surveillance; the Chicago New Leaders Council; Chicago Techno-activists; Chicago Meshnet and {She Crew}.

CivicLab projects or those we support include The TIF Illumination Project; I, Citizen, the Activists Board Game; MY PLACE (Media for Youth, Participatory Learning, and Civic Engagement); Workshop for Parental Engagement in Welcoming Schools; and Secure Drop.

The Raise Your Hand Coalition is one of the organizations that has worked at CivicLab

Teaching civic literacy is one of the stated goals for CivicLab. What does this mean to you and how does it inform the space and community?

Tom: Scholars of civic engagement often talk about civic engagement consisting of four aptitudes or dynamics:

1. Appetite or disposition for engagement—how likely are you to want to do public work, volunteering, etc.
2. Knowledge—what do you know about government and civics.
3. Intellectual Skill—what are your critical and strategic skills?
4. Participation—what do have you done around public life – volunteering, protesting, helping campaigns, running for office?

We aim to offer classes and opportunities for engagement and building/making to address all these domains.

Benjamin: Additionally, computational and DIY methods are becoming part of the fabric of civic literacy so we aim to expose people to the the new ways these tools are being used and instruct them in how to design and use them.

Part of what you do at the lab is to research why people do and don’t involve themselves politically. Are there any interesting insights you’ve gleaned from your research and how do you integrate what you’ve learned into the lab?

Benjamin: Admittedly, we haven't had the capacity to reflect on this in a formal way since we've been too busy doing the actual engaging of people.

Tom: This is an area of intense interest and we plan to spin up original research tapping into the constituents of all our stakeholders and allies to address that question. I’m obsessed with making engaging in public life as compelling as Farmville or Halo.

Benjamin: Our most successful draw for audiences have typically been things that involve learning how to "stick it to the system" or how the "system is sticking it to us.” Engaging people in the actual creating of things has also been successful and we will be expanding these opportunities in the near future.

Learning DIY hydroponics at CivicLab

Education is another aspect of CivicLab, with workshops and classes on a variety of topics, giving the lab a makerspace feel. What are some of your favorite workshops so far and why do you think having this hands-on aspect is important?

Tom: We have a wide range of subject matter experts sharing experience and information on policy, the state of affairs in Chicago, and how to topics. We've had workshops on how to run for office, how to start and run community gardens, the history of civil rights in Chicago, coding for teens, design for empowerment, how to start a nonprofit and much more. I’ve taught classes on TIFs, privatization and the commons and one coming up on Servant-Leadership. Benjamin has taught classes on design and he co-organizes a monthly event called What's Possible, Chicago?

Benjamin: I often tell an anecdote about a time I walked into Sprout to find a red knob on a box fan. The fan had broken and instead of going out and buying a new one, they fixed it by printing a knob of their own with red plastic. The DIY, hands-on part is important because introduces people to the fact that their world is malleable, the means to do so are available in everyday objects, and those objects can be combined to form solutions to everyday problems. We hope that these activities serve as a microcosm for printing new knobs to the broken box fans in our civic life.

CivicLab has given TIF inequality broad public attention through the TIF Illumination Project

CivicLab has created several initiatives including the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Illumination Project. What is the project and how does it reflect the lab’s goals and priorities?

Tom: Tax Increment Financing is a scheme where property taxes are extracted from an area and sent into a slush fund controlled by the local mayor. These funds can then be given to private developers with no strings attached. This is done in the name of economic development and eliminating "blight" but the program is widely abused and is beyond public scrutiny or recall. In Chicago 154 TIF districts extract almost $500 million annually.

TIFs are in 47 states and extract as much as $10 billion in property taxes across the USA annually. Large companies such as Wal-Mart, Target, UPS, Coca-Cola, United Airlines and major downtown developers have collectively received hundreds of millions of public dollars. All this money should've gone to the units of local government that rely on property taxes for operation. Our public schools are the primary recipient of Chicago property taxes and therefore the agency most harmed by TIFs. Across Illinois 550 municipalities contain 1,220 TIFs.

The TIF Illumination Project combines data mining, investigative reporting, graphic design and community organizing to reveal the impacts of TIFs on our communities on a ward-by-ward basis. We share this data with the community in TIF town meetings or "Illuminations." In the past year we've done some 26 meetings across the city in front of over 2,000 people. We distribute a graphic poster that displays all the information. No one else can supply this complete picture. The next one is in the 48th Ward on June 18.

The TIF Illumination Project revealed that there was $1.7 billion in property taxes sitting in TIF accounts at the beginning of 2013. This has significantly changed the tenor of civic debate here and is being used to counter the mayor's position that the city is broke and essential services must be cut and scaled back. Our work has also led to TIF impacts being placed on the Cook County property tax bill for the first time, starting in July. This will cause a major disruption in peoples' conception of how money is allocated as in their current form, the figures of property tax bills of those residing in a TIF are completely inaccurate.

The TIF Illumination Project is a great example of civic data and tool-making blending with design and old school community organizing and popular education work. Over 60 people have come forward as volunteer researchers to help us with TIF and related work as a result of the community meetings and the some 40+ stories written about them. This work was profiled in the July 22, 2013 cover story of The Nation, "Chicago Rising!".

CivicLab encourages people to get plugged into their community

What kind of response to the lab do you see among local activists, politicians and city leaders?

Tom: We are operating on a shoestring budget so we have not been able to advertise but all the same, our space and work is becoming recognized across Chicago's civic engagement community. We have relationships with five local universities for research and internship placement and our work has been used by the Chicago Teachers Union, parents groups and other citizen advocacy efforts. We are just getting started.

Benjamin: I think it's been hard for people to understand what we're doing. It's a new approach for people in Chicago. Once people get it, they love it.

Community organizers have had difficulty embracing the serendipitous approach that you often find in maker culture. I've found that activities for them need to have clear goals and outcomes. […] For designers, process is a valuable thing that can lead to better strategies and tactics which can lead to better outcomes.

I have found it challenging to engage the traditional makers/hackers in Chicago to the activist side of things. It's important to note that there are healthy emerging pockets of this combination for sure. However, it's not fully saturated into the culture as it has in other cities I have spent time in such as Boston or Detroit. I don't think there has been a lot of exposure to the benefits that community organizing can play in gathering people in co-design, and deploying new tools once they have been created.

In other spaces where civic hacking is vibrant, I think there has been a tension between representing data about the city in a clearly agnostic way. This is very understandable as some of the best work relies upon partnerships with the city. As one colleague enlightened me: one can view the city as a product, and improving the product with transparency and accountability will make it more likely that people will use it, hence engaging civic engagement. This brought up a question which was, what if the product itself is fundamentally flawed in some areas. How do you work with the city to force a recall of the product?

Participants of What's Possible, Chicago?, a monthly meeting at CivicLab

Anything you’d like to add?

Tom: Come work at the CivicLab. Our desks are only $200/month! Email us at Take a class.

On Friday, June 8, CivicLab will be presenting at PDF 2014 in NYC. As Tresser says, “We'd love to meet with civic coders, designers, investigators, organizers and people interested in operating co-operative spaces or maker spaces for social change.”


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Cat Johnson


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Cat Johnson is a content strategist and teacher helping community builders create strong brands. A longtime writer, marketing pro and coworking leader, Cat is the founder of Coworking Convos and