A City of Tribes

As much as I typically disagree with the Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, his description of Chicago as a "City of Tribes" is apt. I grew up in a small town, Woodstock, Ill., that was mostly homogenous and people had differences, but the commonalities ruled the day.

In Chicago, you can easily identify with five or more groups, whether you like it or not. Your race, ethnicity, income, neighborhood, school and block. I live in an area where I can associate with three different neighborhoods, each having their own festival. In the neighborhood where I work, personal identities can fracture 10 different ways, from the street to the block.

Cities are busy places, with so many people in such close spaces it's bound to become complex. In a digital age people in rural places are beginning to fragment, too. We can spend most of our lives listening to those with who we agree, without ever having to suffer the atrocity of defending our beliefs.

This is the death of democracy. We can blame forces outside of our grasp, real or imagined, from the Koch brothers to the Illuminati, but the blame lies closer to home, as does the answer.

Democracy is defined as a government by the people. We are the democracy. As soon as we abdicate the power to phantoms and phonies, we are to blame.

In Chicago, a city of tribes, we are easily divided. John Kass often cries foul when claiming those he disagrees with use the race card, but everyone holds a hand of cards. Some cards have higher values than others and politicians use that to their advantage playing one hand and one tribe against another.

Chicago isn't different from other urban centers, and even most segregated areas. We are the northern industrial-mirror-sister-city of the South.

So what can we do? Assemble. Gather. Come together. When you're considered a radical for standing in a group voicing an opinion, then you have a choice to stand or lie down. There is no middle ground.

In Chicago, we're rebuilding democracy from the ground up. In May we'll have our first Chicago Education Assembly. We are currently in the midst of trying to assemble all the groups, organizations, communities and tribes. We have some core beliefs, mainly that the people rule, not the leaders. It's a radical notion, but one that is needed. At one of our recent meetings two of the mayoral candidates joined us, not to pontificate, but to listen.

Driving home I noticed a sign for a candidate challenging the local alderman. I cringed, wondering what would happen to that local business daring to stand up, speak out, when the incumbent wins. This is indicative of the problem. We want our leaders to be strongmen. We are ashamed when they are perceived as weak. Listening, compromising, negotiating, apologizing aren't viewed as strengths, even though we expect adults and mature children to do these things. We want someone to rule unequivocally; anything less is a weakness, and we secretly fear it is a reflection of ourselves. We tell each other that Chicago is a tough town and needs a tough leader, then we wonder why we aren't heard.

Instead of taking a chance on someone that might help us build a community, we vote for the divisions and the tribes and we support the very ideas that pull apart our notion of who we are as a community.

The good news is that we don't need to be bullied, divided and oppressed into choosing one idea over another. Imagine a community in which the citizens gather, discuss and argue ideas. Imagine a community without borders, without tribes, in which the people assemble to debate ideas about education and other topics. The leaders listen to our debate and then decide. They don't win by drowning out the sound of their opponents with millions of dollars in ads and mailers. Idealistic, yes. But what else is there?

This idea of an assembly, a place where we don't hide behind a computer in the comfort of our own homes and voice beliefs and ideas that frustrate your "friends", but a place where we look at our neighbors and or opponents face-to-face and learn how to navigate our differences to understand ideas that we don't normally encounter.

When we, the people of the tribes come together in an assembly, progress, and the elimination of a tribal society, is closer than we think. The Chicago Education Assembly is our attempt to do this. Imagine being a part of this movement. We are ready for this, I hope you are, too.