Fierce Conversations - Be Intentional About Developing Poor Communities


Chicagoans weekly brace for news reports with the latest shooting death tally, public school funding crisis or failings on the part of elected officials. But they're not sitting idly waiting for answers.

As common is the expectation of bad news, Chicago residents are keen to author their own solutions. The venerable Chicago Community Trust is one such organization that provided a platform to help residents do just that in a series of On the Table civic discussions. The location and composition of people who attend the talks, however, were emblematic of Chicago's problem: They're segregated and siloed with communities unable to get an airing of their issues and solutions with neighbors across town.

I attended several and sensed resident skepticism about any value added outside of networking and the free food. I and many people I spoke with didn't feel they walked away with anything substantive. I understand why. As a result of crises facing schools, public finances, police, criminal justice and City Hall, black communities are experiencing its version of the Arab Spring. Though much of Chicago expresses righteous indignation, so, too, their faith in government has all but disappeared. Is anybody listening?

In Fierce Conversations, author Susan Scott says life's most important conversations must be "robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager and unbridled." The most consequential heart-to-hearts demand the courage to interrogate reality and provide an impetus to change behavior. Fierce conversations require broaching subject matter other people can't say, won't say, haven't said or don't know.

"When the conversation is real, the change occurs before the conversation is over," Scott writes.

A sense of fierceness was lacking at many of the On the Table discussions. Participants coming from business, not-for-profits, and neighborhoods are often nice and politically correct when engaging in the topic at hand. "Fierce" attempts at forthrightness are often met with backhand compliments meant to thwart discussion: "We really appreciate your passion, but ... " Candor should be the litmus test for accomplishment. Instead the standard is whether attendees leave the table comfortable. This type of exercise will never accomplish anything because fierce conversations require discomfort and anxiety.

So in true "fierce" form, let's interrogate reality and be real about where we've gone wrong in Chicago civic life, economic development and social support for all it residents.

Chicago has failed its poor, and since they are predominantly black and brown, we act like we don't care. Poor communities are managed, not developed. Development in poor communities is an afterthought, rarely intentional. Racial segregation has and continues to be a dead-end management strategy. Symptoms of bad management show up in chronic unemployment, decrepit schools and broken families. Too many times government manages poverty by breaking the law, and poor people break the law to manage their poverty.

Cynicism and inaction are destructive when it becomes an impediment to what is possible. For example, while Mayor Rahm Emanuel's unveiled law enforcement strategy, public safety changes and recent appointment of Andrea Zopp as deputy mayor may ease tensions, it won't be enough. Being intentional about developing poor communities requires collaboration between the private sector and government. To be successful, they must work in concert with and not on behalf of the poor.

A case in point: To avoid a missed opportunity that would benefit underserved communities, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art development plan should be salvaged -- not scrapped --with compromises, to spur development.

To be sure, Chicago has more important priorities (education, violence, civic engagement) than helping "Star Wars" billionaire couple, George Lucas and Mellody Hobson build a $1.17 billion tribute to his legacy along the lakefront. And Friends of the Parks certainly has a point in opposing lakefront development that honors the Burnham Plan to keep that public treasure forever open and free, but we have options, including the following:

• Relocate the project to the vacant U.S. Steel site along the South Shore's lakefront. The museum could be the economic stimulus to spur development in a part of the city desperate for it.

• Create a Lucas violence prevention match fund, in collaboration with area foundations and employers, focused on year-around job training, placement and mentorship for high school youth residing in designated communities.

• Fund a civic literacy and advocacy curriculum initiative for CPS students between grades 6-12, culminating with automatic voter registration at 18 years of age.

We are all connected, and the negative activity and symptoms of poverty in certain parts of the city manifests itself in other parts, ultimately affecting us all.

Scott expresses it best:

"I apologize to all those with whom I learned a thousand and one ways not to have a fierce conversation. Thank you for all you taught me."

Our challenge is to master the same fierce lesson.