Friday, April 14, 2017


Today:  How to measure success?  

Funding has creating an almost unbridgeable gap between numbers and the lives they represent.

A nonprofit is driven by its vision, for example “changing the world, one child at a time”.

But how exactly?

The nonprofit will build accessible playgrounds for young children between the ages of one and five. The playgrounds will be built in low-income neighborhoods with very limited green space.

Not only is it a beautiful vision, it’s a practical vision.  Children who had nowhere to play outdoors now have a place.  Children who play outside are healthy children.  Children who play outside are happy children.

With the goal set, the nonprofit does just as promised, designs and builds the accessible playground. The community response is positive; the families bring their children.  The kids playing are happier and healthier.  Were there challenges? Yes.  Were they insurmountable?  No.  In other words, the project worked.

Can we prove it?

Did we change the world one child at a time?

If we could measure success, that providing playgrounds had a positive impact on society, we would.

Stories help.  Photos help.  Success stories help.  Sometimes a rigorous long-term research project may measure, over time, that grades improved for children who lived in an area with a playground vs children who did not have a playground.

Now, let money enter the equation.  To change the world, one child at a time, we need money, which we request from private donations or government grants.  With the funding comes requirements.

The most popular requirement? Measurable Outcomes.  Achieve the outcomes, get the money.

So now, instead of changing the world (which is not easily measurable), we measure what we can: How many people walked in our doors, what was their age, ethnicity, income level etc.

When funding was involved the counting became more specific and perhaps at the cost of meaningful results (one child inspired) it became measurable results (1,000 one to five year old kids visited at least once this summer).

No one stopped to say we are creating an almost unbridgeable gap, between those numbers and the lives they represent.

So, where did it all go wrong?

Stay tuned for our next post, an interview with Isis Ferguson from Chicago’s Place Lab.  Isis has a unique view on the role of measuring success in the arts.

Saturday, April 08, 2017


It has been a long time since I pondered my mission in life, I'll still never get past addressing homelessness, mental illness and the effects of poverty on children.

That said, I find that community is at the center of it all.  And, taking a step to the side here,  art is at the center of community.  Art programs for inner city children, art for the sake of art, art to remind us who we are.

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and my parents still reside there.  The area is called "Terror Town" by the sensationalist local news.  People I grew up with are still there (Zealous, across the street, and Theresa Moore around the way), but most are long moved away.  My parents love Mrs. Glinzy on the corner. Neighbor's Chuck and Jen dug us out of a storm with his snow blower this winter.

The next neighborhood over, is the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, academics and affluence and also the stomping grounds of Saul Alinsky and the Obama's.  Hyde Park put social activism on the map. Was it the "Ivy League" making a laboratory of the South side?  In looking back, I have to say yes..sort of...  The economic and racial divide was inescapable.  The High School I attended encompassed both, a microcosm; the two groups sat on opposite sides of the lunch room and attended separate classes "honors" and "regulars".

I came close to exploring this territory way back at Sonoma State University, signed up for a masters program is Community Psychology, etc. etc.  When I came closer to the subject, in my earlier 20's, I couldn't get a grasp on it.  I struggled with the way language enforces culture; I thought about knowledge and how we acquire it, I thought about oppression and government and women's rights.

But I never connected the dots.  In the end, I spent four years reading Jung and Teilhard de Chardin and John Dewey.  I found happiness there, in an almost ethereal abstract place.  I'm sure I would have gotten on well with Plato back in the day; I really liked to think about thinking.  I still do.

Today, returning to the my old "hood", I felt a pull, down from the abstraction of epistemology, straight down to the physical and the practical.  "Will I be safe if I go for a walk?"  "How many abandoned houses are on this block"?  "Does that one young boy, riding along up and down the block on his bicycle, have any friends?"

There was a lot of heartache, growing up and attending Myra Bradwell Elementary.  3,000 children, 87% African American children and then me, part of the 13% "White"statistic. I studied side-by-side with kids who had no hope, no means, no pathway out.  And when I was 12, I found a pathway out, or it found me, bused to a prestigious "Magnet School"; we were a rainbow school, where whites, blacks, asians, jews, catholics etc. were all on equal ground.

After surviving two years at Kenwood High in Hyde Park (lunchtime race riots, death threats) but after the rites of passage, a practical peace was built.  Then I ran away again, to another Magnet school, Whitney Young.   There it was again, that perfect rainbow world.  Two years later, Michelle Obama (not famous at all then) attended Whitney Young.  As did the, sometimes infamous, Jesse Jackson's daughter. The talented Wachovsky brothers who later wrote and directed "The Matrix" were there sometimes as well.   And me. and my two sisters.

Last month I found myself driving the streets of the South Side again; a lot of flashbacks.  That is where I first heard about Theaster Gates, his neighborhood activism, and the birth of the "Arts Incubator" at the University of Chicago.   Looking around for his art center, I passed a Mosque with red scrolling letters.  The message?

I couldn't help wondering, or else what?