Ideation, inquiry and shared planning at The Sweet Water Foundation, South Side Chicago.

In November a group of us linked to Bradford and Bradford’s National Museum project are spending time in Chicago and Washington DC. The group are Jo Quinton-Tulloch, Sarah Ledjmi and Gin Jacobucci (National Science and Media Museum), , Julia Ankenbrand, Helen Graham and Lynn Wray (University of Leeds), Nabeleeh Hafeez (creative practitioner on the Above the Noise exhibiton and Coordinator Bradford Stories Festival, National Literacy Trust) and Rich Warburton (Theatre in the Mill, University of Bradford).

We are coming to Chicago with the aim of exploring the leading-edge community engagement work, participatory and co-creative practice in the city. In Washington DC we will be working through the particular issues of ‘National’ Museums, Libraries and Archives. We will be doing participatory and locally-rooted work through a workshop with the Smithsonian and meetings with the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress.

My personal interested in spending time in Chicago relates to both the histories of community organising and community participation in Chicago as well as the work that is happening in the city now. Chicago has a pioneering track record in terms of community development of various kinds. Chicago was the reference point from Sherrie Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation (1969) – a response to Model Cities project from Housing and Urban Development investment under Lyndon B Johnson’s presidency. It was where Saul Alinsky developed Rules for Radicals (1971) and home to the community organising approach Barak Obama made famous. It was where Elinor Ostrom, with her other collaborators, coined the term co-production to describing an approach to community policing (1979).

Chicago is now home to a very wide range of cutting-edge community development approaches from South Side arts and urban regeneration – such as the Rebuild Foundation and Sweet Water Foundation – through to the museums and heritage sites, such as Jane Addams Hull-House and Chicago Botantic Gardens.

The Bradford delegation are coming to Chicago with questions to open up a dialogue with people working in Chicago.


  • Place-based work: How do cultural organisations become locally-rooted, while being relevant beyond where they are? How do cultural organisations enable grassroots-led regeneration without risking gentrification? How do museum/cultural organisations use their collection objects to offer a space for critical conversation and learning around key issues affecting the place in which they are situated? Might site-specific and participatory/community arts practice offer approaches in relation to how museums and cultural organisations might approach place-based work e.g. ‘our context is half our work?’
  • Participatory decision-making: Which models of self-governance used in community activism (e.g. ‘the commons’) could be drawn upon to reform how cultural organisations make collaborative decisions?’
  • Systemic understandings and systemic change: How do we build understandings of our work from different perspectives (from policy makers to participants to non-visitors) to collaboratively make change?
  • Community organisation, activism and organisational practices: To what extent might we draw on histories of community organisation (and Chicago’s distinctive association with certain community organising techniques) in our cultural organisations? What role can cultural organisations play in community wealth building? How can we develop the agency to realise the changes needed? How might cultural organisations use strategies such as ‘learning through making’ or ‘learning through doing’ to foster intellectual and creative agency?

We’ll be posting write ups from our experiences in the US and looking forward to creating an ongoing exchange between Bradford and Chicago and DC.

Posted by:Helen Graham