‘Let people show you who they are’: A conversation with Chicago200 participant and IFF Development Associate Lydia Collins

‘Let people show you who they are’: A conversation with Chicago200 participant and IFF Development Associate Lydia Collins

Lydia Collins at Chicago200Lydia Collins is a Development Associate at IFF, where she supports the Foundation for Homan Square, North Chicago’s Neal Math and Science Academy, and other community development projects. In 2019, she was one of 100 18- to 24-year-old Chicagoans selected from a pool of 250 to participate in Chicago200, a program led by the nonprofit Common Purpose to develop emerging leaders’ abilities to cross boundaries of all kinds (geographic, generational, etc.). She and her peers grappled with the program’s central question: “What will we make Chicago known for by its 200th birthday in 2037?”

Collins was raised in Evanston, Illinois, and spent a year in Ecuador after high school teaching English and working for a micro-finance organization. Collins went on to receive her master’s in urban development studies from Tufts University.

She recently sat down with IFF to reflect on her experience growing up in Evanston and her takeaways from Chicago200.

IFF: You went into Chicago200 having already crossed a lot of boundaries – the obvious one being living in Ecuador. Are there others?

Collins: I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Evanston, and the schools I attended were in Evanston’s predominantly black and brown neighborhoods. So, I crossed that divide every day and I always saw the differences but didn’t understand why they existed.

At Tufts, I took a class called Urban Sociology, which focused on urban development in Chicago. Through that class, I became aware of the very intentional political and social decisions that engineered the racial divide I’d grown up around. The class was one of many formative experiences that gave me the language and historical context to better understand Evanston and my positionality as a white person within this community.

One moment that stands out was seeing a redlining map for the first time and recognizing that while it was published in 1939, the invisible line that runs down McCormick Boulevard along the North Shore Channel still exists. It’s there in a new and different way now, but the legacy of redlining remains.

IFF: How did Chicago200 address the city’s legacy of segregation?

Collins: For the first two days, we heard from some incredible speakers – including rapper Vic Mensa and Daniel Ash from the Chicago Community Trust – and went on immersion trips to different neighborhoods. We then spent the entire third day in groups of nine or 10 working on the guiding question, which was “What do we want the legacy of Chicago to be by its 200th anniversary in 2037?”

The most prominent theme was the love that in the group for this city and region. For the lake and the people and the music and the culture. It was really powerful to be around so many young, dedicated leaders – I really felt that we are in it for the long run.

Another theme that arose was the need to create more connection ­­among residents who wouldn’t otherwise meet – and more connection to resources for neighborhoods that have been historically and intentionally disconnected. I think that theme was a testament to the segregated nature of the city. There are just such obvious places you’re “supposed” to be and “not supposed” to be in Chicago and that social mapping over the physical space has huge effects on the city.

So, the question became: How do we get across those barriers without ignoring or downplaying our history? We can’t just say, “Everyone be friends.” We need to acknowledge and learn our histories, and, at the same time, continue moving forward.

IFF: What were some of the specific ideas you and your peers came up with for building a more connected, less segregated Chicago?

Collins: There were 10 groups and a lot of us focused on ways to bring people from different communities to the table to share their experiences. There was an emphasis that “different communities” does not only mean addressing the white and black binary, but also, for example, building coalitions among various immigrant groups and between black and brown communities. One group created “Deep Dish-cussions” – which would bring members a community together over Chicago’s deep dish pizza.

The idea that won the youth vote was called “200 lots.” This group came up with the idea to give young people across the city the opportunity to decide how to revive vacant lots – and then letting them do it, whether it’s open mic sessions, dance parties, or a Boombox [shipping container for pop-up retail].

Our group recommended starting the Chicago Youth Trust, which the judges selected as the winning solution.

IFF: What was your group’s process for coming up with the winning idea?

Collins: I’m glad you asked about that, because we weren’t really working for the deliverable or the “win” – the energy of the event wasn’t competitive. We were working for the process. What I found most valuable was having dedicated time to sit with people very different from me and learn how to articulate a problem together. It was about having a structured space to dream.

We started by setting norms like “step up, step back,” and don’t shut down people’s ideas. After that, it was tempting to jump right to solutions, and we initially started doing that. Then we realized we needed to back up. We stopped and asked, “Wait – what problem are we trying to get at?”

We decided the main problem is the concentration of wealth – and decision-making power – in Chicago’s predominantly white communities. These communities understand their own needs but are often in positions to decide what the needs are of people in other parts of the city. However, the people living in the communities that have experienced disinvestment have the best understanding of what they need, so how can decision-making power and resources be shifted?

We really wanted to be intentional about how we framed the challenge of a segregated city – the problem is not that low-income communities and communities of color have problems. Rather, the problem is that financial and political power are concentrated in predominantly white communities. This is part of continually shifting the burden of the “problem” in a racially segregated city.

Eventually we came up with the Chicago Youth Trust. The idea was there would be one democratically-elected delegate our age (18-25) from each of the 77 community areas in Chicago who would be part of a large body that would receive allocations from the city’s philanthropic trusts. Delegates would then have the power to decide where the money should go, based on their own experiences living in that area.

We wanted to focus on youth because young people know what’s up! Forty-one percent of Chicago is under the age of 30 and there is so much knowledge that is delegitimized in formal politics. How can we amplify the voices of young people in city-building? We proposed to do this by giving 77 young people real ownership through decision-making power and money. This sends the message that “you are trusted with shaping our city.”

IFF: What other moments or takeaways from the program stand out in your mind?

Collins: There was an intense exchange on the first day. One of the speakers was presenting the idea of cultural intelligence, explaining how important it is to thrive in multiple cultures and bridge divides between them.

It was interesting, though, because when a youth participant said that Chicago is corrupt, the speaker responded by implying the participant was uneducated or naïve: “If you think it’s corrupt here, you should see Pakistan. You don’t have problems. They have problems.”

That put a damper on things. In that moment, the speaker made a lot of reductive assumptions about the young people in the room. Instead of becoming defensive, I would have appreciated if she had asked him to say more about his experience in Chicago. To earn people’s trust, I think you have to let people show you who they are, let them define themselves for you. That was one of my biggest takeaways.

The exchange reminded me of an adultism workshop I attended recently. Adultism is when adults oppress young people by making them feel like their knowledge, intelligence, or experiences don’t count because of their age. Everyone experiences adultism when they’re young – unlike oppressions related to race, class, gender, sexual orientation. For me, the most impactful speakers at Chicago200 were also listeners who were open to hearing our ideas. I enjoyed those who enabled a conversation – because there was a mind-blowing amount of knowledge about Chicago in the room – rather than just talk at us. Seeing the difference helped me learn the importance of facilitation.

IFF: What else do you see yourself bringing from Chicago200 to your daily work at IFF?

Collins: We need to think regionally, which I think IFF does very well. A lot of the decision-making that happens – and a lot of the wealth and power – is concentrated in communities beyond Chicago’s borders. Plus, there’s the suburbanization of poverty; people are moving out of Chicago because they can’t afford it.

I’ve also noticed that sometimes environmental justice doesn’t come up as much as I’d expect during community development planning processes. A lot of my peers at Chicago200 were saying, “My kids aren’t going to have a planet to live on.” I want to try to incorporate green building into more conversations – it’s another piece of the puzzle. The challenge is that it is perceived, legitimately, as very expensive.

I know there are a lot of challenges and it’s easy to focus only on the negatives. But there is so much potential here in the Chicago region. All of these structures – physical and social – were built by someone. There is no reason why we can’t rebuild them.

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