I’ve just asked Gabi about her dog Blue, who, during the course of our conversation has become very very concerned about its own tail. There’s been barking, jumping, moving around—dog things. Things I don’t understand.
It’s all stuff Gabi’s OK spending time on—in fact, she and her friend Lisa started a non-profit business several years ago out of their homes called IssueLab. Their entire mission is to explore the kinds of things I don’t understand.
We essentially archive research done by other non-profits, she tells me. That includes all kinds of things: community ethnographies, large-scale survey reports, longitudinal studies. There’s an enormous amount of research produced by non-profits every year, but there’s no publishing system for it, no way that it gets archived. It doesn’t get cataloged by the Library of Congress, there’s no journal system. Grant makers who fund the work don’t actually hold the work or archive it.
What this means is: social service organizations and other non-profits are forced to waste financial and human resources either hunting down or re-conducting research with every new program. (Which goes a long way toward explaining why problems like youth homelessness or street violence have never been met with a coordinated, effective response.)
I think we should have 5000 pieces of research within the next month, Gabi says, and this clearly excites her. But the challenge is that people are interested in the research from their field. They’re not interested in whether there’s an interdisciplinary collection of all research. They just want to know they can get what they want. So it’s difficult to get people behind the project as a whole, the same way that it’s difficult to get people behind any kind of infrastructure.
And then the dog does something funny, and we move on.
Blue came into my life in December. I had been training for a big event last year, a sports event that was taking up a ton of time. I had been wanting to get a dog, but I kept thinking, I can’t have a dog. I mean, what if there’s a great band playing? But it’s like, you’re not going to see a band. Just get a dog. It’s a complete myth that I’ve been maintaining about myself that I’m this super socially active person.
I mean, there’s a lot of people that aren’t like that right? I’m thinking about my friend Therese, who knows a million freakin’ people and is connecting people all the time. Lisa and I are a bad example because we don’t pick up the phone. We’re like agoraphobes, which is why we work on data. We work out of our homes and are like, God, I hope the FedEx guy doesn’t come, I don’t want to have to talk to him.
Maybe that’s also the neighborhoodiness of Chicago, too, you know? We don’t connect our issues a lot of the time, which I think the structure of the city has fostered. There’s no excuse for why I don’t know who else is doing related things.
I have to say my involvement in Chicago politics was tainted by an experience with Alderman Schulter. Some friends and I were living in Lincoln Square and were really concerned about the fact that it was getting impossible for people who’d lived there for decades to afford to live there any longer and wanted community voice in the direction of development. This was maybe 2000, 2001? Everything was going through the alderman’s office. You can’t add a trash can in your flippin’ alley without his permission, and yet we’d go to community meetings and he would say he was powerless. That this building was going up, that this business was going in here—that he was completely powerless. He couldn’t do anything about it, which was of course total horse shit.
So we were really pushing for some of the procedural things to change around how community members, and renters specifically—because it was so based on home ownership—could vote on zoning changes. But if you rented you never even received the notice, so there were things that we wanted to see changed.
We did some art-related agitprop stuff, including an Onion-like mockery of this local paper and Alderman Schulter sued us for liable and slander. So we were in court for five years, and weren’t allowed to do any kind of political activity around… It was really a classic SLAPP suit, strategic litigation in order to shut down public protest. We talked to other community members about keeping them involved and they were like, We don’t need that. We don’t want that mess in our lives. So it was incredibly effective.
There were three of us that were sued, but you know, he’s still in office and that neighborhood in the meantime is unaffordable. It was the first time I’d gotten involved in local politics. It felt very stifling. I mean, it was literally stifling for years and years. That’s an extreme example, but I think that that happens all the time in the city. There’s a lot of silencing.
We ended up negotiating a settlement: we agreed to make a donation to a charity and so we made a donation to a food pantry in Lincoln Square, trying to say, you know what? There are poor people living in your community. You can ignore it if you want, but they’re there.
I think it silenced me, I do. I think that most of all it wore me out and it kinda took the creative fun out of it.
That’s such a crazy thing to say when there are people who have incredible political resilience and maintain their political commitment through all kinds of real oppression. Being sued by an alderman is hardly an enormously oppressive act, but it definitely made me realize that we do have to engage in the kinds of activity that also nurture us and cultivate more political energy.
I have a lot of energy for the work we do at IssueLab. At some point, you gotta find the things that feed you energy back. Otherwise it’s just a grind.
That’s the funny thing about living in one city for a while, is that you get to reflect back on who you were when you got there. I guess, I’m 14 years older and there are certain parts of me that came here that are now defeated. And there are other parts of me that came here that are much richer and much savvier. Whether that’s Chicago or whether that’s life, I have no idea. I guess [laughs] it’s my life in Chicago.