The Hybrid Networking and Documentary Work of AREA Chicago
by Daniel Tucker
This text outlines a methodology for researching localized social movements as a means of analyzing their history, effectiveness, and ability to strategically participate or intervene in politics. I use insights gained from AREA Chicago -- a publication founded in 2005 that has compiled a print/online archive based on interviews with over 300 Chicago activists, cultural producers, and organizers_to offer up a proposal for a broad-based pan-leftist approach that can help avoid classic sectarianism yet still ask challenging questions and produce forward-moving analysis.1
In this essay, I outline AREA Chicago’s long-term and locally situated method of ‘movement mapping’. The text should be relevant to anyone hoping to strategically contribute to the development of a robust and critically reflexive Left movement, Which can advance the absolutely necessary goal of replacing; the logics that govern our lives with systems that promote a long-term healthy balance between living things and the earth, where people have equal access to resources, and where movement is determined not by brute force, but by creative collective process.
AREA Chicago began at a moment when Chicago, in a manner similar to many other places, experienced a break in its typical flurry of social, political, and cultural community organizing. That break may have been characterized by exhaustion due to very hectic, yet largely ineffective, anti-war and economic justice activism of the late l 990s and early 2000s. The source
of this lull was multi-faceted, but to an engaged participant, it was plain to see. At the same time, there were burgeoning networks of people working at the intersections of art, research, education, and activism, in ways that did not fit into the rigidly defined conceptions of community organizing, social justice, and authentic struggle that had characterized previous moments. This hybrid work encompassed organizations such as the Department of Space and Land Reclamation, Pilot TV, non-exploitative collaborations between academics and neighborhood groups, Neighborhood Writing Alliance, Feel Tanks (as opposed to Think Tanks), Mess Halls, Freedom Schools, Social Justice Curriculum Fairs, Chances Dances, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW)
and its Operation First Casualty action, and a plethora of new reading groups and post-sectarian political education projects.
These activities happened parallel to (but often disconnected from) the tried-and-true peace vigils, community arts classes, youth media literacy programs, labor unions, neighborhood coalitions, temporary affinity groups, and other short-lived as well as institutionalized community centers that had previously characterized the city and its social movements. These practices -- new and old, experimental and tested, consistent and temporary -- had to Find each other and build new connections if their work was ever going to amount to something more. Often separated by vast geographic, cultural, and generational divides, these different ways of working needed to both co-exist as well as find common ground. We created AREA Chicago as a device to make visible the disparate practices to one another, to create a common ground, and to critically frame the present moment in a way that would challenge groups to feel compelled to see one another as potential allies in times that require unconventional alliances.
We were inspired by the local work mentioned above, but also by international projects such as What is To Be Done?(Russia), Sarai (India), Colectivo Situaciones (Argentina), What, How and For Whom? (Croatia), Copenhagen Free University(Denmark), the Center for Urban Pedagogy (U.S.), the Right to the City Alliance (U.S.), INCITE! (U.S.), and numerous other regional and international efforts.