I am the Director of the University of Chicago Civic Knowledge Project (CKP). The CKP was founded by MacArthur “genius grant” winner Danielle Allen in 2003, in the hope that it would use humanities programming to serve as a vehicle for cultivating civic friendship on Chicago’s South Side. Danielle got me involved with the CKP pretty much from the start, in part because I had been teaching at UChicago since 1987 and had always been a champion of community engagement work and carrying on the legacy of philosopher John Dewey, who had played an important role at UChicago from 1894 to 1904. Dewey founded the UChicago Laboratory Schools (which still flourish today) and was famous for his progressive democratic philosophy and educational views. Dewey, like Allen, thought UChicago needed to be actively engaged with its neighboring communities on a basis of reciprocity and civic friendship.
When I became Director of the CKP, in 2006, that vision proved to be even more life-altering than expected. The CKP has allowed me to transcend the rather limited role of academic philosopher and develop my philosophical and political views in active conversation and collaboration with an extraordinary range of fascinating people, from whom I have learned an amazing amount. For example, the CKP allowed me to expand and deepen my work with South Side legend Timuel D. Black, who just celebrated his 100th birthday on December 7th (there were some major events to mark the occasion–seehttps://chicagocrusader.com/
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
As the old saying has it, ‘the struggle continues’! Work for social justice, for better educational and economic opportunities for all, has never enjoyed a smooth road. The obstacles can take many forms, whether it is dealing with the Chicago Public Schools bureaucracy to be able to provide local schools with better educational programs, such as the CKP’s award-winning Winning Words precollege philosophy program, or with the institutional inertia of those who do not see the urgent need for enhancing diversity and inclusion in higher education, or with the still all too real and pervasive racism confronting our society. At times, it can seem ridiculously difficult just to be thoughtful and kind, and to encourage others to be that way as well. But this is where working with Prof. Black can be so inspiring. He is now 100 years old, and in his life has seen far worse things than I have (including the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II and the attacks on MLK and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s). But he always remains upbeat and ready to work for a better world, optimism incarnate. His spirit should serve as a model for all of us.
Please tell us about the University of Chicago Civic Knowledge Project.
Well, I would encourage people to visit our website, at http://civicknowledge.
Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
Riding a large alligator at the California Alligator Farm. The alligator was old and had been featured in various movies, so was rather tame and sedentary. They put a saddle on him and would take pictures of children seated on him for a moment or two. But when they put me on him, he decided to take off and started running around his pen. I jumped off after getting a very exciting and unexpected ride.
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