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#PDF14: An Interview with Tom Tresser

BY Sonia Roubini | Thursday, April 10 2014

The next in our series of #PDF14 speaker previews is Tom Tresser. Tom is an educator, organizer, creativity champion, public defender and fighter of privatization who has been working on civic engagement and grassroots democracy efforts for over 40 years. At #PDF14, Tom will be participating in a breakout panel on local labs for civic engagement.

1.How did you come to be interested in tech and its impact on society?
I've always been interested in technology as a tool for social change - and in a larger sense, how the arts and creative methods can deepen and accelerate civic engagement. I had my own domain and web site since 1994. As a former Shakespearean actor and theater producer I was a long-time advocate for the arts in Chicago and nationally. In 1994 I organized Greater Chicago Citizens for the Arts to elect more reps who would support the arts and freedom of expression. We blended performing arts events with political training and rallies and we trained artists to run for local office. I've been criss-crossing the domains of creativity, democracy and civic engagement ever since. I'm intensely interested in the overall question of "How to make participation in public life as engaging as Farmville or Halo?" The Internet, social media, camera phones - are all tools and I'm interested in the civic disposition or mind-set that wants to USE those tools for progressive social justice and grassroots economic development efforts.

2. What's the most satisfying part of your work?

In July of 2013 myself and Benjamin Sugar opened the CivicLab (, a co-working space in Chicago's West Loop dedicated to collaboration, education and innovation for civic engagement and social change. It could be the only such space in the USA. It's a ground floor, street level, store front beehive of activism, education and tool building. We are a "do tank" and our mantra is Investigate. Educate. Fabricate. Activate. We are a civic hacking space, part of the global DIY and maker movement. Benjamin and I are full-time volunteers and it's immensely satisfying to create a new space for fellowship and innovation for social change and to collaborate with Benjamin (who is two decades younger than me) on making the space run and successful. Every day the space is full of energy, purpose and making. There is planned an unplanned serendipity as we mix and match and help one another solve problems, connect and become more effective. Here is a summary of first our six months

We offer open enrollment low price-point workshops in the evenings and I've been thrilled to curate many of these events and to listen to experts talk about such subjects as the history of planning efforts in Chicago, the state of Illinois' finances, how to grow your own food, how to run for local office, the forgotten history of Chicago and how to investigate elected officials (see for a current list of our classes). I consider myself an activist, an organizer, an educator and a maker and I'm able to fulfill all those roles at the CivicLab!

3. What do you see as the most important challenges facing people working in the tech-enabled civic engagement field today?

The biggest project we've done so far is the TIF Illumination Project (Tax Increment Financing), which is a blend of data mining, investigative reporting, graphic design and community organizing (see TIFs extract about $500 million of property taxes in Chicago annually and place that money in a black box controlled by the mayor. It's been universally recognized as a clout-driven slush fund. Our project, which is completely volunteer driven, has been able to explain what TIFs are doing to the city on a ward-by-ward basis using graphic posters and community presentations. No one has been able to explain this so clearly and dramatically.

Over 2,000 people have attended TIF town meetings or "Illuminations," as we call them, all over the city. Our work was profiled in the July 22, 2013 cover story of The Nation, "Chicago Rising!" ( and I was called a "data nerd" and "data liberationist" - labels I'm proud to own. We've presented our ward-specific data some 16 meetings - each one organized by a distinct group of local neighbors who are eager to understand how their city REALLY works and where there tax dollars are going, I feel the TIF Illumination Project is a model of crowd sourced data-driven public education and engagement.

We are continuing to work with the leaders of all those meetings on further research and Illumination and now we have a team of over 50 volunteer investigators who are taking on new research projects - looking at how hedge funds are buying up distressed and under water properties, the growth of charter schools, the push to privatize public assets, the use of the New Market Tax Credit Program here, the mayor's inner circle and key contributors and much more. At the same time we are working on collaborative projects with educators, coders, designers and activists looking at school closings, the use of GIS technology for teen story-telling and place making, citizen science, a one-man show about a local long-time activist and tours of Chicago that tell stories about labor struggles, civic rights and political history, We are really blending disciplines here and we are looking forward to an amazing first full year of operation.

4. What are the key issues tech and politics/society to pay attention to at the moment?

For me, it's the widening gap between the rich and poor and all the rules and infrastructure that is in place to effect a massive one-way (wrong way) transfer of wealth from the many to the few. I call myself a "Public Defender" because I believe the very notion of "public" has been under steady and brutal assault in America for decades. Unfortunately, my hometown, Chicago, is Ground Zero for relentless privatization of public assets and services - witness the infamous parking meter sell-off of 2008. We are loosing the sense of commonwealth and the notion of The Commons, itself is being degraded. With these corrosive trends we have troubling trends in civic engagement and a loss of instruments to monitor and protect the public good. In Chicago over the past 15 years we've seen the demise of the Municipal Reference Library, The Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, The Metro Information Center, and the Chicago News Co-op. And then our two daily newspapers have been in and out of bankruptcy and have laid off so many reporters that coverage of local government has significantly diminished. Finally, when you see that our 50-member City Council votes with the mayor 94% of the time, you realize it truly deserves the label of "rubber stamp." So - no one is really watching our back. That's why I've dedicated my public life to civic education, civic innovation and civic activation. No one is going to protect us from the Wolves of Wall Street. We're going to have to do it ourselves.