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Changemaker Chat: Tom Tresser

Tom Tresser is a consultant, producer, educator and trainer works with individuals, companies and communities to leverage and amplify their creative assets in order to solve problems, create economic value and trigger civic engagement. He was director of cultural development at Peoples Housing, in north Rogers Park, Chicago, where he created a community arts program that blended the arts, education and micro-enterprise. Tom has acted in some 40 shows and produced over 100 plays, special events, festivals and community programs. He was an arts activist, having organized support for pro-arts candidates and developed a cultural policy think tank at Roosevelt University in the early 1990’s. He was a co-founder of Protect Our Parks, a neighborhood effort to stop the privatization of public space in Chicago. He was a lead organizer for No Games Chicago, an all-volunteer grassroots effort that opposed Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid. He has taught workshops on “The Politics of Creativity – A Call To Service”for arts service organizations in six states. He has taught a number of classes on art, creativity and civic engagement for Loyola University, School of the Art Institute, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and DePaul University. Tom also consults with arts organizations on strategic planning, audience development and peer-to-peer marketing. Tom has published a web-based project, “America Needs You!” – about the need for artists to get involved in politics. Tom was the  Green Party candidate for the position of President of the Board of Commissioners of Cook County in November 2010 election. Tom teaches “Got Creativity? Strategies & Tools for the Next Economy” and “How To Be A Social Change Agent” (IIT Stuart School of Business), “Introduction to the Creative Economy” (online for Project Polymath), and “Acting Up – Using Theater & Technology for Social Change” (online for DePaul University’s School for New Learning). Tom also teaches for the online Certificate in Nonprofit Management Program for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Tom is currently working on establishing a new space for activists and educators to collaborate on enhancing civic engagement initiatives – The CivicLab.

How did you first become interested in social change?

I’ve been involved in civic work since high school when I organized an all-day event where every class got hear from leaders of peer-groups – athletes, hippies, brains, etc. My first voter registration effort was on my college campus in 1973. I’ve always been trying to figure out how to get people involved in public life in meaningful ways while increasing their knowledge of how government works and how it affects them.

How do you define social justice?

Social justice is the system operating well and fairly for all people without respect to pedigree.

What has been your most exciting experience as an activist? 

In 2009 I was a co-leader of the grassroots all-volunteer No Games Chicago campaign that worked to defeat the bid for the 2016 Olympics. We went to the IOC’s HQ in Lausanne, Switzerland to deliver our materials to members of the IOC and we went to Copenhagen to deliver more information before the vote to award the games. This was a very difficult and lonely fight as Mayor Daley threw everything he had into this bid and tied up the media, the business community and most nonprofits in backing the bid. We knew we played a role in the IOC’s decision. It IS possible to fight City Hall and win.

What is the most interesting project in which you are currently involved?

Right now I’m working on my 13th nonprofit enterprise – the CivicLab which will be a store front space where activists, educators, designers and technologists collaborate to build tools that accelerate civic engagement and community improvement efforts. We are a diverse group of civic scientists, civic hackers and activists and educators who are asking questions such as “What does it mean to be civically literate?” “How do we make participating in public life as easy and as compelling as playing Farmville?”

What is your vision for a better world?

In a better world, all people can develop and express their talents and dreams without barriers of poverty, ignorance, poor health or access to resources.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m teaching a number of classes for local universities on civic engagement and public policy and I want to develop new classes on civic creativity (“Democracy as a design problem”) and grassroots civic policy (as a push back against privatization and its apologists). I’d like to get the CivicLab up and running in 2013 and offer a series of classes on building and practicing skills for activism and civic engagement.

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