An Oral History of Our First Ideas Day

On Friday, October 19, with the help of The Chicago Community Trust, Chicago Ideas undertook a new initiative that transformed our annual day-long event into an interactive volunteer experience that lifted up the Chicago community and created lasting bonds. Previously called Edison Talks, our premier event each Ideas Week was known for its on-stage programming featuring world-renowned leaders and thinkers. This year, after the usual morning of interviews, talks, and performances, participants were given the opportunity to board buses with Chicago Ideas staff and head out into the city to take part in community projects at the moment of inspiration.


Painting, gardening, creating welcome packages, and more, volunteers helped make a difference alongside local residents in the communities of Bronzeville, Englewood, and North Lawndale. After hearing from a local community leader, they broke into smaller groups and headed to community organizations including the Gardeneers, BBF Family Services, the North Lawndale Coordinating Council, Free Spirit Media, the Lofts on Arthington, Teamwork Englewood, Urban Juncture Foundation, Chicago Youth Programs, and the DuSable Museum of African-American History. As they spent the next several hours pitching in, participants not only made personal connections to the organizations they were helping, but also to each other.


Participants in Ideas Day plant and clean up the rooftop garden at the Urban Juncture Foundation. (Photo by Beth Rooney/Chicago Ideas Week

Our first-ever Ideas Day wouldn’t have been possible without the support of The Chicago Community Trust—one of Chicago’s most vital organizations when it comes to bringing Chicagoans together to make a difference—as well as Chicago Cares—which specializes in giving everyday Chicagoans avenues to become agents of change in their communities. In order to find out more about how Chicago Ideas, The Chicago Community Trust, and Chicago Cares came together to make this impactful day possible, we sat down with Daniel Ash, the chief marketing officer at The Chicago Community Trust, Jenné Myers, CEO of Chicago Cares, Sona Jones chief operating officer at Chicago Ideas, and Carolyn Rechel, a Chicago Ideas Member and long-time attendee.



SONA JONES, Chicago Ideas: The concept of Ideas Day began in 2017 when we started bringing Chicago Ideas programming to more students across the city. We worked with our Youth Ambassadors to bring daylong programs—called Ideas Days—to their high schools, featuring inspiring onstage Talks and action events, during which students broke out into groups to create solutions for local challenges. This year, when we had our annual “On the Table” brainstorm put together by The Chicago Community Trust, the question that arose was, “What about everyone else?”


CAROLYN RECHEL, Chicago Ideas Member: I’ve been attending Chicago Ideas Week for years and was always looking for a way I could act upon all the information I’d learned throughout the week.


JENNÉ MYERS, Chicago Cares: Chicago Cares was so excited when Chicago Ideas approached us to help bring their theme to life: “Tomorrow can change if we act today.”


DANIEL ASH, The Chicago Community Trust: Chicago Ideas and Chicago Cares are organizations that want to tackle tough issues, even public challenges that sometimes feel intractable. Both groups connect our residents to causes that matter, but with a clear-eyed focus moving us all toward actions and solutions.


Dr. Helene Gayle speaking at Ideas Day at Chicago Ideas Week 2018. (Photo by Lois Bernstein/Chicago Ideas)


ASH: Ideas Day brings together a wide-range of Chicagoans. It’s one of the few programs that’s able to attract both the community activist and the corporate CEO. Chicago Ideas Week aligns with the Trust’s long-standing belief that collective good is generated when we create space that welcomes everyone.


On Ideas Day, participants went to Englewood to participate in volunteer activities with a community organization, encouraging lasting relationships built around change between volunteers and members of the organization. (Photo by Tim Klein/Chicago Ideas)


JONES: We always try to foster a sense of community at our events, and strive to make people feel like active participants rather than just audience members. So being able to connect our community with causes around the city was an exciting opportunity for us. Getting to do it with Chicago Community Trust, an organization that has more than 100 years of experience bringing Chicago together, made it possible for us in a real way. And of course, having the Chicago Cares team on the ground allowed us to pitch-in in ways that were tangible and hands-on.


RECHEL: I was really excited to see Ideas Day added to schedule this year because it finally felt like a seamless way to be a part of the solution instead of simply talking about the problems.




MYERS: We believe that hands-on, face-to-face action will bring Chicago together and make our city stronger. And in our city today, we need these opportunities to connect and act together more than ever.


Participants at Ideas Day paint murals in Englewood.
(Photo by Tim Klein/Chicago Ideas)

JONES: We loved being able to provide ways to take action at the moment of inspiration. We hope participants formed lasting bonds both with organizations around Chicago and with their fellow volunteers.


ASH: It’s hard to overstate the importance of inspiration. The speakers create an infectious energy. You want to rush back to work, tell someone what you learned and, then, get right to work.


RECHEL: I participated in a mock interview session with several young people from Englewood who were preparing for job interviews. By the end of our session, participants seemed better prepared and more confident in themselves. It was a wonderful, worthwhile experience and I intend on signing up again next year. 


(Photo by Beth Rooney/Chicago Ideas Week)


On Ideas Day itself, Chicago Ideas CEO Jessica Malkin spoke with Helene Gayle, CEO and President of The Chicago Community Trust. For more on the work that the Trust is doing in the community, watch their conversation below:


Jennifer Boudinot is a freelance writer and entrepreneur focused on the changing workplace, disruptive business practices and cocktails—yes, cocktails. She's also a book editor and a best-selling ghostwriter.

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