The cultural landscape of Chicago is often described by its 77 community areas and 231 neighborhoods. The political landscape, however, is defined by its 50 wards, each represented by an elected alderperson who serves on the Chicago City Council, the City’s legislative body.
The 46th Ward covers most of the Uptown community area in which ICA is based, as well as part of neighboring Lakeview. While ICA does not make political endorsements, we recognize that justice, equity, and sustainability are rooted in the capacity of residents to participate meaningfully in the civic process. So, when one of the five candidates challenging incumbent Alderman James Cappleman asked us to facilitate a public forum, we agreed.
The goals of the 46th Ward Challenger Forum were twofold: first, to demonstrate how to design a public forum to foster a deeper level of participation from the audience; and second, to allow the five challengers to distinguish themselves from one another, rather than having to position themselves entirely in relationship to the incumbent.
To achieve the first goal, ICA staff combined our time-tested Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation methods with a different kind of technology--Mentimeter, an audience response system. In the case of the forum, audience members were able to react to candidates, prioritize concerns, and pose their own questions all in real time.
As the candidates introduced themselves by speaking to the changes they’re most passionate about seeing for the Ward, participants used Mentimeter to share their favorite things about the Ward. Audience answers poured in and assembled into an ever-changing word cloud, with popular answers growing in the center. In addition to the commonly-recognized “diversity”, the audience’s favorites included “culture”, “lakefront”, “transportation”, and “the people”. Later, the audience used Mentimeter to vote on topic areas for the candidates to address. “Housing” was the top choice, earning 35% of the vote, and was followed by “environmental sustainability” at 19%.
To achieve the second goal, ICA staff member Seva Gandhi asked a series of questions meant to draw out what makes each challenger unique. The first question asked how candidates’ personal backgrounds—including more than just professional experience—qualify them to be alderperson. Candidates answered with stories as diverse as growing up in the 46th Ward, supporting family members dealing with medical conditions, and dropping off their children at school before knocking on doors. Subsequent questions asked about values, overlooked community assets, fostering unity, supporting community engagement, and policies for achieving equity.
These questions were a departure from other public forums in the Ward that asked more about stances on a range of issues than about the experiences driving each candidate, but they worked—audience members reported that the challengers differentiated themselves, and the challengers felt the questions were more challenging to answer.
After answering ICA’s questions, candidates moved onto questions from the audience posed anonymously through Mentimeter. One of those questions asked the challengers whether they would support their peers on stage in the event of a runoff against the incumbent. In Chicago elections, a runoff occurs when no candidate receives at least 50% of the vote, sparking a second round of voting between the two candidates with the greatest number of votes. Since hosting the Challenger Forum, the 46th Ward has entered into a runoff between Alderman Cappleman and one of the challengers, Marianne Lalonde.