Community Health Connections

How to scale up impact on Chicago's children
First performance at Christ Church, with a packed house

First performance at Christ Church, with a packed house


A reflection from 2008 on Ubumama and being a midwife for community futures

Connections that Work (1997) 

This project, between Imagine Chicago and Case Western University’s Weatherhead School of Management, focused on connecting and scaling up the impact of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s youth and community health grantees in Chicago. Through a series of conferences, forums, and training workshops, the process helped build shared visions, creating and strengthening partnerships, and deepened institutional capacity to innovate.  

The initiative included a 3-day Future Search conference, run with Dr. David Cooperrider , in which health, religious, educational, and cultural organizations joined together to discuss strategies on how to create and sustain vital communities for children in Chicago. Community leaders also participated in a 2-day workshop on Appreciative Inquiry theory and practice. With funding from the Seabury Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Connections that Work continued throughout 1997 to provide bi-monthly forums on topics of common interest to Kellogg grantees and others interested in a positive future for Chicago’s communities and children. For program details and lessons learned, read Connections that Work (1996 and 1997): A Case Study in Collaboration and Capacity Building.

Moving to Health (2001-2002) 

In 2001, Scrap Mettle SOUL (SMS), a community performance group in a Chicago neighborhood called Uptown, entered into partnership with Imagine Chicago to experiment with ways arts and civic dialogue could be combined around issues of urgent social impact. Since Uptown houses many newly arrived immigrants, mentally ill and elderly residents with poor health outcomes, ‘moving to health’ seemed an important theme.

In 2002, stories gathered in Uptown were brought together in a performance enacted by local residents: “And the Whole World Gets Well.” The dress rehearsal was seen by visiting UK dignitaries in April 2002, including UK Health Minister Hazel Blears, who had brought a team to Chicago to learn about effective community participation approaches to improving health outcomes.

In September 2002, two groups, one from Scotland, another from London (Southwark), met SMS at the global Imagine Chicago celebration in Chicago. Tasting community performance, doing a storytelling game, raised interest in how a visit by SMS to the UK might be a catalyst for local health conversations. Because SMS’ cast and stories involved hard to reach populations, the hope was that they might inspire richer community dialogue about what makes health possible. They could demonstrate the importance of storytelling and community participation in moving to health.

The January 2003 tour required a whirlwind organizing effort which became a catalyst for new community connections in Southwark and Scotland, as neighbors were recruited as host families, local churches and shopping malls were transformed into theatre halls, and schools opened their doors to storytelling and community performance workshops. For details, read the report entitled Bloomin’ Communities OR Communities In Bloom? : A Briefing Report to Communities Scotland on Applying Appreciative Inquiry to Community Regeneration .

Women Alive (2003)

In 2003, Imagine Chicago's founder was honored as a Chicago social justice pioneer, and Imagine Chicago was asked to help organize and document a project honoring 24 such women in a special exhibition and public program called Women Alive: A Legacy of Social Justice. The exhibit raised awareness about Chicago-area women working on behalf of education, healthcare, or employment, fighting to eliminate bias on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, or disability and who had dedicated their lives to shaping values, raising families, and promoting social change. The criteria for their selection included commitment to improving conditions for disadvantaged or oppressed groups, empowering their communities, and risk-taking, creating or leading a new vision and exploring new territory.

Each woman created a unique installation to tell the story of her life, working with local artists and designers. These inspiring exhibits, created from notebooks,  journals, photographs, posters, and works of art, showcased the values, struggles, and achievements of these justice pioneers. They made visible the connections between personal values and public action, and how women think about and express their devotion to improving public life. The organizer hoped the exhibit would challenge people's thinking about the roles of women and raise up a new generation of pioneers.

Imagine Chicago helped bring that connection alive for 20 young women who volunteered to interview the honorees and document their stories for the exhibition. The exhibition was held at Archeworks, and accompanied by special lectures, discussions, poetry, music, and performances organized by Imagine Chicago. Program details can be found here. The special events provided an uncommon opportunity to raise and discuss vital questions about public life, and to bring awareness to the distinctive ways women think about and advance social justice. The exhibition process and outcomes were documented by Imagine Chicago in a publication entitled Women Alive: A Legacy of Social Justice.

Ubumama (2004-2008)

Ubumama was an arts-based partnership founded in 2004 by Imagine Chicago, the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood and Create Africa South in Durban in conversation with the World Health Organization. Its mission was to raise awareness and mobilize community engagement to save the lives of the (then) nearly 600,000 women a year dying preventable deaths in childbirth, almost all in the developing world.

Mothers in high risk communities were brought together with a midwife to share their stories of giving birth and paid to create a beautiful garment in native dress embellished with their birthing stories. While sewing, they were provided education on safe motherhood practices. When finished, they jointly composed a message to the world about their situation as mothers. Ubumama garments were produced in South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania, India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Senegal. Once the garments were completed the mothers were also given $500 to purchase something for their community they thought would best help save the lives of local mothers at risk of dying in childbirth.

Imagine Chicago used images from the garments and messages from the participating communities to produce cards to raise funds for the project’s expansion into new countries and to magnify the voices of affected women. They were on view at the UN on Sept. 25, 2008 at a special breakfast hosted by the Director General of WHO and at a special MDG service hosted the same day at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. For more information on Ubumama, visit the website. The garments are still available as a traveling exhibition to raise awareness and mobilize support for safe motherhood.