Know Your Chicago: The program that works

While classes haven’t yet started at Chicago, the morning of September 10 saw busloads of students arrive at Ida Noyes Hall for a different kind of coursework. The women (and a few men) had come to learn how their city works through Know Your Chicago, now celebrating its 60th year. The program seeks to educate and enrich the civic lives of its participants, giving them behind-the-scenes glimpses at the city’s institutions. The five tours run in October, and the daylong September symposium is a required introduction.

Though Know Your Chicago was founded as a modest endeavor—fewer than a dozen women went on the first set of tours—it has grown significantly and now runs in partnership with the Graham School of General Studies. According to Mari Craven, one of the tour cochairs, whose mother also served on Know Your Chicago's committee, almost half of the committee members stay on for more than a decade. They seek, in the words of committee-member Joan Small, to “involve Chicago and Chicagoans in the life of the city.” She adds, “More informed citizens are better citizens.” Participants hear about the program by word-of-mouth, or from the brochures and booklets that Know Your Chicago sends out in mid-summer.

After coffee and tea, the participants—nearly 500 attended the symposium—filtered into Max Palevsky Cinema to hear a series of lectures. They took their seats as a slideshow from the program's past decades played on screen. After a welcome from Know Your Chicago committee chair Jean Meltzer, U-High'41, President Robert J. Zimmer congratulated the audience on the program's anniversary and drew correlations between Know Your Chicago and the University's commitment to inquiry. “I used to think 60 years was a long time," he joked. "I had a birthday recently that gave me a different perspective.”

Know Your Chicago is organized by a 50-woman committee, who begin planning the year’s tours with a January brainstorming session. This year’s tour participants will go inside the Board of Elections for “Voting Chicago Style” and inside the FBI for “CSI: Chicago.” For the latter, all potential participants agreed to undergo FBI screening. Other tours include a vision of the city’s 21st-century planning with a visit to the site of the future skyscraper Chicago Spire, an overview of some of the city’s philanthropic institutions, and a tour of older buildings that have been repurposed to serve the city's cultural life.


The redesigned Know Your Chicago emblem features the Chicago Spire.

Rose Schapiro, '09

September 15, 2008