Our Work

Building+new logo

We opened our doors on July 1, 2013 at 114 N. Aberdeen Street.

We closed our doors on June 30, 2015.

SO much has happened over those two years! We went from a completely empty space, to a fully built democracy design studio with the help of our resident designers, Ed Linn and Jacob Bruni from the Chicago Design Action Network.  We were first and foremost a co-working space.



The best days at CivicLab were the ones packed with community.  We came into our space with only one friend in tow, Chicago Votes.  Who, at that time, was made up of two people and a band of Democracy Corps fellows.  In the coming months we added the Working Families Party (WFP), and Young Invincibles, Jonathan Peck, Move to Amend, the New Organizing Institute, The Roosevelt Institute, Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance and the Beukinga for Alderman campaign.  We were sad to lose Erica Sagrans from WFP, but we’re proud to say we once housed the person who led the Will Guzzardi campaign (Illinois State rep, 39th District) to victory!

Chicago Votes doubled their staff as well as their programming to include 32 people between their Democracy Corps fellows and a team of organizers that conducted the largest voter registration drive in Illinois history.  Young Invincibles, once a small settler outpost of one, grew into a four person team as well.  It was bittersweet when both joined together to get a new space in July of 2014.  While they are dearly missed, we are also proud to have provided a home for these organizations as they found their footing and grew. We really delivered on our mission of providing a dynamic home for social change and public policy organizations and organizers to take root, flourish and collaborate.

Some 17 groups worked at the CivicLab. They are listed here.


A large part of being more engaged in public life involves gaining the necessary knowledge to be an informed participant.  We believe people need to make history, not watch it or be victims of it. Since we began we’ve held 80 different classes and workshops to that end.  Our class subjects covered a spectrum from classic civics to media making, to hands-on building and doing. Over 600 people took classes!

See images from our classes and activities here.

Flickr screen

We learned about the true state of the Illinois Budget, Labor History, Parking Meter Survival, Privatization 101, Forgotten Chicago, and How to Research Elected Officials, and even how to become an elected official with our day long workshop “How to Run for Local Office, taught by master organizers Kitty Kurth and Kevin Lampe.  Brad Hunt, associate professor of social science and history at Roosevelt University and co-author of “Planning Chicago,” did a workshop on the history of planning in Chicago. We seek out subject matter experts for all our offerings. We are providing a real gateway where people can meet and learn from some Chicago’s (and America’s) most savvy and experienced civic academics and practitioners.

Food was featured pretty heavily in our offerings.   New Year’s resolutions brought people in droves to long-time supporter Jacqueline Fische’s “Vegan Fast Food Kitchen”.  Karen Roothaan offered a six-part series on how to grow your own food. We installed a stove in our full kitchen to facilitate events and classes with food and about food.

People explored How to Build a Mesh Network with Chicago Meshnet; the beginnings of programming in Processing in the course Design for Empowerment Extended, Art for Social Change, and even Storytelling 2.0 with master story teller Oba Willaim King, and people got messy with Art Therapy. Jeffrey Sweeton held a 3 part series of workshops for youth called Code Create.

We received funding from Shareable to work with the Public Lab to purchase citizen science kits and we offered classes and workshops in balloon mapping and open source sensor building.

balloon mapping


We set out to establish the CivicLab as a hub for civic investigation, innovation and tool building. Our biggest project here has been the TIF Illumination Project. Tax Increment Financing districts are a major piece of urban financing infrastructure. Ostensibly created to bring economic development to under-served and so called “blighted’ communities, TIFs have gotten out of control in Chicago. When we started there were 151 TIF districts across 32% of the city. In 2013 they extracted $422 million in property taxes from all properties in TIF districts.

Chicago TIF districts

In February of 2013 we launched The TIF Illumination Project to explain and expose how this program works and who is helped and harmed by it. We combine data mining, investigatory journalism, graphic design and community organizing to reveal the impacts of TIFs on a ward-by-ward basis. We combine all our data onto a powerful and easy-to-to grasp graphic poster which we distribute at local TIF town meetings or Illumination. All this work was done and is done by volunteers. The graphics are by Carlyn So.

The first ward we Illuminated was the 27th, where the CivicLab is located.

The first ward we Illuminated was the 27th, where the CivicLab is located.

Over 230 people attended the first TIF town hall on February 11, 2013.

The invitation was made to attendees to go back to their communities and organize their own TIF Illumination meetings. We have been literally overwhelmed with the response.

The first such meeting took just three weeks to organize and since then we have presented all over the city and elsewhere in 63 public meetings (through November of 2017) in front of over 5,000 people. So far we have Illuminated 141 different TIFs across 35 wards. A record of these meetings are online here. You can purchase presentations from these meetings from our TIF Data Store.

The most important thing about this amazing unleashing of civic knowledge is that every one of these meetings has been independently organized and facilitated. In some cases they are organized by long-lived and well established community groups. In other cases the meetings were organized by new coalitions or neighborhood groups that had never pulled off a public meeting before.


The TIF Illumination Project is a very powerful example of data and visualization combined with original reporting and old-school organizing to galvanize citizens to act, to come together and to learn about how their government works. Our Illuminations have literally sparked hundreds of hours of discourse, civic indignation and more – we’ve unleashed priceless civic imagination where neighbors across the city are questioning old Chicago Machine driven definitions of “community development” and clout-driven plum projects fueled by public dollars and are asking the most basic questions of public life such as – what, exactly, does a “World Class” city look like? and who gets to decide what a “developed” community looks like? They are wondering if there are other more grassroots solutions to persistent problems of poverty, access to public services and long-term sustainable and equitable local economic development.

Our work has led to practical reform. We called for TIF information to be put on Cook County property tax bills and this has been done.

tax bill example

Our research revealed that there was $1.71 BILLION in property taxes sitting in TIF accounts on January 1, 2014 and this fact has become part of local political discourse – is Chicago broke or are the true sate of our finances being intentionally obscured?

We continue to research TIFs and our analysis of all of Chicago’s 148 TIF districts for 2016 is here: http://www.tifreports.com/2016-tif-analysis.

This work has spawned over 100 volunteers who have done the basic research and organized the many TIF Illuminations. We have an additional list of some 40 people who have stepped up and said they will help us with investigations and research. We have since repeated this process to review and analyze 2014 TIF data. We worked with the SumAll Foundation in New York to produce a TIF Illuminator to show our research might live online in a dynamic mapping tool. You can test drive it here!

viewer screen

Now were are expanding this sort of civic investigation and illustration to take in Illuminations of charter schools, the use of hedge funds to gobble up distressed properties, the spread of privatization in Chicago and revealing conflicts of interest across the web of powerful elected and influential who drive public policy here.

Other tools under development include coding useful tools to be used by community organizers and people who wish to get involved in civic work. We are working with the Public Lab to create workshops and a lending library of citizen science kits  that can perform sophisticated analysis of the environment using balloon mapping and low-cost senors.

We’ve been the home for the development and deployment of a major new tool to protect whistleblowers called Entrust. This work was based on the tools developed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and owes its inspiration to the career and spirit of Internet innovator and activist Aaron Swartz.


CivicLab Radio logoThanks to University of Chicago intern Peggy Xu we now have a series of podcasts covering a range of civic engagement topics. We have always wanted to produce original civic reporting. These tightly produced pieces are a start. Thanks, Peggy!


CivicLab also offers space for people just looking get stuff done or celebrate what they already got done.  Restore the Fourth Chicago (RT4) has been with us since nearly the very beginning.  In the previous year, RT4 Chicago held our first ever protest poster party for their rally, and they marched once again in the dead of winter.  They co-sponsored Surveillance: What’s Possible, Chicago? where audience members left with their very own drawing of their surveilled selves.  In the future, we can look forward to Cryptoparties, FOIA Fiestas, and screenings of surveillance related films; first up, The Lives of Others.

We closed out 2013 with Democracy in Actions’s holiday party (link), and began the year with The Great Chicago Buildout by Toolkits for Action.  Our friends at the Raise Your Hand Coalition held a day long retreat led by master teacher (and civic comedian) Don Washington, and in a similar vein, we hosted Teachers for Social Justice.  We were also graced with the presence of the Chicago Women Developers group twice!  We partnered with The Chicago Time Exchange for a day of skillsharing and free-sales during sharing economy week.  More recently, we made a bunch of new friends when the Chicago Chapter of the New Leaders Council held their weekend long leadership trainings.


We’re extremely proud to host {she crew} over the summer of 2014.  {she crew} is “a six-week summer program for girls, ages 12 to 14, to engage in a multi-disciplinary journaling workshop that culminates in a theatrical performance written entirely by the participants.  We are investigating the question of what it is to be a woman, how one defines womanhood, and how we see ourselves in relation to that definition.”  They begin each day by cooking a meal in our kitchen, followed by writing and performance exercises, yoga, and so much more.

she crew in front of CivicLab


In October of 2013 and again in October of 2014 we hosted Chicago’s version of the Global Cardboard Challenge, organized by Jeff Sweeton. Dozens of kids, parents and artists converged at the Lab to make a wide range of fun things using only cardboard.

cardboard challenge

After the New Year we began our first monthly event called “What’s Possible, Chicago?” (WPC) in collaboration with Tim Magner of Green Sugar Press.  WPC is a performance series in which we take a single topic about life in Chicago and discuss it from a multitude of angles.  It would be impossible to highlight any of the 30+ speakers who came to present, but the photos are demonstrative enough: Space, Passion, Surveillance, Food, Education.  To our pleasant surprise we became the home to a forum on asthma by InterFaith Illinois. We proudly looked on as {she crew} finished their final performances, and Mom’s United Against Violence and Incarceration held an evening of stories called “Sticks and Stories”.


Over 80 stories have been written about the Lab and its work. We were profiled in the July 22, 2013 cover story for The Nation, “Chicago Rising!” We were blessed with a wonderful profile  in Shareable, The Ward Room and Progress Illinois. Co-Founder Tom Tresser was even featured in a creative animate produced by local public radio station WBEZ to explain the TIF program.

Nation cover

We advocated that TIF impacts be placed on the property tax bill with an online petition. In July of 2014 Cook County Clerk gave the citizens of Cook County exactly that. Now 220,000 property owners across the county will see, for the first time, exactly how much of their property taxes are being gobbled up by the 435 TIFs across Cook County.

Our research surfaced the fact that there was over $1.7 billion of property taxes sitting in TIF accounts at the end of 2012 and 2013 and $1.44 billion at the end of 2014. This number is now part of Chicago’s civic conversation. Witness this Chicago Sun-Times article:

Taming TIF Monster

We are now advocating for Chicago’s TIFs to be drained of the over $1.44 billion in property taxes we discovered sitting in the TIF accounts and that those funds be delivered to the units of local government who should’ve received those funds in the first place. We have an online petition to that effect that has been signed by over 4,700 people (with no marketing on our part at all).  The Chicago Sun-Times agrees with us and said so in an August 2013 editorial.

Tom Tresser’s TIF and civic-related presentations have been viewed over 180,000 times! Someone is paying attention.


The CivicLab is a nonprofit incorporated in Illinois and was operated as a social venture by Benjamin Sugar and Tom Tresser. We do not have a formal nonprofit  501 c 3 status but we are members of the Institute for Nonprofit News (formally the Investigative News Network) and they are our fiscal agents. You can make a tax deductible contribution to the CivicLab via their PayPal site.

voqalWe have not vigorously engaged in fundraising so far and yet we have attracted an impressive roster of supports. We were sought out by the Voqal Foundation and were awarded a $23,000 operating grant which we are using to shore up or core operations and expand our programming. We received a $1,000 Opportunity Grant from MoveOn.org to publicize our TIF Illumination work. We received a $500 grant from The Crossroads Fund to help print TIF Illumination graphic posters. We received an in-kind gift of 4,000 full color 27th Ward TIF Illumination posters from the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement at the University of Illinois at Chicago. We received a $800grant from Shareable to establish a citizen science tool kit lending library. The 27th Ward TIF poster was also printed and distributed in the March 2013 edition of AREA Chicago with a 5,000 copy print run.

In addition to the $24,000 seed funding from co-founders Sugar and Tresser, the CivicLab has received $1,300 in small donations from individual contributors. After the CivicLab closed its doors Tom Tresser’s investigative work received a $1,000 grant from the Crary Family Legacy Foundation.

In November 2014 we launched our first crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to produce short TIF training videos so we can place them online where people will access them at no charge.


The first two videos, “TIF 101” and “TIFs Off the Rails – Public Policy Problems With TIFs” have been produced thanks to 120 donors! Thanks to Professor Rachel Weber of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Cook County Clerk David Orr for appearing in our first video. And thanks to Professor Richard Dye, Professor Stephanie Farmer and community leader Doris Brooks for appearing in the second.

TIF 101 title screenTIFs Off The Rails





One of the goals of our community building effort at the CivicLab is to increase organizational capacity for groups engaged in social change, social justice, civic engagement, public policy and community improvement efforts. We provide a low-cost home and a platform for collaboration and innovation. We do this via planned serendipity.



The CivicLab has become a resource for organizations across Chicago, and, indeed across the world! Here are a few of the organizations we have helped, counseled and consulted to:

  • Groups that have sponsored TIF Illuminations: TIF Alliance, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, South Side Alliance, 19th Ward Parents Coalition, West Rogers Park Neighborhood Association, The River North Commission, Emanuel Congregation Social Justice Committee, ONE Northside, Jane Addams School of Social Work, MoveOn Chicago Council, Residents Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE), Latinos Progresando, Washington Park Chamber of Commerce
  • Nine candidates for alderman in Chicago’s 2015 elections hosted TIF Illuminations and two candidates for mayor sought us out for advice on community development
  • We provided advice and civic consulting to: Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, Decarcerate Pennsylvania, The Progressive Research Institute of Omaha, Centro Autonomo Chicago, The I Citizen Design Project
  • We are inspiring the establishment of NEW CivicLabs in Rogers Park, Brooklyn and Italy!
  • Freelance journalist Brandon Smith worked at the CivicLab for two years at no cost. While at the Lab he met civic rights attorney and Freedom Of Information Act expert litigator Matt Topic. It was Brandon who pried the videotape of the police killing of Laquan McDonald from the Chicago Police Department with Matt acting as his attorney. So, in a very material way, the CivicLab helped break one of the most significant news stories of the decade that is still sending shockwaves through Chicago’s civic and justice arenas.

press conference
We were often asked – what is the goal of the CivicLab?

We like to say our mantra is Investigate. Fabricate. Educate. Activate. We often refer to ourselves as a “do tank” as opposed to a think tank. Our tag line is “Making Democracy.”

We believe people should be makers of history. They should be active, creative, connected and resourceful shapers of their democracy. We believe that America is a “work in progress: to be fashioned by her participants and so we are all makers in this sense.

In order to be effective makers folks need information, tools, mentoring, practice and a place to work.

The CivicLab wanted to be – and was during our brief existence – a platform for civic collaboration, research, education, innovation and tool making. We helped to make democracy more present, powerful and inclusive in Chicago.

Benjamin Sugar
Tom Tresser


  • We continue to investigate and educate around TIFs!
  • Our analysis of all of Chicago’s 148 TIFs for 2016 is here: http://www.tifreports.com/2016-tif-analysis
  • We crowdfunded “Chicago Is Not Broke. Funding the City We Deserve” in the Spring of 2016. 203 donors chipped in over $10,000! We published in July. We sold out our first run of 2,000 copies and are now in a second printing!This work is cataloged at wearenotbroke.org – a new CivicLab web site. The book triggered an astonishing 55 public meetings across the city in front of over 2,200 people.
  • Tom Tresser and “Broke” book author Jonathan Peck opened the POWER Institute in June f 2017 to train up organizers, activists and civic imagaineers. We’ve done 8 workshops from June through December 2017 to 60 paid attendees.
  • Our training work is seen at a new CivicLab web site, www.powerinstitute.us.
  • Last, but not least, Tom Tresser, Angela Spinazze and Jonathan Peck are planning to RE-LAUNCH THE CIVICLAB IN 2018! Stay tuned…

Leave a Reply