When Barbara Ransby started as executive director of the Center for Public Intellec-tuals last month, one of the first things she did was rename the group, which had been struggling with its moniker since its inception in 1999. “There seemed to be confusion in some circles as to what it means,” Ransby says. “And some people thought it was elitist.” The organization’s new name, the Public Square, “echoes back to a place where people can come to debate ideas and really hash it out.”
Ransby was teaching history at the University of Illinois at Chicago when she met CPI founder Lisa Lee a year or so ago. She was intrigued by the work the group was doing–primarily organizing public lectures that cut across a broad range of intellectual interests, featuring speakers such as Ira Glass and literary theorist Marjorie Garber–and began working with it informally, helping to fine-tune its mission. Although she’d just gotten tenure, when she heard that Lee was looking for an executive director she found the opportunity so compelling she took a leave of absence from teaching.
As a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the mid-90s she founded a group that brought community leaders onto campus and academics out into the community to discuss issues like racial profiling and affirmative action. Later, in Chicago, she worked with the now defunct Ida B. Wells Communiversity, which organized workshops and discussions at the Woodson Regional Library on everything from the history of slavery to affordable housing. Currently, in addition to her new job duties, she’s a guest contributor to WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight and writes for the Madison-based Progressive Media Project, which distributes op-ed pieces to Knight Ridder newspapers nationwide. “These are all examples,” she says, “of what I think of as public intellectual projects that are ongoing and collective–not this notion of public intellectuals as just smart people who get a lot of press.”
Ransby’s approach is informed by a background in African-American history. “In a sense,” she says, “black intellectuals have always, of necessity, been public intellectuals. There was a public, political fight to recognize and accept black intellectuals into the academy or to accept black thinkers and researchers as serious intellectuals. It has always had a political component, going back to W.E.B. DuBois.”
New projects include initiatives like Cafe Society, a series of weekly discussion groups that’ll take place in coffeehouses across the city and in Oak Park, and a push to increase the organization’s membership and broaden its programming. For example, says Ransby, “[Board member] Danielle Allen has a project in which she’s talking about citizenship and strangers, and she talks about how we tell our kids, ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ and this kind of permeates our approach to politics. A cornerstone of any kind of deliberative democracy is talking to strangers–and doing a lot of it.”
On Tuesday, October 15, at 7, the Public Square will cohost a roundtable discussion called “Looking at Built Environments: Urban Space and Citizenship Since 9/11.” It’ll be moderated by Eight Forty-Eight host Steve Edwards, and panelists include Columbia University urban theorist Peter Marcuse; Jewish Council on Urban Affairs executive director Jane Ramsey; Douglas Garofalo, president of Garofalo Architects and acting director of UIC’s School of Architecture; and UIC political scientist Evan McKenzie. It’s at the Chicago Historical Society, 1601 N. Clark, and admission is $5. Call 312-993-0682 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.