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ProPublica Illinois is teaming up with Free Street Theater on a six-month initiative to engage with communities around the state. You may think it’s a little strange for a newsroom of investigative journalists to collaborate with a community-minded theater collective. It is. But it makes sense if you know the context of our work and goals.

First, a little background. When ProPublica Illinois opened its doors in October of last year, we knew that listening to people and involving them in our reporting would play a central role in our approach to journalism. We also knew that we’d need to think creatively about how to bridge divides and earn trust if we wanted our journalism to resonate across the state’s diverse, geographically disparate communities. In partnership with Illinois Humanities, we put out a call for projects that would help us address that challenge. That’s how we met Free Street Theater.

Free Street Theater has a long history (49 years!) of using live exercises and activities to facilitate conversations among people with different perspectives in ways that are fun, honest and informative. What if we were to find ways to connect what they do and what we do?

Here’s the idea: Working with ProPublica Illinois, Free Street will facilitate workshops around the state to spark discussion around the news and information that impacts Illinoisans. Based on what we’ve learned, Free Street will then provide ProPublica Illinois and the communities we visit with the tools to host future conversations.

Here’s where we’d like your input to shape what this project looks like:

  • Our goal is to hold these workshops throughout Illinois. So, where should we go? Why? What are people already talking about there? This project is about conversation and information. We want to start by learning directly from you about issues in your own community. Has there been a lot of discussion about a police-related incident where you live? Are there issues with your drinking water? Or with pesticide use? Did a large employer recently close — or open? This type of input will help us create relevant, useful and responsive workshops that fit your community.

    We’d like to visit a mix of urban, rural and suburban parts of the state, and we’re up to hold these workshops in storefronts, historical societies, libraries, the back room of a restaurant, a travel plaza — pretty much anywhere. Tell us where you think we should go and why we should go there.

  • Who should we work with? We’re looking for people who are involved in their communities in some way. Maybe you’re an organizer, a teacher, a librarian, a parks and recreation department employee, or you just have a tight-knit group of friends. Reach out, say hello, and consider inviting us over. Or maybe you know someone else we should speak to. Send them our way.

Have more questions about this project? Let’s talk about it. Email ProPublica Illinois engagement reporter Logan Jaffe: logan.jaffe@propublica.org.

Have a nice weekend.

Logan