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Yo MacArthur: Dan Bassill of Chicago's Tutor/Mentor Connection Deserves Your Genius Award

Hullo John D. and Catherine T.   Every year around this time you roll out your genius awards, and every year,  including 2014, I find myself wondering why on earth so many of these coveted awards go to established artists, poets, musicians, novelists and scientists - and why so few go to the little-known sociologists, city planners and community activists whose big ideas, duly recognized, could go far to helping cities like Chicago define and solve, at long last, the set of youth-victimizing problems that over the past fifty years have destroyed the lives of so many young Americans.

So who's my choice to receive a MacArthur Genius award in 2015? It's Dan Bassill, a big-picture systems thinker from Chicago who over the past twenty years has quietly developed a massive, interactive online database which, fully implemented, would connect and empower thousands of talented Chicagoans (including city leaders) to give 200,000 at risk Chicago youngsters the educational skills they need to in order to enter and in create a world that is free from youth violence.

I'm not alone in my assessment of Bassill.  Phil Shapiro of PC World magazine made the case for him five years ago.
Dan Bassill (left) listening, as he usually does
"Only Connect" E. M. Forster said it first, but it could serve as Dan Bassill's motto. He's a systems engineer and a former marketing executive with a major corporation.

First thing about Dan: his body of written work is online, free and available for anyone to use.  He's given it away. His overriding concern is simple: it's to give people - young people, adults, non-profits, government agencies - the online tools they need to connect with each other. He's equally committed to showing people how to use these tools.

Second thing: Dan's written work consists of a array of scores of elaborate graphical strategy maps - of maps within maps within maps - and of hundreds of graphics, blog posts, newsletters. All told, this body of work gives Chicago a virtual roadmap that Chicagoans can use to comprehensively and holistically address youth violence and related (especially educational) issues in Chicago.

All of this, I think, is the stuff of genius, but it's only genius on paper.  As it turns out, Dan Bassill as much a doer as a thinker. In 1992 he founded the Cabrini Connections to serve kids in Chicago's Cabrini Green complex. This he did after leading the Montgomery Ward-Cabrini-Green Tutoring Program (Now Tutoring Chicago) from 1975-1992). While Dan and six other volunteers were creating Cabrini Connections, they decided to fill a leadership void and went on to create the Tutor/Mentor Connection so that tutor/mentor programs could grow in all high poverty areas of Chicago. Over the years, he assembled and oversaw the training of a network of hundreds of volunteers who by now have tutored thousands of kids citywide.

Dan maintains his ties with people in bi-annual conferences that he has been hosting in Chicago for the past 20 years.  This year, his 42nd Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference will be held November 7 at the Metcalfe Federal Building at 77 W. Jackson Blvd in Chicago. Here's a list of 35 participants.

All told, Dan's online productions comprise far and away the most effective approach to community-based decision making  I've ever seen.  It takes time to master them,  as might be expected of any work of genius. But to spend time with them, and with Dan, is to marvel at the failure of entities like City Hall and the Chicago Tribune (with its "holistic", "bottom-up" New Plan of Chicago) to make good use of Dan's resources as tools to help Chicago neighborhoods address systemic problems like youth violence and poverty.

Dan and I recently spent several hours online together with him giving me a tour of his online world created. We saw about 40% of it. 60% remains unseen His sites:

Here's a sample of how Dan would broaden public participation in addressing youth violence in Chicago. It riffs off Chicago Tribune coverage of the shooting last August of nine-year old Antonio Smith. Dan like to move from simplistic media coverage of youth violence to hands-on solutions of the problems that underlie it. Here's a blog post that moves past the sensationalism of a Sun-Times 2009 "Killing Field" story towards discourse that would enable Chicagoans to become active problem-solvers.

One of the first maps Dan showed me recently was this “Make it your own” map, which links to his 4 part Strategy map (below), whose hyperlinks triggered and hour-long discussion between us about how to address complex phenomena (like big-city youth violence and poor academic achievement) holistically and systemically.


Dan’s maps are by no means fully self-explanatory. Your starter map will give you a sequential train of thought (connect by lines, as above) that is enriched by hyperlinks at each numbered point that link you to other maps. Soon you find yourself in a world of maps within maps, so go slow; don't move from map to any faster that you can think about the connection you are making.

It helped me no end that Dan, as he zipped around from one map to the next, was sitting next to me to explain them. I took notes and later spent a couple hours revisiting everything he'd shown me.Things then made sense.

So getting into Dan's maps is a learning process. But the payoff is huge. IF I can get other people as excited about them as Dan got me the payoff is guaranteed. Why be excited? Dan convinced me that people of all ages - teens especially - can use his maps and mapping tools (they're free online) to enable individuals and groups large and small to learn from the past, to deal with present, and to make both short and long range plans for the future.

In 2011 Dan created the Tutor/Mentor Institute, LLC to continue the work of his Tutor/Mentor Connection. As Dan says, "the tax structure may be different, but the job ahead is the same: to get money to do what's needed to be done."

And in learning to create them, teens develop skills that employers will value. Definitely I want to connect Dan and leaders of Parents Political University, with which CCM is working in Chicago's West Side Austin neighborhood.

That's it for now, John D. and Catherine T. Thanks for listening. 

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