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updated: 5/11/2014 3:43 PM

Making the world a better place -- 2 hours at a time

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How hard can this be? Corral a group of mostly strangers, feed 'em, but grill them about what makes our communities great; challenge them to come up with ideas on what can be done to make them even greater. Better yet, come up with a specific plan they can carry out.

The Chicago Community Trust has persuaded roughly 10,000 people in the metropolitan area to participate for two hours in more than 1,050 community discussions Monday. The Trust offers some advice to groups organizing the individual sessions:

• "First, the fundamental question -- how can we work together to build strong, dynamic, viable and sustainable communities? -- is intentionally left very open-ended. Think creatively and reflect on possibilities rather than fixate on already identified ills."

• "Second, consider the conversation as a journey, where the process is as important as the destination. Reflect on what you value most, consider choices and trade-offs, and invite all ideas. Be willing and prepared to take some tantalizing detours, as long as you ultimately arrive where you intended to go."

I'm trusting Trust members know what they're doing. They should; they've been at it for 99 years. The group was created May 12, 1915, by Chicago banker Albert W. Harris. Its premise was "to give local residents an opportunity to combine their philanthropy to maximize their charitable impact and support their community in perpetuity." Harris was fond of gathering the philanthropic at a meal to discuss how to get the best bang for their benevolence.

The Trust also has put its money where its mouth is. Since its founding, it has awarded about $1.8 billion in grants to more than 11,000 local nonprofit organizations. In 2012, the amount was more than $177 million for such projects as sustaining the arts, helping human service groups help those hardest hit by the recession, and mitigating the effects of foreclosures.

So with the Trust's lofty goal in mind and our oft-stated mission to make the world a bit of a better place, the Daily Herald Media Group has invited more than 50 community leaders and readers to participate in five separate two-hour sessions that start with a breakfast in Elgin, a lunch in Schaumburg and dinners in Downers Grove, Elgin and Mundelein. (The Elgin dinner is held by Reflejos, our bilingual publication, and will focus on issues in the Latino community.)

The community leaders we specifically invited were culled from our staff's recommendations on people who were vibrantly active in their communities. We didn't exclude but we tried to sharply limit the number of elected officials. John Lampinen, our editor, also invited readers to participate, asking them to explain why their contributions would be valuable. As you might expect, among the scores of applicants we sifted through, volunteerism and community service were hugely represented. I was really impressed by the level of enthusiasm and willingness of these people to serve on a panel with such an ambitious mission.

Worth noting, too, is the Daily Herald's role in all of this: We are a facilitator. It's our hope that some members of the august groups we have brought together end up with project ideas on building stronger communities. If it falls short of that, well, we've still had a constructive community discussion.

And we will, of course, report on how it all goes.

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