Ben Davis has all the bona fides of an establishment academic, including a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and a four-page curriculum vitae. But he said his most profound learning came from his work with the Blackstone Rangers, a notorious gang on Chicago’s South Side.
With some five thousand members all under the age of twenty-five, and with leaders who started the group in their early teens, the Rangers was one of Chicago’s best-known African American gangs in the 1960s.
“They taught me the value of experience. You don’t have to reject your experience to be educated. They didn’t put anybody down. The past and the future were not very important to these kids. They were in the moment.”
The value of experience and of being in the moment has infused much of Davis’ work since he left the University of Chicago. After accrediting colleges and running education schools at state universities for several years, Davis found his niche at Union Institute and University, an institution with no departments, no tenure, and, as he puts it, “none of the trappings that enable an institution to become rigidified.”
Union’s fifty-four doctoral faculty members live around the country and meet four times a year at the institution’s Cincinnati offices. Union has no students, only “learners.”
Through Union, Davis teaches seminars on improvisation at a camp in the Poconos. He uses jazz music and picks all the tunes. The same spirit, he says, infuses the Wildflowers Fellows’ work with socially sustainable communities.
“Improvisation is such a key element of what these community leaders are doing.”
Davis is working with those leaders to bring the Wildflowers model to the next level. “They’re in nine communities now. What’s the modus operandi they’ll use to influence those Wildflowers cannot serve directly? A framework, a pedagogy, a handbook is needed to explain the process of building community,” he said. Part of that process will include interfacing with educational institutions to support the community.
“I’ve been trying to be active in organizations that offer direct services to communities. I like grassroots efforts because they work from the bottom up. I relate to them better than the people who are trying to push policies down,” he said.
Davis became a Wildflowers Senior Fellow in 2004.