Solution Overview

Solution Name:

The CivicLab's TIF Illumination Project

One-line solution summary:

The TIF Illumination Project uses data, reporting, and civic engagement to help people track and judge their local government priorities.

Pitch your solution.

The CivicLab is a social justice "do tank"!

The TIF Illumination Project uses data mining, investigatory reporting, graphic design, and community organizing to expose and educate people around civic finances and the harms that Tax Increment Financing Districts bring to our neighborhoods, especially communities of color. We educate people so that they can demand change and resist the dominant civic narrative of scarcity that prevents robust public services and remedies from being implemented. We have been invited to present at over 180 public meetings in front of over 13,000 people. This work is transformational and viral – we have changed the civic imagination of the city and people have run for office using this work. Community groups union, civic leaders, and the media have all used our data to break the frame of scarcity here. We are working with activists in 8 cities right now. This is a national civil rights issue as TIFs are in 49 states.

What specific problem are you solving?

Why have we been invited to present at 180 public forums?

The TIF Illumination Project ( is a powerful way to empower communities – especially communities of color – to seize control of their economic destiny. We use data mining, peer-to-peer investigations, graphic design, and Popular Education processes for engagement to expose and interrogate public policy regarding economic and community development practices. America is coming to grips with its baked in racism and questioning long held and uninterrogated public programs and practicing – such as policing, voter suppression, and disinvestment. Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIFs) are found in 49 states. They steal property taxes and sequester them in accounts controlled by the local mayor. These funds are then doled out to subsidize private development. The recipients of these funds are usually wealthy, clouted, White. We estimate over 40,000 TIF districts steal $40 billion annually so America’s public schools are robbed of over $20 BILLION annually. Local planning is corrupted and favors already affluent communities while poor communities of color continue to languish. In a time of COVID where people of color are dying 4 to 7 times the rates of Whites, the fact that public tax dollars continue to be stolen and held in secret accounts is a moral and civil rights insult.

What is your solution?

Our first TIF Illumination from 2013, updated in 2015

We use easily accessible public records and Freedom of Information Act requests to reveal what impacts Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIFs) are having on the places where they are active. Local governments are notoriously secretive and arrogant about their TIF districts and their operations. There are many, many instances of bogus projects being jammed through local city councils with little or no understanding from the general public. We have documented extensive corruption and conflicts-of-interest in the process. Our annual TIF Analysis of Chicago (see is the only source for a comprehensive, accessible review of Chicago’s TIF captures and outflows. We use the Internet, spreadsheets, shared workspace platforms, train-the-trainer processes, volunteer recruitment, data mining tools, graphic design, mapping software, and online publications (web sites, PDF creation, self-publishing like to gather and package our data. The image above shows part of the poster we made for the TIF Illumination of Chicago’s 27th Ward in 2015. We always produce a PowerPoint slide deck for our public meetings and a one-page handout summarizing our findings that includes a map of the community we are looking at and the headlines for all the TIF history for that place.

Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?

Graduates of the CivicLab's "Civics 101" classes from the Pilsen Alliance

Our work has been targeting communities of color, teacher’s unions. Citizen groups that are pushing for economic justice, and community groups working for grassroots democracy. We aim to expand the public’s civic imagination around public resources and assets – to reject the neoliberal marketplace mentality of austerity and “government as a business.” In Chicago we have one hundred years of segregation, block busting, red lining, contract home buying, school closings, over-policing, disinvestment, and privatization of public assets. TIFs are the latest public tool that has stripped billions of public dollars from the public purse to enrich White, clouted developers and bleed communities of color and allow them to decay. Our work calls out long embedded racist public policies that have materially contributed to Black and Brown poverty, lack of opportunity, and miserable conditions on the ground. The CivicLab has been invited to present our work at over 180 public meetings all across Chicago and beyond. Most of these meetings were in communities of color. Over 13,000 people have attended to learn and share. We also operate a training program called the POWER Institute (People Organizing to Win, Engage, & Resist) – – and we offer a range of “Civics 101” workshops – “Chicago 101,” “Community Organizing 101,” Grassroots Campaigning 101,” “Chicago Budget 101,” “White Privilege 101” – and we learn A LOT from our attendees – all of whom are active leaders in their communities. We’ve done 50 workshops since 2013 in front of over 2,000 people. Chicago is still run by a tightly disciplined Democratic Machine on behalf of a cadre of Big Money, Big Law, Big Developer players – some of whom are the grandchildren of the families that ran the city in the early 1900’s. And even though the mayor or Chicago and the Cook County Board President are BOTH African American women, nothing has changed on the ground here for communities of color. Our work exposes the fault lines in local power and shows how public money is moved and abused. The TIF Illumination Project is an amazingly powerful way to engage people where they are and where they live. It’s proven to be a ladder to a great deal of civic engagement, pubic policy work, and grassroots electoral work. That’s why citizen groups from eight cities are working with us right now! See Our long term goal is to have a National TIF Illumination Project that holds the accumulated TIF data for all places where TIFs are found and will serve as a hub for local economic justice literacy and organizing. We estimate that as many as 20,000 TIF districts across 49 states rob $40 BILLION in property taxes annually. That’s what’s on the table with this work.

Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

Catalyze civic engagement and enable communities to plan and control their own housing and industrial land development and ownership patterns.

Explain how the problem you are addressing, the solution you have designed, and the population you are serving align with the Challenge.

Example of how we activate local activism & research

The TIF Illumination Project uses data, P2P research, graphic design, and civic engagement to activate people to take control of their local public policy and civic finances. We have catalyzed civic engagement across dozens of communities and eight cities in the Midwest. We have triggered over 180 public meetings in front of over 13,000 people – mostly in communities of color. TIF districts have looted billions of public dollars to subsidize developments in White, affluent communities. Understanding and organizing around TIFs is essential work to enable communities to plan and control their own grassroots economic conditions.

What is your solution’s stage of development?

Growth: An organization with an established product, service, or business model rolled out in one or, ideally, several communities, which is poised for further growth.

In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?

Chicago, IL, USA

Explain why you selected this stage of development for your solution.

Protesting TIFs is part of a national movement around economic justice!

We’ve been in the field since 2013 with the TIF Illumination Project. We’ve been invited to present at over 180 public meetings. We’ve done over 30 open enrollment workshops on civic finance. We’ve activated hundreds of volunteers to do P2P civic research. We’ve impacted Chicago’s civic ecosystem and challenged the dominant civic narrative of scarcity and austerity. We’ve done all this with no office, paid staff or budget to speak of. We are currently working with activists in eight cities ( We have allies in another ten cities. We lack the resources to scale this work and launch a national TIF Illumination Project that would catalog every TIF district in America. We also want to convene all the academics, activists, urban beat journalists, and civic leaders who are looking at TIFs and related issues of economic justice. This is a national issue.

Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Tom Tresser

More About Your Solution

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new application of an existing technology

What makes your solution innovative?

The CivicLab moves people along the Cycle of LLiberation!

Organizing, civic engagement, and activation for grassroots leadership is patient, high-touch, and never-ending work. That being said, we feel the CivicLab’s TIF Illumination Project is highly innovative and combines old school organizing and civic education work rooted in the Cycle of Liberation ( and the Ladder of Engagement ( with new school tech. We use data mining, P2P research and web-based work spaces, graphic design, mapmaking, and data visualization to investigate and explain local civic finances – starting with Tax Increment Financing Districts – projects funded, where they are located, who owns them, webs of influence between and across the players, and exposing bogus “community development” plans as boondoggles and ill conceived. The data on how TIFs are used is always made hard to access and the average person has NO chance of crafting a coherent picture of how their property taxes are being used unless they have deep experience in data-based reporting. We coach community members so they can investigate and reveal key dimensions of local economic development projects that use public money and assets for private gain. We are working with the Detroit People’s Platform ( on a large-scale Illumination Project to expose all the TIFs of Detroit as part of a city-wide economic justice campaign. TIFs are in 49 states across thousands of municipalities and they are moving tens of billions of property tax dollars off the table annually. At stake – billions of local dollars for public education that is lost due to TIF extractions.

Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Ancestral Technology & Practices
  • Crowd Sourced Service / Social Networks
  • GIS and Geospatial Technology
  • Software and Mobile Applications

Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?

  • 1. No Poverty
  • 3. Good Health and Well-being
  • 4. Quality Education
  • 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • 9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • 16. Peace and Justice Strong Institutions

Select the key characteristics of your target population.

  • Children & Adolescents
  • Peri-Urban
  • Urban
  • Poor
  • Low-Income
  • Minorities & Previously Excluded Populations

In which states / US territories will you be operating within the next year?

  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Ohio

In which states / US territories do you currently operate?

  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • Ohio

How many people does your solution currently serve? How many will it serve in one year? In five years?

The CivicLab's TIF work is used by many organizations!

We’ve done 180 public meetings since 2013 in front of over 13,000 people – mostly in Chicago’s working class and communities of color. We’ve done over 100 civic trainings – open enrollment and for particular clients (Ader University, DePaul University, St. Xavier University, i c stars, Pilsen Alliance, Illinois Access to Justice Coalition, Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, Strengthening Chicago Youth Coalition, Detroit People’s Platform, Chicago Legal Aid Foundation, Ramsey County, MN) - over 4,000 people. Our online presentations have been viewed over 230,000 times. We are directly working with over 1,000 people annually and our work is touching hundreds of thousands. Our work in Detroit is about to impact the entire city (675,000 people, majority Black city) as they approach their 2021 municipal elections (primary in August, election in November). The Detroit People’s Platform will be doing a series of local community meetings during the Spring and Summer, as well as producing a number of candidate forums informed by our collaborative TIF and community development research. If we can get even a modest amount of support for this work we can scale it up rapidly as we have willing partners in ten cities. We have inquiries from another ten locations that we don’t have the bandwidth to respond to. We estimate that we can directly impact 25,000 in 5 years - with the indirect impact many times greater.

How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?

Pilsen Alliance endorsement of the CivicLab's engagement work

We seek to engage people in interrogating key assumptions about how their local units of government are working and spending public resources. We especially want to work with communities of color in urban settings who have been neglected and abused for decades. We seek to lift the veil on how billions of public dollars are being abused and channeled to private projects at great loss to the public body politic. This work touches on civic and financial literacy, the state of Black and Brown communities, issues of what, exactly, is a “developed” community, corruption and conflicts of interest that decay the planning process, and essential issues of maintaining a robust and responsive public sector. We measure success by how many groups invite us to their communities to engage, do research and training, and present a TIF Illumination. Since we have no paid staff or office so the fact that we’ve been invited to present at 180 public meetings since 2013 signifies we are delivering a needed and effective public service. We seek to to scale up to a national effort. Our metrics will be how many groups bring us to their communities, how many people become engaged, how many TIFs are Illuminated, how many efforts for reform or abolition are triggered, how many people run for office or pursue other civic work because of this work, and - ultimately - how many billions of public dollars are re-directed to serve the public and AWAY from the clouted deals we expose.

About Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?


How many people work on your solution team?

The CivicLab has no paid staff. Tom Tresser (, co-founder and COO, is lead organizer for the TIF Illumination Project. Jonathan Peck is the President, CEO, is an African-American social justice champion ( Our team also includes Phillip Thomas, Ama Johnson, and Mathilda de Deos as unpaid advisors.

How long have you been working on your solution?

8 years

How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

Over 120 years experience in organizing for social justice!

Tom Tresser - Lead Organizer - - Tom's first voter registration campaign was in 1973. Tom is a recognized social justice champion in Chicago, having led campaigns to stop the privatization of public parks and keeping the 2016 Summer Olympics out of Chicago. He has been invited to present at over 200 public meetings since 2008. He is a vocal and effective defender of public services and assets.

Jonathan Peck - CEO - - Jonathan just received the 2021 Chicago Social Justice Champion Award from Chicago African Americans In Philanthropy ( and has over 30 years experience in organizing in communities of color, especially with young people. He served as the Executive Director of the Tucson Urban League from 2009-2012.

Mathilda de Deos - Advisor - - Was with FreeWrite Chicago and then became  Assistant Field Director, National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum - long time organizer and educator.

Phillip Thomas - Board Member, Advisor - - Phillip was, for years, the senior African American in Chicago philanthropy, serving as Senior Program Officer at the Chicago Community Trust from 2006-2011. Phillip has decades of experience in community development, the arts, nonprofit management, and bringing resources to under-served communities.

Florence Amma Johnson - Advisor - - Florence is the c0-founder, President of the UBUNTU Institute for Global Learning and has over 20 years’ experience in grant writing and fundraising for social justice.

What is your approach to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership team?

Attendees at CivicLab trainings said...

The CivicLab is a Black led organization with two of our three board members being African America. We will be expanding the board by the end of 2021 with the welcoming of three women of color, one African American and two Latinx. Our work is driven by and sits on the Cycle of Liberation and the Ladder of Engagement and operated with a pedagogy of popular education, and racial/economic justice. Our work aims to shatter the neoliberal construct of “government as business” and the attending constraints of austerity. We expose corruption and racist public policies that are starving communities of color. Our audiences over the years have been predominantly people of color across the Midwest, as well as champions of public education. Everything we do is aimed at increasing the voice and power of communities of color - especially around issues of public funding and official programs that delineate and direct resources around the city. We’re constantly doing public forums where we are directly engaged with communities of color and hearing from people what is going on in their neighborhoods. We’re working with the Detroit People’s Platform on a city-wide campaign for economic justice (, based on our joint investigation of all the TIFs of Detroit.  Our senior leaders have over 120 years combined experience in social justice campaigning, educational programming, and social justice delivery.

Your Business Model & Partnerships

Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, to other organizations, or to the government?

Individual consumers or stakeholders (B2C)
Partnership & Prize Funding Opportunities

Why are you applying to Solve?

The CivicLab has been ahead of it time. When we opened in June of 2013 I believe we were the first co-working space and maker space dedicated to social justice in America. Over the years our work has challenged authority in Chicago and I’ve been part of four distinct projects that won very public victories over the Democratic Machine here. In 1994 I was part of the coalition that defeated land-based casinos for Chicago. In 2008 Tom co-founded Protect Our Parks that sued the city to stop the privatization of public land ( - it is this organization that is suing the city and the Obama Foundation over the siting of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. In 2009 Tom was a co-leader of No Games Chicago that derailed the bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics ( In 2013 Tom launched the TIF Illumination Project that has taken a very critical look at what passes for community development in Chicago ( This work has looked harshly at the local civic “regulars,” local funders, local media, and our local electeds. And so we find ourselves somewhat radioactive in terms of major grants, getting welcomed to certain tables, and - until recently - covered by the major media. We have a TON of local love from community members and grassroots organizations. We are getting recognized in OTHER cities. We need the blessing and resources of a major national social justice funder to become sustainable and scalable.

In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?

  • Human Capital (e.g. sourcing talent, board development, etc.)
  • Financial (e.g. improving accounting practices, pitching to investors)
  • Product / Service Distribution (e.g. expanding client base)
  • Technology (e.g. software or hardware, web development/design, data analysis, etc.)

Please explain in more detail here.

In order to lift up the TIF Illumination Project we need to be connected to a set of national collaborators who value the public sector, seek to boost civic engagement, and who hate corruption and racist public programs that sandblast communities of color. I think we have a lot to offer a group like, say, the National Education Association, or the Urban League, or groups like the Roosevelt Institute and DEMOS. We have successfully translated thorny public policy issues around public budgets and development priorities into powerful and persistent civic engagement. We have a way of working that combines organizing, research, and talent development that yields new leaders for economic justice. We need an organization like to SOLVE to bless this work and become a champion of it so as to connect us to potential partners. We also need technical assistance in building a robust TIF Illumination web space that would contain the work we’ve done to date but would also act as a training ground and massive shared workspace for distinct groups who launch Illuminations of their own. We’ve already triggered dozens of volunteer researchers on a case-by-case basis. A national web site would connect all these participants and investigators together to share data and best practices. Tax Increment Financing Districts are found in 49 states across thousands of municipalities. The potential to create autonomous, self-directed, but connected citizen-powered interrogations of how local tax dollars are being abused is very real.

What organizations would you like to partner with, and how would you like to partner with them?

MIT Media Lab - Would love assistance in building website for civic engagement and TIF Illumination Project training space, tool set, and share workspace. Would love to explore creating Kahn Academy site of short videos around community organizing, civic engagement, and justice doing.

National Education Association & National PTA - Would love to connect with teacher’s unions and public-school support groups at a national and state-by-state basis to push civic literacy organizing throughout their membership and to investigate and expose TIFs across the USA. TIFs steal property taxes from local government and the Number 1 Victim is the public school system.

Urban League & the NAACP - Same reason as above - TIFs are racist and where they operate they perpetuate economic injustice and a transfer of wealth from the many to the few.

Aspen Institute, Ford Foundation, DEMOS, Roosevelt Institute, Center for Public Integrity - Would love to be able to brief leadership in these critical institutions on our work. We believe we are part of a movement and would like to make our case for collaboration.

Lincoln Institute of Land Policy - - Premiere land and tax policy research organization - would love to add our work to their publications and offerings.

Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life - Would love to collaborate with this amazing institution of research and engagement - to share our insights and add our approach to their toolbox and offerings.

Do you qualify for and would you like to be considered for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Prize? If you select Yes, explain how you are qualified for the prize in the additional question that appears.

No, I do not wish to be considered for this prize, even if the prize funder is specifically interested in my solution

Do you qualify for and would you like to be considered for The ASA Prize for Equitable Education? If you select Yes, explain how you are qualified for the prize in the additional question that appears.

No, I do not wish to be considered for this prize, even if the prize funder is specifically interested in my solution

Do you qualify for and would you like to be considered for The Elevate Prize for Antiracist Technology? If you select Yes, explain how you are qualified for the prize in the additional question that appears.

Yes, I wish to apply for this prize

Explain how you are qualified for this prize. How will your team use The Elevate Prize for Antiracist Technology to advance your solution?

We are data liberationists!

The TIF Illumination Project uses a variety of technologies to liberate public data for social and racial economic justice. We use Internet access, web browsers, ability to search for data, spreadsheets, online workspace and project management platforms, Zoom, social media, and graphic illustration tools (mapping, rendering) to investigate and make plain how public dollars are flowing to the disadvantage of Black and Brown communities. Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIFs) grab and sequester tens of billions of property tax dollars across thousands of municipalities annually. We call out this practice as corrupting and racist. We place TIFs in a direct line of such harmful policies as chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, red lining, contract home buying scams, disinvestment, over-policing, public school closings, and the privatization of public services and assets. Using our mix of old and new school technologies to Illuminate TIFs and organize around them is a novel solution to a national civil rights issue. We have been creative, resourceful, and nimble to cobble together this work with no paid staff or office.  For this reason Nation Magazine honored TIF Lead Illuminator Tom Tresser with the title “data liberationist” (cover story from July 2, 2o13, “Chicago Rising! - 

Do you qualify for and would you like to be considered for The GM Prize? If you select Yes, explain how you are qualified for the prize in the additional question that appears.

No, I do not wish to be considered for this prize, even if the prize funder is specifically interested in my solution

Do you qualify for and would you like to be considered for The HP Prize for Advancing Digital Equity? If you select Yes, explain how you are qualified for the prize in the additional question that appears.

Yes, I wish to apply for this prize

Explain how you are qualified for this prize. How will your team use The HP Prize for Advancing Digital Equity to advance your solution?

If the HP Prize is about inclusion and economic opportunity then the CivicLab’s TIF Illumination Project is a strong contender. We are working with activists in eight cities around research and exposing the inequities of TIFs - which is a shorthand route into interrogating issues of economic justice, corruption, so called community development, and the state of public services. We see many public programs operated by cities having negative impacts on working class and communities of color. Getting people involved in public life has been an ongoing challenge since the founding of America. Emerging from a global pandemic (hopefully), we are faced with a fraying democracy and the levels of economic inequity across race at all time highs. The CivicLab has found a mix of approaches and tactics that get people out of their homes (or in front of their screens) to engage around critical issues of how public dollars are flowing and for who. If we are awarded the HP Prize we will engage a minority owned coding firm to build out the TIF Illumination Project web site and workspace. We want a site where people can easily see the history of the TIFs of their municipality: total $ taken per year, $ spent, what projects funded, balance left in accounts, $ transferred, and any debt being carried by the TIF. We also see the cite as a training space and holding tools that will allow groups to do their own local TIF Illuminations.

Do you qualify for and would you like to be considered for the Innovation for Women Prize? If you select Yes, explain how you are qualified for the prize in the additional question that appears.

No, I do not wish to be considered for this prize, even if the prize funder is specifically interested in my solution

Do you qualify for and would you like to be considered for The AI for Humanity Prize? If you select Yes, explain how you are qualified for the prize in the additional question that appears.

No, I do not wish to be considered for this prize, even if the prize funder is specifically interested in my solution

Solution Team

to Top