Jamie Kalven

Jamie Kalven

Jamie Kalven, executive director of the Experimental Station–based journalism outfit the Invisible Institute, announced that he will be stepping down from his leadership role in an email sent out Saturday, March 20.

According to the email, Kalven made the decision in order to make room for the organization’s other reporters and to have more time to pursue his own journalistic projects.

“I don’t want to be occupying space that delays and displaces the next generation,” Kalven told the Hyde Park Herald. “My hope is to focus my attention on reporting, and to be an editorial resource.” 

The Invisible Institute grew out of Kalven’s work reporting on police violence in the Stateway Gardens public housing complex in the early 2000’s. Over the past two decades, it's expanded from a three-person operation in a squatted office inside Stateway to an established nonprofit newsroom and community organization with 10 current staffers. 

The Invisible Institute was a much more shoestring operation and the name itself was an inside joke, explained former colleague David Eads, now a data editor at the Marshall Project.

Eads began working at the Invisible Institute in 2001, developing a website that showcased Jamie Kalven’s reporting on and photographer Patricia Evans documentation of Stateway Gardens and its residents. At the time, the name referred to a made-up publisher for their photo-journalism blog The View from the Ground.” 

“From day one we called the blog a publication of the Invisible Institute, but it was not even remotely like the form it is today,” said Eads. 

Eads said that the small team partially funded its reporting operations through a separate handyman business, which also employed residents of the public housing complex. “In the morning we’d do interior demolition, and do trash out, and then in the afternoon we’d build the publication and interview people,” said Eads.

“A lot of my trajectory as an adult comes from that experience. It solidified my love of tech and journalism. I was gonna go be a research scientist, and the work we did together showed me a different path,” he added. “Jamie’s the real deal — there’s lots of frustrating stories I could tell you, but he is who you think he is. He is a man of integrity, he cares about this stuff, he cares about people.”

The Invisible Institute became a better-funded, larger journalistic institution after the landmark trial Kalven v. Chicago in 2014, which resulted in thousands of records of police misconduct becoming publicly available.

Kalven recruited more staff in an effort to make these records “accessible not just to journalists, but to anyone in Chicago who wanted to look at them”. Their resulting work, called the Citizens Police Data Project, allows citizens to easily browse misconduct complaints. 

The Institute has since then maintained its focus on spreading public awareness about systemic issues within policing, breaking massively significant news stories that changed the direction of Chicago politics.

Kalven’s early reporting on CPD officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder of Laquan McDonald influenced the firing of CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy, led to Department of Justice investigations of human rights abuses within the CPD, and severely damaged former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reputation, dogging him years later when he was briefly made contributing editor at the Atlantic and as he was considered, then denied, for the position of national secretary of transportation. 

Recent Invisible Institute investigations have called into question official narratives surrounding the police killings of Harith Augustus in 2018 and the 80-year prison sentence of Robert Johnson. Their Somebody podcast, focusing on mother Shapearl Wells’ quest to find justice for her son’s murder, has been downloaded more than a million times, according to Kalven.

Kalven said he plans to continue reporting on the disgraced former CPD sergeant Ronald Watts and his allies, who violently coerced criminal confessions from at least 75 Chicagoans living in the Ida B. Wells public housing complex. He also intends to cover police perspectives on recent debates about the limits of policing and police abolition.

“I benefited tremendously from abolitionist discourse,” said Kalven, “But I am not an abolitionist. What I do think is critically important is to identify and map the limits of law enforcement, to identify all the things that they don’t do effectively. In many cases, police officers don’t want to be doing those things. I’ve come to see that there are areas of alignment between police and Black Lives Matter activists and city officials.”

“The potential to create conditions of safety really depend on the quality of discourse. That remains the work.”

Maira Khwaja directs public strategy and outreach at the Invisible Institute and orchestrated a campaign to distribute Kalven’s reporting on Ronald Watts in libraries, grocery stores, and laundromats throughout the city along with the South Side Weekly. She said that while Kalven does not identify as an abolitionist and other younger staffers do, there isn't a huge political disagreement between them on the issue.

“The real difference is more like how much emotional labor we’re willing to put ourselves through,” she said. “I’ve interviewed cops, but not all of us are going to sit down and talk with the head of the FOP (The Fraternal Order of Police). Jamie will talk with him, or with anyone.”

“What’s unique about the team is that we work with people who disagree with us,” Khwaja said. “Our office encourages people to say what they think. Jamie would never say you have to silence yourself, either publicly or at the office.”

Khwaja said that Kalven insisted on the Invisible Institute operating with a non-hierarchical structure, where each member of the team gets significant autonomy to decide what they want to work on. The latitude and fiscal support from the institution helped her launch the Market Box Program, which delivers groceries and other resources to families facing food insecurity throughout the South Side.

Commenting on the impact Kalven has had on her own work, Khwaja said, “Jamie taught me to be less of a pessimist — he embodies the idea that hope is a discipline. He embodies this love of learning and listening.” 

While the search for a new executive director begins, Khwaja said she and the other employees will continue the Institute’s tradition of publicly accessible, “guerilla” journalism. With Kalven more exclusively focused on journalism, she added, “You’ll likely see more of Jamie going forward, not less.”

Correction: This article misidentified David Eads' job. He is a data editor at the Marshall Project, not a visual editor at NPR. 

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