All posts filed under: Envisioning Justice

From the South Side to the South and Back: An Interview with Nichole Carter of Bright Star

Creating the right recipe of offerings for the families in your community isn’t an easy task, but that’s what Bright Star Community Outreach works to do everyday in Bronzeville. Providing everything from family service and parent education to workforce development, trauma counseling, and advocacy opportunities, Bright Star takes a holistic approach to their work and wraps their arms all the way around those who walk through their doors for support or service.  A born-and-raised Chicagoan, Bright Star’s Nichole Carter moved to Knoxville, Tennessee as a teenager, then, after acceptance into Spelman she moved to Atlanta. After graduation she spent time working in property management, specifically in mixed-income housing. Eventually, what she learned during her studies and work in the South would make its way to the South Side of Chicago through a position as the Director of Community Strategy and Development at Bright Star.   As the person at the helm of Bright Star’s community programs, she was the one who took a leadership role when Bright Star became one of seven community hubs for Envisioning Justice, a program initiated by Illinois Humanities …

How La Villita Envisions Justice: A Reporter’s Reflections

Since I began covering the Envisioning Justice initiative in Little Village in Spring 2018, something that Open Center for the Arts Founder and Executive Director J. Omar Magana told me has stayed with me. He said that he sees the Chicago neighborhood – where, in 2004, he opened his community art center – as a world-class village. It took me almost a year of meeting and speaking with artists and activists who live and work in La Villita, to understand what he meant. As part of the cohort of journalists documenting the ways Chicagoans have harnessed art to address criminal justice issues in their communities, I’ve had the extraordinary privilege to learn from the people at the intersections of this work. Little Villagers specifically represent a unique approach to community organizing – one that embraces interracial solidarity, and cross-issue advocacy. Holding power brokers accountable feels particularly salient in Little Village. The creeping threat of gentrification is still somewhat distant here, unlike the neighboring area of Pilsen, where brand new luxury apartments share blocks with single …

You Can Fly Higher: An Interview with Chicago-based Street Artist Sentrock

Sentrock is the moniker of Chicago-based street artist Joseph Perez, who moved to the city from Phoenix, Arizona in 2012. Since then, Chicagoans have likely seen his signature murals of brown children in red bird masks adorning the walls of buildings all over the North, West, and South Sides. With public art now on display in multiple U.S. cities, Sentrock has still shown the most love for Chicago. His mural across the street from YolloCalli Arts Reach in Little Village in particular has become an important and inspiring fixture that the community members and the young artists who work at YolloCalli have come to admire. Sentrock may not create art to be inherently political, but that doesn’t mean his murals don’t deliver messages. Most of his public pieces contain slogans like “You Can Fly Higher,” “Stay Woke,” and “We Learned To Fly Without Wings” alongside the images of masked young people with black hair and brown skin. In Little Village, a largely Latinx immigrant neighborhood, residents get to see these hopeful messages paired with physical …

Free Write Arts & Literacy: Poems to Photos

As part of the Envisioning Justice Initiative, Sixty paired writers and photographers with each of Illinois Humanities’ selected community hubs: organizations working within communities around issues of incarceration and justice. One of those organizations is Free Write Arts & Literacy. Going on 19 years, Free Write has provided arts and literacy education to thousands of youth detained in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, as well as providing employment and creative opportunities on the outside. A cornerstone of Free Write’s pedagogy is using poetry and personal narratives as a vehicle for both literacy and self-empowerment. In a society and system that is quick to apply ready-made ideas informed by race, class, and condition, on their lives and fates, Free Write encourages their students to “own their narratives” through telling their own stories. Below, you will find two poems written by Free Write students last year, prompted by Aracelis Girmay’s “Elegy in Gold.” Taking a cue from the New York Times series pairing photographs inspired by poetry, photographer Chelsea Ross created a series of images in response to the poems. The …

Review: Reclaiming the Crown, The Footwork King’s Battle with Money Bail

It was spring 2016 and Devoureaux Wolf was on the rise. Also known as “King Detro, Chicago’s footwork king,” Wolf’s dancing career was taking off: he’d won numerous dance competitions, hosted a dance show on Wala Cam TV, and had just started his own program, Dance N Out, that aimed to steer youth on the West Side off the street and onto the dance floor. He never expected getting a ride home from a friend’s brother would radically alter his life’s course. But that’s exactly what happened. The car was pulled over and Wolf was quickly dragged out by Chicago police officers, who then arrested him and charged him with assaulting them. Though the driver had the foresight to film the encounter to disprove the police’s account, simply being charged landed Wolf in Cook County Jail with a $3,000 bond that he could not afford. Over the next three and a half months, Wolf would nearly lose his apartment, his hosting job, and his connection to his community. On top of that, Wolf’s uncle passed …

Stories of Migration & Transformation: An Interview with OCAD’s Reyna Wences

Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) describes themselves “an undocumented-led group that organizes against deportations, detention, criminalization, and incarceration of Black, brown, and immigrant communities in Chicago and surrounding areas. Through grassroots organizing, legal and policy work, direct action and civil disobedience, and cross-movement building, we aim to defend our communities, challenge the institutions that target and dehumanize us, and build collective power. We fight alongside families and individuals challenging these systems to create an environment for our communities to thrive, work, and organize with happiness and without fear.” OCAD was born in 2013 as a natural evolution from the founders’ early days leading what was then known as Immigrant Youth Justice League. I spoke with one of those founders, community organizer Reyna Wences, about her decade-long fight to transform policy and protect immigrants in Chicago. We also talked about the role of art in OCAD campaigns. Everything from banner drops to protest signs to public murals have played a role in building the immigrant rights movement in Little Village and beyond. Reyna talked about that …

Free Write Arts & Literacy, and the Work of Justice Within (and Without) the Walls of Juvenile Justice

This project asked us to envision justice. It offered the arts as a lens. As I first began to wrap my mind around the Envisioning Justice initiative (“Bringing Chicago together to examine and reimagine the criminal justice system through a creative lens”), I entered a rabbit hole of unanswerable and annoyingly abstract questions, like, what is art? (Beauty? Truth? Life? Fantasy?) And, what is art for? (Self-expression? Transcendence? Joy? Education? Justice?) Can it really be for justice? And then, of course, what is justice? How does something as wishy-washy and abstract as art bear on something as heavy and real as incarceration? In the two articles I published previously for the Envisioning Justice writing residency, I included responses to the prompt, “How do you envision justice?” from two artists who have been working within Illinois jails and prisons for years. Both responses were not cynical, but rather the opposite; they were tired of the question. It’s the work, not the envisioning of the work, that needs to get done, they seemed to say. Here’s Sarah …

Teaching Classes Inside, Building Knowledge Outside: An Interview with Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project

The Illinois Department of Corrections is made up of 28 prisons that hold nearly 44,000 people. While the number of inmates has steadily increased since 2000, Illinois prisons followed a national trend in increasing sentence terms due to mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing laws. Alongside the trend towards longer sentencing, the 1994 Crime Bill Act eliminated low-income incarcerated people’s access to Pell Grants for higher education, dramatically decreasing the amount of educational programming in prisons. Amid instability and overcrowding, incarcerated people make art, get married, have children, and live entire lives that the outside world hears little about. Artist and instructor Sarah Ross taught Art History classes at Danville Correctional Center through a remaining community college program, where she met incarcerated artists, did critiques and put together shows for the outside. When she was asked to teach at Stateville Maximum Security Prison in 2011, that experience informed the values she brought in to her classes. Ross reached out to her networks to invite more people on as instructors to offer incarcerated people a range of educators and …

Nurturing Community: Interview with George Wilson of BBF Family Services

Since last year, BBF Family Services has functioned as the community focal point, or hub, for the Envisioning Justice initiative in the neighborhood of North Lawndale.  In the fall, I spoke separately to Rufus Williams, BBF President and CEO, and Dominique Steward, Envisioning Justice Hub Director for North Lawndale, about programming at BBF and its role in the initiative, which seeks to bring awareness to the impact of incarceration in communities across Chicago. Williams and Steward both recommended I talk to George Wilson, a Youth Mentor at BBF, for a rich, ground-level perspective on the direct services BBF provides to North Lawndale youth. Wilson and I met at BBF after I finished an early shift at UCAN, another social service agency in North Lawndale. In the social service industry, Wilson and I are peers, each direct-service providers to youth. But UCAN is a residential treatment center (among other things), where youth from all over (and, in fact, some from North Lawndale) are assigned to live by the state. Wilson, on the other hand, works with youth from the community, in the …

In Conversation with Artist Jireh L. Drake

Even if you haven’t met Jireh L. Drake (they/them) before, you may have heard their voice bouncing off the walls of a CTA platform–laughing, chanting or freestyling. Always enfolded within the city’s cacophonous soundscape. Always amongst people. Their spirit and energy can be felt even before they are seen. Jireh is a Black trans artist, curator, organizer and non-binary baddie who uses mixed media to explore the interdependency of social structures, salient identities, and history. Through drawing, they illustrate the sensations of movement and texture that overlap to visually evoke the interconnectedness of power, race, people, ideas, and cultural-historical movements. In their work, everyday life, Black queer existence, and experiences are unearthed and unpacked. They are a founding member of For the People Artists Collective, a squad of Black and Artists of Color who also organize and create work that “uplifts and projects struggles, resistance, liberation, and survival within and for marginalized communities and movements.” Their work, it seems, is a reaction to a feeling, a moment, or a conversation. Because of this, it always feels …

An Interview with Hananne Hanafi of YolloCalli Arts Reach

Tucked away on the second floor of the Boys & Girls Club on 28th & Ridgeway in Little Village is  Yollocalli Arts Reach, a dynamic program that has been providing free visual, digital and media arts programming to young aspiring creators since 1997. In 2012, Yollocalli made Little Village home, and has a second studio location through a partnership with the Chicago Park District at Barrett Park in Pilsen that serves as an artist in residency space and provides free workshops. I caught up with Programs Coordinator Hananne Hanafi in YolloCalli’s vibrant space to learn more about the ways she and her colleagues are empowering creative youth in Little Village to express themselves through art.   Anjali Misra: How did you all end up in this particular space and this particular community? Hananne Hanafi: The National Museum [of Mexican Art] started the program and originally the space was located in Pilsen, and it was on the corner, it’s where the Giordano’s is now at 18th and Blue Island. So it was there for years and …

Little Village Through A Looking Glass: An Interview with Media Instructor Mario Contreras

As part of Chicago’s Envisioning Justice project to address community concerns around criminal justice through arts education, Open Center for the Arts in Little Village worked with teaching artists to bring specialized courses focused on immigration, incarceration, and political organizing to their students. Filmmaker and media instructor Jesús Mario Contreras was one such educator, teaching a series of filmmaking classes to youth and young adults from the neighborhood. He shared with me about his particular teaching philosophies of art as cultural communication, youth allyship, and the importance of self-reflection. Anjali Misra: How did you become involved with Open Center? Mario Contreras: Pepe Vargas from The Chicago Latino Film Festival recommended a friend of mine for  the job of instructor. Arlen Parsa, director of The Way to Andina, thought I’d enjoy the opportunity. AM: Can you describe your work with Open Center? What was day-to-day teaching like, and what were some highlights (best personal moments with students, staff, community members, etc.)? MC: I was one of many instructors that Open Center students worked with over the …

Black Birth Matters at #LetUsBreathe Collective

The #LetUsBreathe Collective is an alliance of artists and activists who come together, organizing through a creative lens to imagine a world without prisons and police. The Collective operates the Breathing Room, a Black-led liberation headquarters for arts, organizing, and healing on Chicago’s South Side. May each of our beginnings be honored, as they did not begin without deep struggle. Keeping community is keeping us together. It’s unity. The #LetUsBreathe Collective’s partnership with Black Birth Matters represented a cross of a cultural exchange of knowledge, Black economic wealth, and education about the experiences of Black women in preparing for, experiencing, and learning about life before and after birth. Black Birth Matters is a “cultural campaign to uplift the life-giving power of Black women and people with wombs,” says Kristiana Rae Colón, the creator of Black Sex Matters and a poet, playwright, and abolitionist. With her comrade and partner, creative Malik Alim, she welcomed their new vessel of life, Baby Alim Colón, into the world at the inaugural Black Birth Matters community event. Focusing on Black birthwork, doula, and …

Shifting the Art Education Paradigm: A Conversation with Arnie Aprill of Envisioning Justice

When I asked Chicago-based arts and learning curriculum expert Arnie Aprill to sum up the Envisioning Justice initiative, he told me it was  “about respecting the knowledge of [Chicago] communities, not paying service to project funders.” Since the launch of this city-wide initiative, Aprill has been asking the hard questions, like “how do communities build their own capacity for healthy living? How are these communities being disenfranchised?” The catalyst of disenfranchisement that the Envisioning Justice program sites are addressing is the criminal justice system. Aprill works closely with hub directors (community leaders co-facilitating place-based Envisioning Justice projects) to offer activities that empower youth and families with the knowledge, tools, and resources to define their own futures outside of the seemingly ever-present gaze of the criminal justice system in Chicago. From Aprill’s assessment, many West and South Side neighborhood leaders face an uphill battle to not have their communities’ health be defined by where they fall in mass incarceration statistics. Aprill has always seen his role as helping already established neighborhood programs build capacity to address …

Inside the Just Art Program at Cook County Jail: Part 2

Continuing the Envisioning Justice project’s coverage of Just Art, I sat down with Aimee Krall-Lanoue, a teaching artist who has facilitated weekly writing classes at Cook County Jail since May. Just Art, which began in 2015, currently consists of three teaching artists who instruct on visual art and writing. Krall-Lanoue is also an English professor and writing center director at Concordia University, and specializes in basic writing. She is interested in the ways that language is used to construct hierarchies, and increasing political awareness around language. One of her larger life goals is to create community writing centers all over the city, staffed by (paid!) writers who live in those communities. Over coffee, we discussed Just Art, pedagogy, and the structural barriers that prevent people from coming to writing. Jordan Sarti: Can you talk a little about pedagogy and how you teach classes differently at a basic writing class at Concordia versus at the jail? Aimee Krall-Lanoue: This is one of the things that I was very concerned about, was that I can make a lot …

Inside the Just Art Program at Cook County Jail

Across the U.S., 2.3 million people are being held in correctional facilities. Around 536,000 of them are being detained pretrial—more than most countries have in their jails and prisons combined. And as much as our prison population swells with people serving life sentences, shorter-term pretrial detention, and the architectures and logics that come with it, are distinctly American. Cook County Jail’s brutalist facility looms over 96 acres of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. It is the largest single-site jail in the country. In 1985, the average daily population was about 5,000. By 2012, that number had nearly doubled. An estimated 90 percent of those incarcerated at Cook County Jail have not been convicted of a crime but are being held in pretrial detention, often because they can’t afford to pay the bond set during their pretrial hearing. Late last year, after Chief Judge Timothy Evans ordered court judges to set bail only in amounts defendants could afford, the average bond amount in Cook County fell by over 80 percent, from nearly $134,000 in 2016 to $22,000 …

Community Art for Art’s Sake: A Conversation with Open Center for the Arts in Little Village

At Open Center for the Arts in Little Village, the focus is not on enacting social justice buzzwords like “youth diversion,” “community intervention,” or “artivism.” Instead, Open Center staff are working hard to build capacity for positive change in their neighborhood by modeling progressive values for the young people they mentor and serve. Earlier this year, I spoke with four of Open Center’s instructors and art practitioners and one student intern to learn about how each of them is envisioning justice in Little Village as well as how they view their own roles as artists within the ecosystem of direct service youth development and community organizing. Folks at the table included Executive Director J. Omar Magana, Envisioning Justice Hub Director Gabriela Juarez, Theater Instructor Luis Crespo, Film & Video Instructor Essau Menendez, and Theater Assistant & Student Jose Blanco This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Anjali Misra: Luis – as Theater Director, what do you oversee? Luis Crespo: I oversee the youth program and that’s working with the young people to use …

The Right to Heal: An Interview with Artist & Activist bria royal

bria royal is a 24-year-old multidisciplinary artist from the West side of Chicago. bria’s work often deals with Black and Indigenous mythologies, ecofeminism and futurist possibilities. In 2017, she released a graphic novel titled Black Girl Mania which fuses science fiction and personal narrative to follow a protagonist navigating mental illness in a post-climate change world’s last habitable land mass. Most recently, she illustrated Missing Daddy, a children’s book written by one of Chicago’s most prominent organizers and prison abolitionists, Mariame Kaba. Kaba has had a hand in developing many of Chicago’s radical organizing projects, including Project NIA, Chicago Freedom School, Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Young Women, Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander, and We Charge Genocide. At Northwestern University, where she studied Communications, Film, and Psychology, bria helped form Unshackle NU, a political action group that pressured the school to divest from private prison corporations and companies that profit from the prison-industrial complex. As part of Unshackle NU, bria created an animated short called Prison-Industrial Complex 101. There she met Kaba, …

Books & Breakfast at The Breathing Room

The #LetUsBreathe Collective is an alliance of artists and activists who come together, organizing through a creative lens to imagine a world without prisons and police. The Collective operates the Breathing Room, a Black-led liberation headquarters for arts, organizing, and healing on Chicago’s South Side. Like music, food crosses all boundaries. It connects the physical and the soul, and it honors our past and our present. It is essential for survival. At The Breathing Room with the #LetUsBreathe Collective, Cherisse Jackson and I have begun a collaboration in bringing a Books & Breakfast program to the space twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays from 7 to 9 a.m.. The program honors the Black Radical Tradition and The Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which began in 1969 after The National School Lunch Program provided reduced-price, but not free, lunches for poor children, and the National School Breakfast Program was limited to few schools. In order to address the need in the community, the Panthers initiated the Free Breakfast Program at St. …

Encircling Community with Circles & Ciphers: An Interview with Steve Serikaku

Within Circles & Ciphers‘ programming, Community Peace Circle is a long established institution in both the neighborhood of Rogers Park and the city of Chicago. This space represents my earliest interaction with the organization and provided me with a foundational understanding of circle facilitation. Circles & Ciphers presently offers four types of circles on a weekly or biweekly basis to accommodate a range of different social and gender identities: Young Men’s, Women of Color, Freestyle, and Community. Community Peace Circle offers a flexible format which caters to the broadest range of identities and ages allowing these groups to interact and share space with one another. In order to further understand the types of people who give shape and meaning to the Community Peace Circle, I wanted to interview attendees to see what drew them into the space and what keeps them returning. This interview was conducted with Steve Serikaku, a local resident of Edgewater who is also involved with several social justice efforts that align with his Unitarian Universalist faith doctrine. Mike Strode: How are you …

Darien R. Wendell, Forging Black Queer Sanctuaries by Any Means

Darien R. Wendell (they/them, ey/em, d) is a transdisciplinary artist, curator, educator, and organizer who uses art as a vehicle to interrogate and excavate Black queer histories, experiences, and moments. They harness their inquiry in pursuit of creating art, spaces and worlds for Black trans and gender non-conforming folks who seek refuge, community and connection. Their work expands over different media and expressions, including performance, sculpture, illustration, and zines. They are also part of several Chicago-based artists and organizing collectives–one of which is A Tribe Called Cunt, a “squad” co-created with Bonita Africana (Shanna Collins) that highlights the many contributions of Black trans and gender non-conforming rappers and cultural producers to hip-hop culture.    It was an art teacher in high school who encouraged Darien to think critically about art as a tool and not just aesthetics. They had a culture jamming assignment that required them to look at an advertisement, research the company that produced it to understand the company’s practices, and then create a counterculture piece of art about it. The main point of …

A Win for Humanity: Interview with Dominique Steward of BBF Family Services

Dominique Steward and I met at the first of several open houses to be held at BBF Family Services this year as part of the Envisioning Justice initiative. Entitled “Powerful Platforms: a Community’s Call to Action,” the open house was designed to bring awareness to the concerns central to Envisioning Justice, which invites Chicagoans from around the city to address the impact of incarceration in their communities. (I also met BBF Family Services President and CEO Rufus Williams at the open house, which included a roundtable discussion on police-community relations.) Steward moved from a longtime career at the College of DuPage to BBF Family Services in North Lawndale three years ago. After starting in development for the organization, she is currently the Envisioning Justice North Lawndale Hub Director.  I recently sat down with Steward on a quiet Saturday morning at BBF to discuss her vision for subsequent Envisioning Justice programming. I work for UCAN, another social service agency in North Lawndale, so I was particularly curious about her previous work on the agency’s development side, and …

Aprils Fools and Their Universe: Kristiana Rae Colón and #LetUsBreathe Collective

Kristiana Rae Colón (she/her) is a poet, playwright, actor, educator, creator of Black Sex Matters, one half of brother-sister duo April Fools, co-director of the #LetUsBreathe Collective and hub director for Envisioning Justice at the Breathing Room. She is a wearer of many hats and force of nature in every piece of work she is a part of. I became aware of Kristiana through mutual comrades, and grew to know her work and learn from the intricacies within it all. As time went on, I had the pleasure of sharing a work space with Colón, and experienced her play “florissant & canfield,” written to shed light on the Ferguson Uprising and the murder of Mike Brown. It was an unforgettable moment. The #LetUsBreathe Collective is an alliance of artists and activists who come together, organizing through a creative lens to imagine a world without prisons and police. The Collective operates the Breathing Room, a Black-led liberation headquarters for arts, organizing, and healing on Chicago’s South Side. This article was edited for length and clarity. Miranda Goosby: What …

Abolitionist Sarah-Ji Uses Photography To Reimagine Community Liberation

Sarah-Ji (she/her) is a movement photographer and abolitionist who documents freedom struggles in Chicago. She is also an active member of For the People Artists Collective, a squad of Black and artists of color who also organize and create work that “uplifts and projects struggle, resistance, liberation, and survival within and for marginalized communities and movements.” For nearly a decade she has created a visual archive of liberation struggles for Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer, trans, and intersex lives. She documents and sheds light on the everyday people of Chicago who show up and actively resist systemic, hyper-local and social oppression. Thus, her camera becomes a tool of liberation and a pathway toward envisioning a world without police and prisons, where struggle does not take precedence over love, justice, and community. Her photography illustrates the power of sustaining strong relationships as organizing artists while committing to the heavy lift of resistance and social activism. This interview was shortened for length and clarity.  Ireashia: Tell me a little about how you came to photography and what drew …

Aprils Fools and Their Universe: Damon Williams, Jr. and #LetUsBreathe Collective

Damon Williams, Jr. (he/him) is a poet, organizer, one half of brother-sister duo April Fools, co-director of the #LetUsBreatheCollective, and overall unique being. I first heard of his work through mutual comrades, through his and Daniel Kisslinger’s podcast Airgo, and through his rhymes, which embrace self-healing and accountability, and expel self-love and love of your neighbors. MG: Can you introduce yourself for me tell me a little about yourself? DW: I am Damon Williams, Jr. I am 25 years old, and I am a facilitator, teaching artist, organizer, and media and culture maker on the SouthSide of Chicago. MG: What does Chicago mean to you and how do you feel it’s energy affects people? DW: Chicago is home and Chicagoans are hometown people. It is a city that is landlocked, where we live upon this land taken from indigenous native people. It being in the “middle” of the country; being the “Second City,” named after it was rebuilt and thrived once again after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; it is not second to New …

On Incarceration, Quilting and Building Community at Homan Square

August of this year, Nichols Tower Artist-in-Residence Rachel Wallis held her first quilting circle where she invited participants to sew thoughts, plans, and dreams that female inmates at the Cook County prison have for their children. In different stages of incarceration, some of these women are awaiting a trial, some are being processed. These women are mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters who were separated from their family as a result of imprisonment. On her website, artist Rachel Wallis describes herself as “an activist who uses art in organizing work, and an artist who engages in issues of racial and social justice.” As an extension of her art practice, Wallis approached the Cook County women’s facility with a series of quilting workshops to engage the inmates; the first of which took place in summer of 2018. Scheduled on a Saturday afternoon, Wallis began the three-hour workshop by inviting participants to sit in a circle. Before she entrusted the participants with the sewing, Wallis, along with facilitators Jamilah Bowden, a professional counselor at H’Art of Hope, and Audrey …

Featured image: Ryan Keesling leans over the shoulder of Walter, a Free Write Sound and Vision technician, as they both look at audio mixer that sits on a table in front of them. They are outside, under a blue tent, where Sound and Vision is mixing sound for the FEAST festival that took place September 8. Photo by Chelsea Ross

Just Narratives: A Conversation with Ryan Keesling of Free Write Arts and Literacy

“The ‘envisioning justice’ conversation is like – I don’t know, I think people try too hard to think about what it will look like.” Ryan Keesling had just pulled out his phone and was pointing at a photo on Free Write Art and Literacy’s Instagram page as he spoke. It was a flyer for YAS! Fest, the youth art showcase that took place in Millennium Park in September. On the flyer was an image of two DJs who had performed at the festival, Walter and Cortez, a.k.a. DJ 1Solo and DJ Tez. Keesling continued, “That’s not to say that people shouldn’t imagine. But, for me, I have to – I can imagine it, but also when I imagine it I don’t necessarily feel it. But when I see their faces and when I work with our students, both inside and outside, and I see them growing and I see them becoming aware of their abilities, and I see them being able to take control of their lives and I see them being happy and getting …

Broadcasting Art From Inside Cook County Jail

On the night of the screening of Radioactive: Stories from Beyond the Wall, the newest intervention in Maria Gaspar’s 96 Acres Project, the area around Cook County Jail was vibrantly alive. Cars zoomed by with teenage girls poking out of sunroofs, Mexican flags draped around their shoulders, and passengers shouting “Viva México!” in honor of Mexican Independence Day that weekend. Facing the north wall of the massive compound—the largest jail in the country—a parking lot was converted into a viewing space, with folded chairs orbiting around large speakers tuned into Lumpen Radio. William Onyeabor songs played as about fifty people settled in for Radioactive’s second screening. A group gathered around what looked like a food cart, but was actually William Estrada’s Mobile Street Art Cart project, making screen prints that read “Families Belong Together/Abolish ICE/Abolish Prisons” and pinning them up to dry on clotheslines. As the sun set the lot filled out, buzzing. Behind the wall, the light from a single room spilled out through a barred window. With the Radioactive screenings and other aspects of the 96 …

IMAGE: A black and white photo of AnnMarie Brown in conversation with three teaching artists from Circles & Ciphers. One of the artists points towards the others from out of the right frame of while AnnMarie and the two other artists look in their direction.

Restorative Lifestyle: A Conversation with AnnMarie Brown of Circles & Ciphers

Between August 22nd and 24th, several practitioners came together for Restorative Justice Summit 2018 to hold generative conversations about the meanings and shared narrative they locate within their work. One year into North Lawndale’s pilot of the Restorative Justice Community Community Court, we see these practices deployed in schools, correctional facilities, court systems, and community organizations throughout the city. All of these spaces hold their own internal relational dynamics which affect how restorative justice looks on the ground. In the Restorative Justice Community Court of North Lawndale, the practice looks like peace circles made available to non-violent defendants as an alternative to the harsh sentencing guidelines of Cook County Criminal Court. During their City Bureau Public Newsroom presentation,  Jenny Casas and Sarah Conway made clear that this is not a process designed to release the defendant from consequences or grant them full autonomy. Failing to keep the agreements made in the Community Court will mean a return to the Criminal Court. AnnMarie Brown of Circles & Ciphers prefers to view restorative justice through the lens of lifestyle and choice. This past May, Circles & Ciphers hosted a culminating event for the first session of …

Tonika G. Johnson Uses Visual Activism to Combat Distorted Truth

Tonika G. Johnson (she/her) is an Englewood photographer and activist who uses photography and digital media to explore Chicago’s racial and economic disparities. She harnesses the provocative power of photographs and moving image in her latest project Folded Map, where she looks specifically at issues of segregation and housing by juxtaposing images of streets on Chicago’s South Side with their sister addresses on the North Side. The stark difference in the care of buildings, houses, and streets between the two locations is jarring and visually unsettling. The omnipresent nature of structural racism and systemic oppression has never been clearer. But Johnson does more than show these disparities. She creates a bridge and creates space for North and South Side residents to come together and discuss how segregation impacts their lives. In doing so, Johnson urges the Chicago public to continue to have these difficult conversations. I have been an admirer of Johnson’s work since Everyday Rituals, her multimedia project that “asserts the divinity of regular people.” She captures her community with loving precision and pride. …