Five years ago, the nonprofit Illinois Humanities asked state residents to imagine a world without mass incarceration, a city without prisons.
This initiative to view criminal justice as something more just and equitable culminated in an art exhibition titled “Envisioning Justice” at the School of the Art Institute’s Sullivan Galleries in 2019. Work by commissioned artists, activists , residents of the South and West Side neighborhoods, and youth from the Cook County Jail and Temporary Detention Center for Juveniles were all featured in the multimedia exhibit.
“This exhibit was supposed to be the culmination of two years of work, but what we heard during this exhibit was ‘this is great,'” said Envisioning Justice program manager Tyreece Williams. “This space was so sacred and special that we (Illinois Humanities) felt encouraged to continue to ‘envision justice’.”
Illinois Humanities continued the work and expanded the reach with “Envisioning Justice RE:ACTION,” a program that draws on the arts and humanities to think about alternatives to the continuing injustice of mass incarceration. Williams said while the work isn’t new, the approach they’re taking is.
“We’re hoping people will have these somewhat different conversations about organizing and politics, which seem like the obvious ways to engage,” Williams said. “It’s important for us to be in rooms with a shared context. Bringing people together for a shared experience around an artwork or an exhibit or a film, all of those things create access points for people who aren’t already engaged in the conversation. And so that the people who are engaged in these conversations are brought together. It kind of evens the playing field, when you have that shared experience that you can spark those conversations from.
Moving away from a predominant Chicago focus, Illinois Humanities took the lead statewide and awarded 28 grants of $1,000 to more than a dozen individuals and organizations to help create of free private and public events/projects that encourage engagement with “Envisioning Justice RE:ACTION.” The virtual art exhibit features 14 projects inviting the public to engage with the causes, impacts, and alternatives to the current criminal justice system through the lenses of visual art, creative writing, and film. step-by-step instructions on things people can do alone or with groups to further engage with the themes of the projects.In-person community events are scheduled to take place throughout the fall in Chicago, Carbondale, Aurora , East St. Louis, Bloomington, Champaign and Decatur.
“Some of the people who have applied are going to be hosting family members. Some will host a small community group in which they are exploited,” Williams said. “All of the events are varied in scope, so it will be a range of ways people are bringing people together through these activities on the RE:ACTION site.”
For example, a charity in Carbondale will be hosting a free public music and art-making event this month inviting guests to use Antonio Burton’s prompt, “Shape a mindto improve the experiences of children growing up with parents currently or formerly incarcerated.
Meanwhile, a reintegration program in Champaign will host a free public event at the Champaign Public Library that will focus on the story of Renaldo Hudson, who won his freedom after serving 37 years.
Additionally, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, an advocacy collective, will host a panel discussion at the Chicago Torture Justice Center, followed by a tour of the 63rd Street Beach site – an important location for Gerald Reed, who served nearly three decades. life in prison. which was commuted in 2021 by Governor JB Pritzker amid revelations of torture by Chicago police.
“There are so many conversations to be had, about why we’ve gotten to this point where we’re incarcerating people and criminalizing them at such disproportionate rates,” Williams said. “There are issues of poverty and education and class, race, gender, there’s so much conversation about it and it’s pretty evident in the artwork featured on the RE:ACTION site.”
The Envisioning Justice program has awarded more than $400,000 in grants for justice-focused arts and projects in Illinois since 2017, inside and outside of prisons.
Williams said the organization hopes people who interact with online activities will also upload their responses and comments to the RE:ACTION website, so others can see and respond, creating a constellation of people who share their thoughts on the issues and topics covered. in the exhibition.
“We just received funding from one of our long-time funders, the Art for Justice Fund, to support five years of ‘Envisioning Justice’ grants,” Williams said. “So we will be there because something that we really appreciate and something that we have heard from our partners is most valuable, and that is the resources that we are able to provide them to do their job. Illinois Humanities, we are not an advocacy organization. But what we can do is advocate for new ideas, advocate for new approaches, and advocate for new platforms to share how people think about justice.
Learn more about the work in the “Envisioning Justice RE:ACTION” exhibit by Illinois Humanities at envisioningjustice.org/exhibitions.