Public Humanities Awards

(image of Sherry Williams by John Boehm)

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On behalf of Illinois Humanities, thank you for coming to celebrate the 2024 Public Humanities Awards!

The celebration isn’t over!

Support us! We put every dollar to work for our state’s residents to have equitable access to the humanities. We’re just $9,665 away from meeting our fundraising goal! We’d LOVE you to make a donation! 

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    Public Humanities Award recipients Mark and Nadine York. (All photos by GlitterGuts.)

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    In the center, Public Humanities Award recipient Sherry Williams.

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    Left, Beacon Award recipient Jane Saks and Public Humanities Award recipient Dr. Ada Cheng.

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    2019 Public Humanities Award recipient Cheryl Lynn Bruce performs an original piece in honor of Jane Saks.

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    Illinois Humanities Executive Director Gabrielle Lyon pauses for a photo op.

Thank you for joining us at the 2024 Public Humanities Awards luncheon as we honored Illinois trailblazers in arts, advocacy, and community building.

We were delighted to celebrate this year's Public Humanities Award honorees. Each of these individuals has made an indelible impact on Illinois through their work and support of the humanities, highlighting the power of storytelling and inclusion in strengthening Illinois' civic fabric. 

The Beacon Award was presented to Jane M. Saks, Resident/Artistic Director of Project&, and Co-Creator and Artistic Director of Monuments2Movements

The Public Humanities Awards honorees:

  • Ada Cheng, Storyteller, Speaker, Educator, Illinois Humanities Road Scholar, and 2023-24 Lund-Gill Endowed Chair at Dominican University
  • Sherry Williams, Founder and Executive Director, Bronzeville / Black Chicagoan Historical Society
  • Mark and Nadine York, Civic Leaders, Gallatin County Tourism Committee and the Ohio River Visitors Center

On May 22, 2024, Illinois Humanities, along with friends, partners, and humanists celebrated these dynamic champions of the public humanities in Illinois! This event was Illinois Humanities’ most important annual fundraiser and raises critical general operating dollars to support our free public humanities programs and grants throughout Illinois. Support us today.

For questions about the Public Humanities Awards, please contact Morven Higgins at morven.higgins@ilhumanities.org or (312) 422-5584.

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Guests enjoy the 2024 Public Humanities Awards ceremony. (All photos by GlitterGuts.)

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Illinois Humanities Staff

Meet the 2024 Award Recipients

Jane M. Saks, Beacon Award Recipient
Jane Saks headshot

Jane M. Saks, Resident/Artistic Director of Project&, and Co-Creator and Artistic Director of Monuments2Movements

Visiting Professor, Harvard University | Consultant, Writer, and Curator

Jane M. Saks is a writer, producer, cultural alchemist, educator, arts advocate, creative collaborator, artist, and activist. Her work challenges and champions issues of gender, sexuality, human rights, race, and power within the worlds of arts and culture, politics and civil rights, academia, and philanthropy. She is a curator and writer deeply invested in working closely with artists to develop ideas, artworks, and exhibitions that respond to and transform our understanding of the world. Her curatorial work focuses on the intersection of art and the public through public art, educational initiatives, special projects, major new commissions by a wide range of contemporary artists, and far-reaching international collaborations and partnerships.

Awards & Recognitions

Leadership Greater Chicago Fellow; Business and Professionals in the Public Interest “40 Who Have Made a Difference” Award; LGBT Arts Leaders Who Work for Equity, Racial Justice and Human Rights (United Nations High Commissioner Award) Inductee, City of Chicago’s LGBT Hall of Fame; Leadership Award, Center on Halsted Human First Award, About Face Theatre; Impact Award, Chicago Foundation for Women; Visionary Award: Rape Victim Advocates; BeyondMedia Justice Award; Pride Index Leadership Award In recognition of partnership with and support of the African American LGBT communities; and International Arts Leadership - National Arts Strategies Fellow and Stanford University Arts Fellowship.

In June 2019, selected by the national GO Magazine as one of the national “100 Queer Women We Love.”

In May 2021, honored with the Human First Award from the Center on Halsted along with artists Theaster Gates and Sam Kirk.

In July 2022, received the Ox-Bow Inaugural Arts Visionary and Innovation Award, which recognizes individuals as members of their larger creative community who are active in fostering transformative and experimental practice that makes an impact both in and beyond their respective fields.

Included in Kerry James Marshall’s City of Chicago 2017 permanent public mural on Chicago’s Cultural Center building depicting 20 Women who have influenced the arts/culture/social equity of the city of Chicago, including Oprah Winfrey, Gwendolyn Brooks, Achy Obejas, Sandra Cisneros, Margaret Burroughs, Maggie Daley, Barbara Gaines, and Barbara Jones-Hogu.

Ada Cheng, Public Humanities Award Recipient
Ada Cheng with glasses on

Ada Cheng, Storyteller, Speaker, Educator, Illinois Humanities Road Scholar, and 2023-24 Lund-Gill Endowed Chair at Dominican University

An educator-turned-artist, storyteller, and creator, Dr. Ada Cheng has utilized storytelling to illustrate structural inequities, raise critical awareness, and build intimate communities. Committed to amplifying and uplifting marginalized voices, she has created numerous storytelling platforms for BIPOC and LGBTQIA community members to tell difficult and vulnerable stories. She has consistently engaged in public education and public outreach through storytelling, performances, and public speaking. Because of her artistic and intellectual work, she was named Educator of the Year in 2021 by the 7th Congressional District’s Multi-Ethnic Advisory Task Force & American Multi-Ethnic Coalition.  

Dr. Cheng was a tenured professor in sociology at DePaul University from 2001-2016 when she resigned to pursue performance and storytelling. She has since been featured at storytelling shows and done her two solo performances, NOT QUITE and LOVING ACROSS BORDERS, at theaters, universities, and conferences across the nation. In addition to being a prolific scholar as well as an accomplished storyteller, she is also an emerging playwright, having written and published short plays in response to urgent social concerns of our time. She has also expanded her art to include multimedia such as film.

Since 2019, she has delivered numerous keynotes for organizations, conferences, and universities, including but not limited to the Women and Girls in Georgia Conference at the University of Georgia, Chicago Cultural Alliance’s Activating Heritage Conference, AAPI Heritage Month at Dominican University, (Re)Claiming Our Love: Social Justice & Domestic Violence Conference with The Network-Advocating Against Domestic Violence, Centering Resistance: Imaginings of a New Feminist Future Conference at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the Power of Words Conference by the Transformative Language Arts Network. 

Dr. Cheng has worked with local and national organizations, including but not limited to OCA Chicago, Asian Health Coalition, Chinese American Museum of Chicago, National Cambodian Heritage Museum, Japanese American Service Committee, i2i: Invisible to Invincible Asian Pacific Islander Pride of Chicago, KAN-WIN, Center on Halsted, Bronzeville Historical Society, Metropolitan Family Services, DeKalb County History Center, and United Way for Southeast Michigan. She has worked with AAPI and BIPOC communities through her various storytelling platforms, such as Talk Stories: An Asian American/Asian Diaspora Storytelling, Dare to Tell: Queer Asian Storytelling, and Speaking Truths Series. She has partnered with Center on Halsted for April Sexual Assault Awareness Month and October Domestic Violence Awareness Month, providing necessary platforms for people to present stories on gender-based violence. She features community members as tellers and brings these events to community spaces for critical engagement and alliance building.

Dr. Cheng is the 2023-24 Lund-Gill Endowed Chair at Dominican University. She has been a speaker for Illinois Humanities' Road Scholars Speakers Bureau since 2019. She teaches part-time at Dominican University. Her interests span academia, performance, and advocacy.

Sherry Williams, Public Humanities Award Recipient
Sherry Williams in Bronzeville

Sherry Williams, Founder and Executive Director, Bronzeville / Black Chicagoan Historical Society
(Photo of Sherry Williams by John Boehm)

Sherry Williams was born and raised on the south side of Chicago in the Englewood Community. She is the Founder and President of the Bronzeville / Black Chicagoan Historical Society.

Williams led African American cultural programs at the Pullman State Historic Site and the Senator Stephen A. Douglas Tomb Site and Monument Park grounds from 2007-2017. In 2009, Williams was voted the first African American Vice President of the Pullman Civic Organization. She also served as a board member of the Chicago Cultural Alliance. 2000-2005.

Williams is an active member of the Afro American Genealogical and Historical Society (Chicago Chapter);  a board member of the Bronzeville Trail Task Force, Inc.; a board member of Chicago Coalition of Park Advisory Councils;  a Board member of Illinois State Historical Society; a former commissioner of the Amistad Commission of the State of Illinois (2010-2012); an institutional member of the Chicago Cultural Alliance 2006 - current; a partner institution of Choose Chicago; and board secretary of the Burnham Park Advisory Council since 2019.

In 2010, Williams developed the Chicago Freedom Tours with the guidance of Dr. Christopher Reed, and well-noted historian and educator Mrs. Glennette Tilley Turner. Funding support for the project came from the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Williams trains volunteers to provide portrayals at historic sites in Chicago where Civil War-era statesmen, ministry leaders, and abolitionists supported freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad.

In 2009, Williams developed the Earl and Beverly Johnson Bird Oasis at the Pullman State Historic Site. In 2012, Williams developed an African Heritage Garden and Migratory Bird Oasis at Senator  Stephen Douglas Tomb Site.  Both public spaces are currently closed.  The Johnson Bird Oasis was destroyed when the National Park Service removed toxic soil contaminants at the Pullman Clock Tower building.  The Migratory Bird Oasis at the Douglas Tomb site remains vital. On September 5, 2020, Williams galvanized the family of Nancy Green, community members, and faith leaders to place a headstone at her grave.  Nancy Green was the original Aunt Jemima Pancake living trademark and spokeswoman.

Williams was selected as the honoree of the Chicago Chapter Friends of the Amistad Award in 2002; became a Timuel D. Black Fellow in 2010; was awarded an Audubon TogetherGreen Toyota Fellowship in May 2012; presented the Elmhurst University Martin Luther King, Jr. Intercultural Lecture Feb 17, 2021;  received the Northeastern Illinois University alumni award (2020); was recognized as a distinguished alumnus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2021; received the City of Chicago Commission on Chicago Landmarks - 2022 Landmarks Advocacy Award in recognition of years of protecting historic architecture and heritage documentation. In 2022, State of Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza recognized and honored Williams along with 5 volunteers for the countless hours spent preserving and cataloging over 140,000 individual burial records. This important project preserved one-of-a-kind documents noting Black Chicagoans arriving mostly during the Great Migration (1917- 1960).

Along with her numerous educational undertakings, Williams has established memberships and associations with more than 26 other institutions and organizations. She completed Illinois Humanities' Odyssey Project course in the humanities in 2015.  Williams earned her BA in Education at Northeastern Illinois University - Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies in 2017.  She completed her Masters in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana in 2019.

Bronzeville Historical Society offers significant oral and written documentation of African and African American contributions to this great City of Chicago. Williams is the author of "100 Notable People and Places in Bronzeville (Black Chicago)." Williams located the descendant community of Pearl River Plantation. The Plantation was owned by Senator Stephen A. Douglas. She believes the descendants of the enslaved Africans have a shared ancestry with her by way of Liberia.

Williams is a descendant of former slaves who lived in the Delta of Mississippi, and also the plantations of Senator Henry Cooper (TN),  and U. S. President James Madison.  For more than 20 years, history centered on African American residents of Chicago has been enjoyed by all ages at public presentations hosted by the organization. Bronzeville Historical Society has an all-volunteer staff.

Mark and Nadine York, Public Humanities Award Recipients
Mark Nadine York

Mark and Nadine York, Civic Leaders, Gallatin County Tourism Committee and the Ohio River Visitors Center

Mark and Nadine York have been very involved in community and church activities since their retirement. They are a part of the Gallatin County Tourism Committee which operates the Ohio River Visitor Center which markets the historic and scenic attributes of their area and the 276 Art Exchange, a retail venue, promoting the works of local artists. 

Through their church, Mark and Nadine also work to alleviate the poverty of their community by operating the HELP Center—a non-food pantry—providing household staples such as laundry detergent, cleaners, and items of personal hygiene to needy families. The Weekend Snackpack program, another church program that they coordinate, supplies a sack of healthy snacks to over 100 local schoolchildren each Friday to prevent hunger over the weekend.

In the promotion of literacy, Mark and Nadine have also undertaken the task of keeping their village’s Little Lending Library stocked with books for children and adults.

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*Illinois Humanities Board Member

Last Updated: May 3, 2024

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About the Public Humanities Awards Ceremony

Established in 1984, Illinois Humanities' Public Humanities Awards Ceremony celebrates people who have made an indelible impact on our state through their work in and support of the humanities, honoring them with the Public Humanities Award. This event is Illinois Humanities’ most important annual fundraiser and enables us to provide grants and free public humanities programs throughout Illinois.

Launched in 2020 as part of the Public Humanities Awards Ceremony, the Beacon Award honors an individual who or an organization that has been a champion for – or investor in – the humanities in Illinois, elevating the work of humanists in ways that have improved the quality of the state for its residents.

View the list of Past Recipients
  • 2023:
    Rebecca Ginsburg, Stephanie Manriquez, and Alyson Thompson
    Beacon Award Recipient: Tracie D. Hall
  • 2022:
    Nicole Bond, Lorenzo Savage, and Sue Scott
    Beacon Award Recipient: Art for Justice
  • 2021:
    Tonika Lewis Johnson
    Beacon Award Recipient: Dawoud Bey
  • 2020:
    Sylvia Ewing and Eve L. Ewing
    Beacon Award Recipient: Weinberg/Newton Gallery
  • 2019:  Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Kerry James Marshall
  • 2018: Danielle Allen and Mannie Jackson
  • 2017: Jeanne Gang
  • 2016: Dr. Walter E. Massey
  • 2015: Howard Tullman
  • 2014: Jay Franke and David Herro
  • 2013: Lisa Yun Lee
  • 2012: Bruce Sagan and Bette Cerf Hill
  • 2011: John A. Wing
  • 2010: Anna Eleanor Roosevelt
  • 2008: Carlos Tortolero
  • 2007: Barbara Gaines
  • 2006: Mary A. Dempsey
  • 2005: The Honorable Abner and Zoe Mikva
  • 1994: Martin E. Marty, Stanley J. Ikenberry, Richard J. Franke, Chicago Tribune
  • 1993: Francis J. Pettis
  • 1992: Nancy Anderson Stevenson
  • 1990: Bridget Lamont
  • 1989: Cyrus Colter
  • 1988: Brena and Lee Freeman
  • 1987: The Honorable Dawn Clark Netsch and Walter Netsch
  • 1986: Mary Ward Wolkonsky
  • 1985: J. Michael Lennon
  • 1984: John Hope Franklin, Stuart Steuver, The Honorable Jim Edgar, The Honorable Paul Simon, The Honorable Sidney Yates, Louise Año Nuevo Kerr
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