Creating Liberatory Spaces

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Illinois Humanities

Read Time 9 minutes
March 22, 2024

This March, Illinois Humanities gathered 24 state humanities councils and their community partners for a landmark, three-day convening, “Inside & Out: The Humanities and Mass Incarceration.” The first-of-its-kind convening was created to gather these national partners to deepen our understanding of the role that the humanities and state humanities councils can play in illuminating the impacts of mass incarceration, interrogating the dehumanizing nature of the criminal legal system, and paving a path toward restoration and healing. 

Illinois Humanities believes in the transformative power of a collective to enact lasting change, which is why “Inside & Out” was as much about who was gathering as why we gathered. 

Each of the more than 150 attendees had something powerful and unique to contribute to the conversation, be it a lived experience of incarceration, experience with grantmaking or college-in-prison programming, a creative practice, a deep knowledge of the criminal legal system, or an abiding passion for the role of humanities in society. 

Through more than a dozen presenter-led sessions, six experiential sessions, three media installations, performances, and more, we united, dreamt, and inspired change with one another in ways that we couldn’t have possibly done alone.

Thanks to nearly two years of work by a planning committee from 13 state humanities councils and their partners, this event was deeply powerful, and we’re excited to put into practice the lessons and insights we gathered. Read along as we recap this three-day convening. 

Inside & Out: The Humanities and Mass Incarceration sessions. (Photos by GlitterGuts)

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On Thursday, March 14, attendees arrived at the David Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago. They had a chance to meet one another in person, mingle, join a zine-making station with colorful art supplies, and peruse a vast collection of publications from independent publisher Haymarket Books, one of our convening partners.

After dinner, Jane Beachy, Illinois Humanities’ Senior Director of Public Engagement, and Renaldo Hudson, Education Director at the Illinois Prison Project, cohosted a showcase for council staff and community partners from 10 states to present the work they’re doing at the intersection of the humanities and mass incarceration. Contributions ranged from a presentation on Hawai’i Council for the Humanities’ signature “Try Think” program to a performance excerpted from a play by Michelle Daniel Jones and Anastazia Schmid, Who Would Believe A Prisoner?: Indiana Women’s Carceral Institutions, 1848-1920

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    Jane Beachy, Illinois Humanities’ Senior Director of Public Engagement (Photo by GlitterGuts)

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    Renaldo Hudson, Education Director at the Illinois Prison Project (Photo by GlitterGuts)

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    Presentation on Hawai’i Council for the Humanities’ signature “Try Think” program by Rob Chang. (Photo by GlitterGuts)

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    Performance excerpted from a play by Michelle Daniel Jones and Anastazia Schmid, Who Would Believe A Prisoner?: Indiana Women’s Carceral Institutions, 1848-1920. (Photo by GlitterGuts)

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    A rousing game of hot potato to tunes from DJ L O Kari was provided by the Idaho Humanities. Anthony Mitchell, Senior Deputy Chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities, is pictured here with the potato. (Photo by GlitterGuts)

A common theme among the councils’ programs was education, both inside and out. Councils spoke about the necessity of quality education workshops for incarcerated students and building college programs inside correctional facilities. They also emphasized the importance of continuing that support for returning residents, their families, and their communities through initiatives that facilitate jobs, social support, and reentry into a society that stigmatizes formerly incarcerated individuals. The urgency of this message underscores how vital the humanities are in the equation—building a future without mass incarceration requires re-envisioning a system that prioritizes justice, community, and belonging.

“Don't keep imagining. We're doing it. The dream is coming true because people are making a decision to say: let's stop dreaming and get it done,” shared Hudson, a longtime partner and collaborator with Illinois Humanities’ Envisioning Justice program.

The night ended with a jam session with DJ L O Kari, who welcomed anyone to pick up an instrument and play together. Planning Committee members Robert Taliaferro (MN, saxaphone), Joe Murphy (NY, guitar), and Alex Anderson (NY, djembe drum) delighted attendees with improvised tunes and stories. 

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Photo by GlitterGuts

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Left to right: Robert Taliaferro, John Cicora, Alex Anderson, and Joe Murphy. Photo by GlitterGuts

Friday’s activities began with a grounding session for the day. Attendees participated in free-write and drawing exercises and group discussions with prompts by the Inside & Out Planning Committee’s Wordsmithing Working Group.

State council members and their partners could attend and participate in over a dozen sessions presented and moderated by their peers.

Session topics ranged from ideological conversations dissecting the language we use to talk about the prison industrial complex to action-oriented discussions on what, why, and how to organize efforts in a way that will have the most sustainable and valuable impact for communities. Several sessions explored how to curate arts and humanities programming in prisons.

A popular topic for councils was logistics—where does a state humanities council begin and how do they maintain interest, funding, and sustainability in their programming? 

Several panels addressed troubleshooting common barriers in the nonprofit landscape and how to strategically use funding. This was a key opportunity for skill sharing and learning first-hand the successes and challenges that other state councils around the country have experienced.

After a day of talking about the intersections between the humanities and mass incarceration, participants were invited to choose between six hands-on experiential sessions. In “Tea and Letters for Liberation” (presented by Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes of the Tea Project) participants could drink tea from handcrafted ceramic cups and write a letter to a torture survivor detained at Guantanamo or Stateville Prison. In “Printing Power: Visualizing Abolition” (presented by Pablo Mendoza and Sarah Ross of Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project) participants inked up a relief printing block and made prints with powerful slogans. And in “Ritual4Return: A Homecoming Rite of Passage,” councils’ community partners from New York and New Jersey shared a potent call-and-response performance that welcomed people home from incarceration and into the next phase of their lives. 

No question, thought, or idea was off the table as our sessions unfolded. 

We heard from a diverse crowd of the most prolific and influential leaders in the field—from directors at nonprofits whose programs work with system-impacted individuals and families; to artists, poets, performers, and musicians who were formerly incarcerated; to social justice activists; to humanities council executive directors who are seeking resources to begin this kind of work in their state; and every intersection in between. 

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Printing Power: Visualizing Abolition session with Pablo Mendoza and Sarah Ross of Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project. (Photo by GlitterGuts)

That evening, our local and national guests joined the audience of Reginald Dwayne Betts’s one-night-only play, Felon: An American Washi Tale, performed to a sold-out audience at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. 

His solo performance explored the experiences, memories, and consequences of incarceration through poetry, storytelling, and the art of Japanese papermaking. In Betts's words, Felon is about reimagining paper. The pages of a book being slid into a cell, stoves made of toilet paper, kites from a father, handwritten affidavits, legal complaints, certificates of pardon: the variety of papers that reveals what is possible and burdened by prison.

Damon Williams and Daniel Kisslinger of AirGo spoke candidly with Betts during a live conversation after the show, illuminating the concepts and stories behind the work. Luckily, the discussion was recorded for the AirGo podcast, which will be released in April for everyone to enjoy the heart and rigor of Betts’s work. Attendees formed a long and lively line during the reception and book signing that followed the performance.

FELON performance, reception, and book signing. (Photos by GlitterGuts)

During a closing luncheon on Saturday afternoon, Gabrielle Lyon, executive director of Illinois Humanities, handed a microphone around the room to allow anyone to recap their experience at the convening.

“Of anything I’ve organized and anything I’ve been to, this is the best conference I've ever been to,” shared Kevin Bott, Founder and Artistic Director of Ritual4Return. 

“When I started doing re-entry work in 2006, I could never have conceived of coming into a room like this, hosted by humanities councils, where you could go to any table in this room and you wouldn't know who was justice-impacted, who was the executive director of a council, who was a community partner. I still don't know! I have no idea—and no one cares.” The room erupted in applause; Kevin’s statement resonated deeply.

Al-Tariq Witcher talked proudly about bringing what he’d learned back to his organization in New Jersey, Returning Citizens Support Group. “I cannot wait to go back and say, listen, this thing that we’re doing is part of a much larger initiative, and let everybody know that it’s not just us [doing this work]—we’re deep, we’re wide, we’re broad, we’re out there.”

Thank you to our generous convening sponsors: the Mellon Foundation, the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation, Good Chaos, and Polk Bros. Foundation; as well as our convening partners, Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, AirGo & Respair Media, Black Luxe Candle Co., Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture: UChicago, GlitterGuts Photography, Haymarket Books, The Study Chicago, and Vosges Haut-Chocolat.

Thank you also to our planning committee with representatives from Florida Humanities, Georgia Humanities, Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison, Hawai'i Council for the Humanities, Hawai’i Public Safety Department, Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison, Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, Idaho Humanities Council, Indiana Humanities, Moreau College Initiative, Maine Humanities Council, Women Transcending, Re-entry Sisters, New England Coalition for Higher Education in Prison, Minnesota Humanities Center, Minnesota Justice Research Center, Odyssey Beyond Bars, The Prison Mirror, Mississippi Humanities Council, Humanities New York, Re-entry Theater of Harlem, PA Humanities, Virginia Humanities, Wisconsin Humanities, and The Community, Correcting the Narrative.

And thank you to all the state humanities councils and community partners who were in attendance from the following states and U.S. territories: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Hawai’i, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Vermont, Virginia, Washington DC, and Wisconsin.

View more photos from the convening here.

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The David Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago. (Photo by GlitterGuts)

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The Haymarket Books table. (Photo by GlitterGuts)