Five Leaders Reshaping Illinois: Honoring Our 2024 Public Humanities Awardees

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by Illinois Humanities

Read Time 7 minutes
April 22, 2024

Illinois is a state with no shortage of inspirational leaders using the humanities as a tool to galvanize the connections we share with our neighbors, families, and ourselves. As Illinois Humanities examined our state’s cultural landscape over the past year, a timely theme emerged among humanists across all sectors: storytelling and inclusion.

Storytelling is how we make sense of history and discover how our unique identities add color and warmth to a rapidly changing world—it’s how we find each other and unite as a community.

This is what we mean when we say that our work promotes “the humanities in action,” and five prolific individuals have emerged this year as frontrunners in enacting this practice in their communities. Illinois Humanities is thrilled to honor these innovators at this year’s Public Humanities Awards ceremony, a tradition established in 1984 to celebrate exceptional Illinoisans who have made an indelible impact on our state through their work in and support of the humanities.

On May 22, 2024, we will present the Beacon Award to nationally and internationally recognized queer leader, writer, producer, philanthropist, and creative collaborator, Jane M. Saks, President/Artistic Director of Project& and Co-creator and Artistic Director of Monuments2Movements. In addition to Saks, three Illinois Humanities community partners will receive Public Humanities Awards: educator, artist, storyteller, and Illinois Humanities’ Road Scholar, Dr. Ada Cheng; Sherry Williams, Founder and Executive Director, Bronzeville / Black Chicagoan Historical Society; and Mark and Nadine York, Civic Leaders, Gallatin County Tourism Committee and the Ohio River Visitor Center.

“In a time when the practices of book banning, online censorship, and AI replacing art, films, and literature are becoming alarmingly common—information and connection are too often suppressed. Through telling our stories, we fortify the thread that binds us together, and we reclaim who we are as humans. Our 2024 Public Humanities Awardees are leading the charge for Illinoisians to reshape our collective future,” shared Gabrielle H. Lyon, Illinois Humanities’ executive director.

Join us as we explore how our honorees’ work highlights the profound importance of leveraging the power of the humanities to bridge differences and create belonging in their communities! 

Filling the Gaps

Jane M. Saks is a leader who is invigorated by utilizing the humanities as a catalyst to bring together artists and humanists whose stories are often overlooked. At Project&, she curates and activates artist collectives in collaboration with one another to create timely work that explores race, justice, access and equity, gender, human rights, and more.

“People often talk about giving voice to the voiceless, which is a phrase I really hate. There are no voiceless people,” said Saks in an interview with Design Observer. “There are people who have been systematically unheard, and so there is something about allowing someone to participate… and be involved in something in a way that they choose.”

She is a philanthropic convener of some of the most fiercely bright artists of our time—from playwrights to photojournalists to musical composers—inspiring connections across a diverse range of humanities and arts disciplines.

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Through a model of cross-collaboration, she breaks down barriers, illustrates how a multifaceted approach to art inspires change, and amplifies voices on a global stage.

“I think of my work and the people I work with as an ecology, and that means in an ecology, things are equitable, they're not equal,” she further explained in her Design Observer feature. “And so how do we create a kind of ecology, a creative ecology to innovate together?” 

Championing Undertold Stories

Sherry Williams’s work illuminates the stark reality that Black Chicagoans’ stories have been historically silenced and uprooted. At the Bronzeville / Black Chicagoan Historical Society, she facilitates connecting Black families to their heritage by preserving, protecting, and cataloging genealogical and historical records.

It’s essential to Williams that these records are public, free, and accessible to all—the economic barrier of paywalls further widens the gap between Black Americans and their ancestry. Williams fearlessly breaks this oppressive cycle, making space for curiosity, joy, and identity-affirming connections to one’s family.

Established in 1999 in response to the diminishing historical sites in Black communities in Chicago, the Bronzeville Historical Society offers dynamic presentations, exhibitions, and tours, as well as a variety of programs for school children, families, elders, and nature stewards.

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“Being on the ground and face to face with people is so important for history work. Not only do you get oral histories, it’s also the best way for people to then say, ‘Hey, I have this item or document or photograph that I’d like to contribute to the society,'” Williams said in an interview with Block Club Chicago.

Sherry Williams is not only an Illinois Humanities’ Odyssey Project alumna and a longtime grantee partner—she is a prominent and irreplaceable South Side treasure. 

Celebrating Multifaceted History

Both retired schoolteachers of 30-plus years, Mark and Nadine York are inspirational civic leaders in Equality, Illinois, a town of approximately 550 residents in southeastern Illinois’s Gallatin County. As community service role models in the small town, they invigorate economic development and cultural interest in the region, like hosting Spark! Places of Innovation in 2023, a groundbreaking, traveling exhibition co-presented by Illinois Humanities and the Smithsonian.

The Yorks jumped into action to tackle the county’s urgent status as a food desert by founding the Snack Pack Program—which supplies a sack of healthy snacks to over 100 local school children each Friday to prevent hunger over the weekend—and the Help Center, a non-perishables pantry that includes free books with every order.

Mark is the President of Gallatin County Tourism Committee, and the couple manages the Ohio River Visitors Center where they serve as a trusted and enthusiastic source of knowledge about the region’s historical, ecological, and cultural marvels.

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“By telling stories that illustrate the complexity and multifacetedness of their region’s history and offering nuanced interpretations of its culture(s), Nadine and Mark (and others with whom they collaborate) help to dispel stereotypes and make the region more memorable and fascinating both to people who live there and to people who live elsewhere,” shared Matt Meacham, Illinois Humanities’ Program Manager of Statewide Engagement. 

Local Influence, Global Effect

Dr. Ada Cheng is an educator-turned-storyteller who harnesses the powerful art of storytelling to bring awareness to structural inequities and raise critical awareness of the experiences of BIPOC and LGBTQIA communities. Cheng is a celebrated contributor to Illinois Humanities’ Road Scholar Speakers Bureau where she demonstrates that our stories stretch farther than the borders of Illinois.

“Whatever is happening in Cook County is intimately linked to the global politics,” Cheng explains in her introduction to “Courage to Connect,” a live storytelling event during Cook County’s second annual Racial Equity Week. “The local is the global and the global is going to manifest itself in the local context.”

Her claim rings true, and it’s backed by years of experience in organizing and curating unforgettable storytelling programs, where she provides a platform for the voices of performers around the world to tell their unique yet often-relatable stories. The stage that she creates is a lifeline for these communities to explore how the humanities allow us to examine our role in a more just, safe, and vibrant future.

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“We all have multiple identities, and they all manifest themselves in complex ways,” Cheng explained. “So, this is what we’re going to find out [through storytelling]: how we are connected to one another, how issues are intersectional, and how it is important to connect with one another.”

All five of these individuals courageously prove that the humanities possess the power to cause a ripple effect from the center of our country, out. These leaders teach us how to embody change and bring it back with us to our communities, and we couldn’t be more excited to commemorate their work through the prestigious tradition of this year’s Public Humanities Awards!

RSVP to the 2024 Public Humanities Awards here. The ceremony is open to the public and will take place on May 22, 12:00 CST at Venue SIX10. A livestream will be available for those unable to attend in person.  

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