You'll never again wonder if the humanities matter

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Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director

Read Time 5 minutes
March 26, 2024

If you want to know what the humanities are, or why they are important, talk with someone who has been impacted by incarceration. Because when you begin to understand what it means to have been "dehumanized," you will also understand the ways in which the humanities "humanize."

Earlier this month Illinois Humanities served as the host for Inside & Out: The Humanities and Mass Incarceration, the first-ever national gathering of state humanities councils and system-impacted community partners focused on the intersections between the humanities and mass incarceration.

Fifty years ago, when the earliest state humanities councils were founded, 218,466 people were incarcerated in the United States. Today, over 2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. and nearly half a million more are on electronic monitoring; in Illinois, 160,000 people are behind bars or being monitored.*

Inside & Out was shaped by the spirit of humanities councils’ original founding mandate: to ensure the humanities are accessible to all individuals, regardless of their background or where they live, because our democracy demands the “wisdom and vision" the humanities uniquely provide. 

The convening, planned by more than 13 councils and their community partners over 18 months, centered the voices and experiences of people directly impacted by mass incarceration. The resulting gathering welcomed nearly 200 people from Puerto Rico to Hawaii, Maine to Minnesota, and 20 other places in between. Every attendee wore more than one hat: program facilitators, educators, executive directors, board members, people who were formerly incarcerated, policy specialists, artists, writers, former prison guards, and funders. All shared an abiding passion for the chance to be in conversation with one another. 

Inside & Out was a “working convening” not a "conference.” Our aim was not to arrive at a particular conclusion, convince anyone, or position a facilitator, presenter, or performer as the keeper of knowledge. Instead, we strove to create supportive and inclusive spaces that could create the possibility of connection among participants, support curiosity and skill sharing, and to deepen our understanding of what councils can do (and already do) as partners.

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Scholar Monica Cosby is a long-time Envisioning Justice partner and founder of Acting OutSide Performance Art Group.

Sessions provided doors onto the history, context, and stories of mass incarceration and the inspired humanities-based work of organizations and individuals tackling the issue.

Sessions quite literally manifested the humanities. Amidst 28 sessions, here is a sense of just a few:

Tea and Letters for Liberation was an invitation from the Tea Project to stop, sit, sip, and reflect over a cup of tea while writing a letter to imprisoned torture survivors. The humanities took on physical form through the porcelain cup in your hands, warm with tea brewed with a recipe from Yemen or Palestine, decorated with inscriptions inspired by etching from prisoners on Styrofoam cups disposed of in Guantánamo. In your other hand, heavyweight cardstock, waiting for your words, inscribed to someone to remind them that they are not forgotten.

Ritual4Return: A Homecoming Rite of Passage for Returning Citizens, supported participants to bear witness to a collaboratively devised homecoming rite of passage. As is the case with the most powerful of dramatic experiences, the performance shook people and held people at the same time. The session catalyzed catharsis.

BOTH/AND: Dialogue, Dialectics, & Liberation led by Damon Williams (Co-Creator, AirGo) and Daniel Kisslinger (Co-Creator, AirGo) offered a teach-in on how to make sense of the distance between our ideals and our reality with some skill-building support focused on navigating contradictions and power dynamics in conversations and workspaces. 

There were so many more–Prisons in Rural America and the Role of Arts and the Humanities, College in Prison: A How to Guide for the Humanities, Dreaming in Dollars (the full program book).

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Top: From the Tea and Letters for Liberation event with the Tea Project.
Bottom: The Ritual4Return: A Homecoming Rite of Passage for Returning Citizens session. Performers are (left to right) Al-Tariq Witcher, Alex Anderson, Rory Anderson, and Saleem Muhammed. (Photos by GlitterGuts)

The three-day gathering was bolstered by media installations. For example, Art from the Inside Out was carried in a van from Minnesota to Chicago to ensure participants could experience visual art from ten artists who are currently or formerly incarcerated. We also set up a zine station with paper, markers, glue, scissors, and prompts related to our gathering. "Come for some creative downtime or to share your thoughts." We structured homerooms for protected time to ensure people could breathe, reflect, share, and create. 

None of us were able to attend all of the sessions, but you didn't need to attend all of them to understand two critically important things: 1) although the local political contexts for our work are complex and diverse, the dehumanizing impacts of the carceral system are consistent and 2) the humanities make a difference. When we put them to work, the humanities humanize.

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Aanika Pfister at the Zine Station.

What's next? We're in the process of cataloging and collating our collective zine contributions. Over the next few months, we'll be curating a documentary snapshot of our time together marking the thoughts, tensions, and possibilities that emerged during this watershed moment. We'll be adding to a national catalog of programming inside and outside of detention facilities, media created by people who are currently and formerly incarcerated, grantee partners’ work, and an array of public engagements.

Most importantly, we'll be listening to the planning committee, to our local and national partners, about how we can be our best selves in Illinois and beyond in service to the humanities helping each of us to become our fullest selves as human beings.

PS -  

We created a set of resources about mass incarceration. View it here.


Read "Creating Liberatory Spaces" for another look at what unfolded. 

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    Humanities in action: cross-country jam session. (Photo by GlitterGuts)

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    AirGo Producers Damon Williams and Daniel Kisslinger with Reginald Dwyane Betts. (Photo by GlitterGuts)

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    An invocation by Faylita Hicks. (Photo by GlitterGuts)

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    Bria Gillum of the MacArthur Foundation and Nashid Mayun talk what it’s like to “Dream in Dollars.” (Photo by GlitterGuts)

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    Reginald Dwyane Betts performs Felon at the Logan Theater. (Photo by GlitterGuts)

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    Left to right: Lux Thunberg, Antonio Espinosa, Jennifer Marx Burke, Ann Deiman-Thornton, and Jessica Espinosa from Art from the Inside. Lux and Jessica are standing next to their art work. (Photo by GlitterGuts)