Jason Smith has been a student of the humanities since he was a teenager. He took civics and ethics courses in high school. Even though he entered the University of Michigan as an engineering student, he gravitated away from the sciences and majored in English.
Given his long-standing interest in civic engagement and his passion for the Midwest, it’s no wonder Jason joined Illinois Humanities.
We recently sat down with Jason to talk about where he’s been and what excites him about joining the Illinois Humanities staff – we even talked a bit about his love of Chicago jazz.
How long have you lived in Chicago?
My dad moved here in 1977, so I’ve been in and out of the city for 40 years. I lived here for full-time between 1991 and 2001. I moved to Washington, D.C., and then moved back at the end of 2005.
What made you move back?
I mostly moved back for work, but I also missed the Midwest.
What did you miss about the Midwest?
The Midwest is a little more friendly, and it’s closer to family. I grew up a little outside Detroit.
Where were you before arriving at Illinois Humanities?
My first fundraising job was knocking on doors for Greenpeace in college. I worked for them 11 years and directed the office here for four years.
After that, I worked for a lot of smaller activist organizations. After I moved back to Chicago in 2005, I worked for Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ) for two and a half years. After that, I was with Illinois Institute of Technology for almost eight years.
When and how did you first begin working with activist organizations?
I was in my second year of college at the University of Michigan when I began working for Greenpeace. But during my second summer, I came to live in Chicago with my dad and that was the year I first worked for Green Peace. They also had an Ann Arbor office and I continued to work for them there when I went back to school.
We were door-to-door canvassing, so we were less about fundraising and more about bringing in new members to the organizations and also doing advocacy work. We focused on fighting toxic pollution in the Great Lakes, but we also touched on international issues in addition to the local issues. We did a lot of work that was pro-recycling, anti-trash incinerators, for example, in the Ann Arbor and Detroit area, as well as here in Chicago.
What drew you to Illinois Humanities?
In the time we’re at in our culture, the mission particularly resonated with me. I was purposely looking for an organization with a mission closer to my beliefs. Reading the mission and thinking about the concept of civil discourse — and just how far we seem to have gotten away from that in our society — made me realize that the mission seems more important than ever.
I’m passionate about the arts and humanities in education. I was privileged enough to attend one of the best high schools in the nation at the time. I also grew up right on the border of Detroit and felt everybody should get the public education that I got, but I saw very clearly that it was not the case.
An important part of my experience was that I learned critical thinking, particularly from my Western Civilization course. We had classes in civics, ethics, and a bit of philosophy, and I feel we’ve gotten away from that — which is a problem.
What have you been reading lately?
I’ll just throw out a favorite author. I’m a big science fiction fan, and Ursula K. Le Guin is somebody whose writing should really speak to people outside that genre. Her work speaks especially to anyone with an interest in the humanities, as her books are about relationships between different types of people.
One of the things I like about her work is how crises are never resolved through violence. And hey, I like big battles with aliens as much as anybody else, but what really distinguishes her work is how there is very little violence — and when there is, it never solves anything but always makes things worst.
What are the upcoming Illinois Humanities events that you’re excited about?
Now that I’m here, I want to learn about everything!
But having worked at a university for eight years, I’m excited about the Odyssey graduation and just to see the students. One of my favorite things while working at the university at the IIT development office was working with a bunch of cool students. I got to see the students I worked with graduate, to see them with their families on the final day, which felt great to see because many of them were first in family to attend school or those who often needed scholarships to come to school in the first place.
I’m also excited for Continuing Ed. One of my closest friends works in CPS, has gone to all events, and he thinks it’s a fabulous program. I’m planning to go to the roundtable table in the middle of the month.
And then Pekin Theater resonates with me. I worked in the Bronzeville neighborhood for eight years at IIT, which is just up the road from where the event is going to be, and I’m a big jazz aficionado. Knowing the history of the Great Migration and the music of Chicago but also being in the jazz scene here now makes me very excited.