Q&A with Illinois Humanities Envisioning Justice program leaders Tyreece Williams and Jane Beachy
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the reinvigorated movement for black lives in the wake of George Floyd’s death, how are system-impacted communities coming together to meet this moment in history? What does the process of “reopening” say about whose lives are “essential” and whose work is valued? Illinois Humanities’ third Rapid Response event, this Wednesday (6/3 at 7pm) will probe these questions through an hour-long virtual exchange with artists, humanists, and community organizers on the ground, who are working to find answers. MORE HERE.
The Rapid Response series is made up of one-hour installments, each of which includes new original video art from humanists, artists, and community leaders. During each installment the video art is screened and there are exchanges with some of the videographers.
In the lead up to next week’s installment, I sat down with the series’ hosts Tyreece Williams, Program Manager for Envisioning Justice, and Jane Beachy, Artistic Director at Illinois Humanities, to talk about the Rapid Response series’ origins, how the series will act as an ongoing resource to artists and activists now and in the future, and how the Rapid Response series seeks to meet the moment of a post-COVID-19 world and offer opportunities to imagine better, shared futures amongst Illinoisans and beyond.
QUESTION — Toussaint Egan (TE): How did the idea for Envisioning Justice’s Rapid Response series come about? What sparked the initial discussions which led to the series’ creation?
Jane Beachy (JB): I would say the pandemic is the shortest answer. We really felt that we needed not just to just proceed with our planned programming [which centers on the voices of people most impacted by mass incarceration] and alter them for the digital space, but to do something that was genuinely responsive to this moment. I think we’re seeing structural problems that have existed for a long time in our society be exacerbated by the pandemic, and that’s particularly true in the realm of Envisioning Justice and the communities we partner with and whose stories and perspectives we’re seeking to share, whether that be black and brown communities who may not have ready access to a pharmacy or people currently incarcerated and, obviously, those hugely at risk but that have very little to protect themselves.
Tyreece Williams (TW): I would add that this is a unique moment that will probably not happen again in most of our lifetimes— hopefully! I think of this series as archival in nature. We’re capturing people’s responses in this moment as things are emerging and evolving, shifting as folks try to adjust. I think that when thinking about the humanities and how we capture moments in history, that this series will be a resource for folks to understand and connect with this moment we are living through. All of these wonderful humanists and artists are contemplating how they’re adjusting, how they’re seeing the world. I think Rapid Response is incredibly powerful both now and can be in the future.
QUESTION (TE): What do you hope to accomplish through the Rapid Response Series? Did you hope to engage more people; or to engage audiences to think about the carceral system?
TW: One of the big goals of this initiative, but also with this series, is to connect folks and make this series about how folks are responding and the work that they’re doing across the state of Illinois. [The series works to ]continue relationships we were building prior to the shelter in place order, and also to connect folks who may not have known one another, through videos and by sharing their voices and perspectives… By inviting [videographers] to contribute and add to this conversation, I think it allows folks to see how others are contending with this moment and open a world of new perspectives, specifically those of system-impacted folks and those who are incarcerated and can’t socially distance.
QUESTION (TE): How have artists, humanists, and community organizers responded to the Rapid Response Series? What do you ideally look for from potential contributors and collaborators- who want to be a part of the series — as well as those who participate simply by watching?
TW: As far as deciding on who it is we want to be involved with Rapid Response, of course it’s folks who have already been involved and engaged with the Envisioning Justice program, but also folks who are doing work that we know speaks to the issues facing our communities at this moment. We want to help make this an opportunity to highlight what it is that they’re doing in each of their areas so that folks know how to engage in this moment.
JB: We focus a lot more on [curating] who we’re asking than on what we want them to make, because we want to leave that part open to their voices as participants. We have a theme — the theme for Wednesday (6/3) is “Reopening”— and we ask a series of questions for them to consider while they’re making the work. We deliberately make the themes something that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. They know we’re asking them how the pressures of the pandemic, the movement for black lives, and mass incarceration are smashed up against one another under the umbrella of these themes.
QUESTION (TE): What has been the most rewarding aspect of starting the Rapid Response series? What have been some of the most affecting videos made and contributions to the series that you have felt moved by?
JB: All of them! [laughter]
TW: There’s a couple that come to the front of mind. One of the videos is by one of the hub directors Kristiana Rae Colón. We’ve had the pleasure of working with her through the Envisioning Justice program and to see her boldly express herself, what it is she envisions for her community, and what she and her collective are working towards and envisioning and actualizing for the community. To me was incredibly powerful and compelling. It’s one of the videos I go back and watch over and over again. In our most recent Rapid Response, there was a video by Quentin Williams from Heartland Alliance that I found incredibly moving, especially in this moment we’re in right now.
JB: I could literally talk about every single one that we’ve gotten, I think. Some of the ones that really struck me in particular was one from our friend Brandon Wyant, who is currently incarcerated at Hill Correction in Galesburg who wrote a piece and that his sister read on his behalf. I’ve known him and his family for a few years now, and it was really a pleasure coordinating between them and seeing how much love and pride his sister had to have the opportunity to represent his words and thoughts. That was very meaningful.
QUESTION (TE): Where do you envision the future of the Rapid Response series going beyond the current moment? Are there any ideas or themes you would like to explore through the series, if it were to continue?
JB: The truth is, we created it to be responsive to what we thought was just going to be the pandemic. But we did name it in such a way that it could be applied in other situations. So, I think we kind of thought, if we do this and we like it, it could be used for other moments within the Envisioning Justice program or Illinois Humanities as an organization. We don’t fully know yet …