July 15, 2021
School has given way to summer for most students, but K-12 education continues to be squarely on the front page in the form of a debate about critical race theory. A quick search on the topic produces stories ranging from an essay in The Nation describing the societal impacts of the “Miseducation of White Children;” the National Review calling for people to “Step Up to Restore a Sound American Civics;” the New Yorker tracing the emergence of the critical race theory conflict and adaptation of the term to our current political context; meanwhile, NBC frames it all as an “either/or” question: Can patriotism and critical race theory coexist? The 250th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence on the not-too-distant-horizon in 2026 is also contributing to the fervor.
If you’re not a teacher, academic, or a lawyer, the concept of critical race theory might seem like something new but the debate is not a new one. At its heart is a fundamental question: How do we educate for democracy? Do we equip young people (and adults) with a narrative about our country’s founding that is rooted in the greatness and exceptionalism of individuals who are predominantly white and male? Or should the primary theme of our American story be the diversity of experiences and perspectives represented by “We the People?” For some, including examinations of power, privilege, racism, subjugation, disenfranchisement, and collective resistance in public school classes threatens the United States’ traditional, dominant narrative by incorporating “other peoples” stories. For others, these elements are critical to include because representation matters, and a more complete history increases opportunities to create an equitable and just society grounded in a constitutional democracy.
Engaging a multiplicity of voices and perspectives is the aim of our work in the public humanities. At Illinois Humanities our programs are grounded in the assumption that asking questions is integral to our society’s individual and collective abilities to understand ourselves – and to understand (and possibly change) the ways in which we relate to each other.
This is why, in the midst of national efforts like the recently released “Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy” it feels timely to be able to offer Voices and Votes and the Illinois Freedom Project, complementary traveling exhibitions about democracy and representation through our Museum on Main Street program.
Voices and Votes: Democracy in America, created by the Smithsonian Museum for Museum on Main Street, examines questions stemming from the leap of faith taken by American revolutionaries who established a government that entrusted the power of the nation not in a monarchy but in its citizens. Who has the right to vote? What are the freedoms and responsibilities of citizens? Whose voices are heard? The Illinois Freedom Project explores questions at the heart of the struggle for freedom by and for Black people in Illinois. I hope you’ll join me in visiting as many of the host venues as you’re able.
Our commitment to raising questions as a form of civic engagement is why we’re so honored to be hosting, on July 21st, a conversation between voting rights activist Desmond Meade and our Envisioning Justice Program Manager, Tyreece Williams. Desmond’s story offers us an educational opportunity rooted in first-hand experiences and a chance to collectively reimagine how our community approaches justice and accountability.
In light of the dynamic situation with COVID-19 we are offering a mix of in person and virtual programs this summer. Our high school Sojourner Scholars program returns virtually; students will explore philosophy, history, and literature to support their intellectual pursuits and their emergence as critical and creative citizens. This summer the theme is Chicago Icons and young people will be engaging in in-depth explorations of the lives and works of Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Mayor Harold Washington with educators and scholars from across Chicago.
Commissioned artists Jasmin Cardenas and William Estrada, pictured here, welcomed Envisioning Justice staff for a virtual tour of their studio at Hyde Park Arts Center, where the pair have created the puppetry and sets for their forthcoming work, the Puppets + Resistencia Project.
Throughout the month of June, Envisioning Justice Fellow Meredith Nnoka has been attending virtual studio visits with artists and humanists throughout the state who have been commissioned through our Envisioning Justice initiative. This community is creating new works that respond to the impacts of mass incarceration and asking Illinoisans to consider questions like “how do we show up in the world everyday to create what we perceive as our values, rules, and regulations?” (Alexandra Antoine and Brandon Wyatt) and “what are our implicit biases and how to they relate to people’s stories of survival?” (Mitchell S. Jackson). (You can learn more about the Envisioning Justice Artist and Humanist Commissions here.)
Our travelling exhibitions, upcoming public conversations and education courses each, in their own way, remind us that “debates” about history education might actually be amongst the most important debates we can have. We look forward to being with you for these – and many more conversations – this summer.
Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director
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Illinois Humanities, the Illinois affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a statewide nonprofit organization that activates the humanities through free public programs, grants, and educational opportunities that foster reflection, spark conversation, build community and strengthen civic engagement. We provide free, high-quality humanities experiences throughout Illinois, particularly for communities of color, individuals living on low incomes, counties and towns in rural areas, small arts and cultural organizations, and communities highly impacted by mass incarceration.
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