A Q&A with Elgin Bokari-Smith, Founder, Stomping Grounds Literary Arts Initiative
Individual Recipient of a 2021 Envisioning Grant
Stomping Grounds Literary Arts Initiative (SGLAI)
Bokari-Smith is leading the initiative “Open Stage”, in which young creatives develop performance, curation, and exhibition skills while connecting with the larger creative community in Chicago. This initiative will allow artists to engage in social action around mass incarceration and other social injustices through their art.
Q&A with Elgin Bokari-Smith
Question 1: With regards to the criminal legal system, When you imagine a just future, what does it look like?
Bokari-Smith: “Justice” is such a funny word, especially in this country. Justice has only served a few, depending on privilege and skin tone. In this country, finance or status dictates whether or not people care. A “just” future recognizes that we are all beings on this planet going through a human experience. The system is broken, and it works well for those who have always profited from the prison industrial complex. I would imagine the criminal justice system will be just when it recognizes its faults and the people who govern over it are willing to change and place people in power who care about those deeply affected by it. Then maybe our system will be a bit more “just”. That is not to say that there aren’t people working hard to balance the scales. Blessings to everyone who tirelessly works to implement some balance.
Q2: How do you see harnessing the arts and humanities as important strategies in working toward that future?
Bokari-Smith: That is interesting. This week, I was tasked with writing my vision statement for my new organization, Stomping Grounds Literary Arts Initiative (SGLAI). Through that work, I wrote: SGLAI believes that with community, confidence building, access, and opportunities, youth will choose safe and creative gateways for their liberation. We have to ask ourselves, why would someone choose crime? Why do the Black and brown communities that produce some of the most talented creative individuals ever to influence this country have to fight for scraps and recognition? Why are art programs always the first to go, and who benefits? The arts are the means to get free as long as we claim it and support those pursuing it. From my time at the School of the Arts Institute Chicago, I learned that art is in everything. There is way more involved than just the painting in front of you. Everything was once designed, even these words you are reading. Why would we take that level of creativity away from our youth? I want to see a world where young people continue to receive guidance and love, so they feel confident to choose safe and creative pathways.
Q3: Backing up for a moment, how did you arrive at doing what you do?
Bokari-Smith: I personally think I was always meant to do this work. I believe everything happens for a reason. When I first graduated from college, I would start my journal entries with, “I don’t know where my life will lead, but I must trust.” My full name is Elgin Bokari Thotmes Smith. Elgin, Earth Genie, one who grants wishes of the earth, was my grandfather’s name. He was a graphic artist. Bokari was a king in Africa, Thotmes was a pharaoh, and Smith came from Black Smith. My mother worked in film and production, and my father was an artist who taught math in a juvenile facility. Through a series of fortunate events after completing an internship with Theaster Gates, I ended up following not only my namesake but the path laid by my parents. To this day, all the work I do have been things that people have requested. There’s never a perfect answer for why one does the work, and sometimes the best you can do is show up.
Q4: Finally, what is the most important thing people should know about your work?
Bokari-Smith: People should know that I genuinely love the work I do. I admit it takes a lot out of me, but I gain so much joy and see people get their aha moment. The joy that comes from a young person realizing something new about themselves and gaining the confidence to do it again. My goal is for youth to open their perspective. I love using the word youth because it means aspirational growth for me. Often Black and people of color are constantly forced into adulthood through various circumstances. I hope more people choose never to forget creativity.
Q: What are some recommended books, articles, podcasts, etc. that have influenced your work?
Bokari-Smith: I have created a resource form for bringing Social Justice comics to the classroom, which can be found at this link.
Stomping Ground Literary Arts Initiative
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On a monthly basis, Illinois Humanities highlights the work of our Envisioning Justice program partners through our “Grantee Spotlight.” This shines a light on our grantee partner’s work, offering details about the organization and the funded project, as well as a Q&A with a team member at the organization. Read more
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Envisioning Justice leverages the arts and humanities to envision alternatives to the enduring injustice of mass incarceration. This Illinois Humanities initiative works with communities and people impacted by mass incarceration to spark conversations and illuminate community-based strategies that address our racist and unjust criminal legal system.
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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. Founded in 1974, Illinois Humanities is supported by state, federal, and private funds.