Enews March 2021

Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director

Read Time 6 minutes
March 24, 2021


Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois’ public humanities organizations have ensured that though we may be distanced, we are not alone.

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods promotes the importance of nature for nurturing personal and community wellbeing. A gift of masks—created by volunteers they rallied — was distributed in conjunction with “at home” kits in English and Spanish to help Lake County families find wellness in nature.

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods created and distributed “at home” kits in English and Spanish to help Lake County families find wellness in nature.

Effingham Public Library serves a primarily rural community in east-central Illinois. To illustrate how the pandemic was affecting teachers and students and to challenge assumptions about how school happens in the “country,” they hired local photographer, Tytia Habing, to illustrate local teachers and principals, who cooked and delivered meals so their students wouldn’t go hungry. The effort was a celebration as well as a vivid illustration of systemic education gaps that rural families face.

In response to the killing of George Floyd, people in towns across the state joined the Black Lives Matter Movement. Carbondale Community Arts partnered with the African American Museum of Southern Illinois to work with area high school students to produce responsive videos.



These public humanities organizations are amongst 177 featured in On Wisdom and Vision: Humanities Organizations in Illinois During Covid-19, a report we issued earlier this month. The report analyzes Illinois Humanities’ 2020 COVID-19 relief grant-making of  $710,000, made possible by CARES Act funding provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the generosity of individual donors who contributed during Illinois Humanities’ 2020 Public Humanities Awards event.

Photograph by Carbondale Community Arts

The full reportexecutive summary, and an interactive map are available online. As we commemorate the anniversary of COVID-19 and all it has wrought in our state, I want to highlight a few of the most critical findings:

The impact is profound: Public humanities organizations in Illinois have been impacted by COVID-19 operationally and programmatically. This group lost nearly $10M in revenue in 2020 and 14% report fearing permanent closure. As a community they reached 1,700,000 fewer people than they originally anticipated serving during 2020.

The context matters: Many grantee partners are operating in areas where households struggled to make ends meet before the pandemic – and where COVID-19 has had a devastating (and disproportionate) impact.

What is local is national: Experiences described by grantees align with national research. Public humanities organizations:

  • Expect and want to give more attention to equity and inclusion;
  • Are excited about, and anticipate, opportunities for organizational transformation – particularly in terms of new modes of engagement and new audiences;
  • Are looking for ways to work differently and in less isolation through networking, trainings, and resource-sharing;

Seeing and being seen: Just as participants in humanities programming are strengthened by having a place where they are “seen” and heard, and their stories are valued and reflected, public humanities organizations being able to “see” each other as a collective is powerful.

Every county in Illinois has important cultural assets, community anchors committed to preserving the artifacts, ephemera, and memory of Illinois’s history and identity. This ecosystem is ripe to contribute to the state’s ability to repair and heal from the triple pandemics of COVID-19, racial injustice, and disinvestment across rural and urban communities. Attempts to “build back better” without  humanities and cultural organizations at the table may leave Illinois bereft of the critical elements we need to carry us into our post-COVID-19 state.

Illinois Humanities is working to understand and learn from the intensive experience of this past year. We are committed to supporting 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. Some of the questions we are asking include: What are the ways in which an equity lens, combined with report findings, can inform grant-making and partnerships? How can we increase support for peer-to-peer learning, technical assistance, and partnership infrastructure? What is most worth knowing and experiencing about the public humanities in Illinois and how can we bring visibility to our community?

Speaking of visibility, our most visible annual public program, the Public Humanities Awards, will be live-streamed on Thursday, May 20th at 12:00PM CT. This multi-generation awards program highlights the power of visibility and the ways in which the humanities help us see and be seen. We’ll celebrate two remarkable humanists this year: photographer and educator Dawoud Bey, who will receive our Beacon Award; and photographer and social justice artist Tonika Lewis Johnson, who will receive our Public Humanities Award. Dawoud, a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, has exhibited his work extensively at major art museums in the U.S. and Europe, is professor of art at Columbia College Chicago, and was featured in a New York Times profile last October. Tonika, a life-long resident of Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Englewood, is co-founder of two community-based organizations, Englewood Arts Collective and Resident Association of Greater Englewood, is the creator of the Folded Map project, and is creative executive officer of the Folded Map organization. Learn more about the Awards and register for the event.

While you have your calendar out, please mark the dates for our upcoming partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. Part of our Museum on Main Street program, the exhibit Voices and Votes: Democracy in America, examines questions stemming from the leap of faith taken by the American revolutionaries who established a government that entrusted the power of the nation not in a monarchy but in its citizens. Our six partners, which will host the exhibit across the state are the General John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro, the Madison County Historical Society in Edwardsville, the Savanna Museum and Cultural Center in Savanna, the Bryan-Bennett Library in Salem, the Jacksonville Area Museum in Jacksonville, and the Vespasian Warner Public Library District in Clinton. See tour dates below.

Thank you for the encouragement and support you’ve shared with all of us at Illinois Humanities during this past year – and we look forward to being in community with all of you as 2021 continues to unfold.

Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director

Voices and Votes: Democracy in America tour schedule:  

July 17-August 21, 2021: Madison County Historical Society, Edwardsville
July 24-September 4, 2021: Bryan-Bennett Library, Salem
October 9-November 13, 2021: Savanna Museum and Cultural Center, Savanna
November 20-December 25, 2021: Jacksonville Area Museum, Jacksonville
January 1-February 5, 2022: Vespasian Warner Public Library District, Clinton
February 12-March 16, 2022: General John A. Logan Museum, Murphysboro



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.

Learn more at ilhumanities.org