Envisioning Justice Grantee Partner Spotlight: Asif Wilson

Three Questions: Q&a With Asif Wilson, Dean of Instruction, Harold Washington College

By Mark Hallett

Read Time 4 minutes
July 28, 2021

In this Illinois Humanities Spotlight, Envisioning Justice grantee partner Asif Wilson shares his thoughts on what a just future looks like in schools, and how the humanities help to bring that future into focus.

Asif Wilson is the Dean of Instruction at Harold Washington College, a student-centered institution founded in 1962 that empowers all members of its community through accessible and affordable academic advancement, career development, and personal enrichment.

Wilson is leading an Illinois Humanities-funded project exploring the experiences of formerly incarcerated college students currently enrolled in a Chicago community college through Participatory Action (PAR) research. Some 10-15 students will research a topic related to education and incarceration and lead events to share their findings and recommendations.

Q: With regards to the criminal legal system, when you imagine a just future, what does it look like?

Asif Wilson: I believe that a just future is bound to the absence of harmful structures in the world. For BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) folks in the U.S. (and other colonized lands), criminalization happens in a number of carceral spaces. At times the harm is physical, wounding our bodies. Other times the harm is to the spirit. 

While not the only space of harm, my work looks at the oppressive nature of schools and what might be done to make them less harmful. A more just school looks and feels like what a more just world looks like: the absence of harm.

Envisioning Justice grantee partner Asif Wilson.

Q: How do you see harnessing the arts and humanities as important strategies in working toward that future?

AW: My first reaction to this question is the counter-story. Counter-stories are the stories of the oppressed. They, as Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate put it, “provide a way to communicate the experience and realities of the oppressed, a first step to the road of justice.” I think that the arts and humanities, for BIPOC folks, have always provided us with the mediums to share our stories.

As I think about the counter-story as it relates to education, I often think about the work from Tara Yosso that reveals the assets that BIPOC students bring to schools from their communities. Because schools function within a carceral web of surveillance and punishment, BIPOC students’ communities and cultures are viewed as characteristics to remove, not grow. 

As both teacher and administrator, I’ve experienced first-hand the wealth of knowledge, aspirations, and analyses of the world that students bring into schools, and the ways in which the arts and humanities provide them with mediums and learning experiences of such.

Q: What is the most important thing people should know about your work?

AW: I should start by saying that my work is what I have learned from being in community with others. I’m not sure I can call it my work. However, I hope that folks can better understand the ways in which schools function as contributors to the school to prison nexus, the interconnected ways that schools function as prisons and their power to transform those conditions. On the one hand this analysis helps students and their families to remove the blame from themselves, better articulating the structures of the world that create harmful experiences. And on the other, I hope this helps folks to know that they hold power to create change. That transformation is possible. 

I believe that schools can function in ways that aren’t harmful. In ways that are life-giving, healing-centered, and culturally sustaining. I hope that folks find motivation for the latter in my work.

Q: What are some recommended books, articles, podcasts, etc. that have been influential to your work?

First Strike by Damien Sojoyner
Right to Be Hostile by Erica Meiners
We Do This Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba
We Want to Do More Than Survive by Bettina Love

2021 Envisioning Justice Grants

Illinois Humanities’ Envisioning Justice program is accepting applications for new grant opportunities available to individuals, organizations, and partnering organizations throughout Illinois that utilize the arts and humanities to foster civic dialogue about mass incarceration and illuminate community-based approaches toward justice. Applications are due September 1. LEARN MORE AND APPLY

The Illinois Humanities Spotlight

On a monthly basis, Illinois Humanities highlights the work of our grantee 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