Grateful for small illuminations

A letter from the Executive Director

2019 Exhibition groupexcercise

Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director

Read Time 2 minutes
October 26, 2023

I’m writing from downtown Indianapolis, Indiana, where I and many of our staff are participating in the annual National Humanities Conference. The conference is giving us a chance to share our work and to learn from others about how to leverage the humanities to help people be creative, connected, and in community. 

Artistic Director Jane Beachy invoked a poem by Illinois writer Tara Betts to ground our first morning session. The poem, “Small Illuminations,” tells of a teacher who documents what she sees while she’s teaching at Stateville Correctional Center. “Small illuminations” are the smiles she exchanges with a student. They are the “small illuminations in a dark hell.” At other sessions this week we’ll be joined by partners from our Foreground Rural Initiative, share our approach to data visualizations, and even host a conversation about whether AI can help us be more human. 

It was hard to make time to slip across the border. Our Illinois fall calendar is filled with free public programs: The Smithsonian’s traveling Spark! exhibition opened in Rushville last weekend; the next Envisioning Justice Activation takes place in Decatur November 3rd (an event for the whole family, too!).

Gabe lyon Square Web cr Mary Rafferty

(Photo by Mary Rafferty)

If you liked the Indigenous Voices program last year, you’ll love our new statewide book series: The NEA Big Read: Reconsidering the American Dream. This year we’re pairing texts highly relevant to current conversations about class, migration, and belonging: Sarah Smarsh's Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth and Patricia Engel's Infinite Country. Thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read grant, we’ve been able to significantly grow the number of book group sites statewide. This year we have 18 book groups stretching from Galesburg to Granite City, Princeton to Chicago, all open to the public and ready to welcome new readers

1025 NHC Inside Out group

Humanities colleagues from around the state gathered with Illinois Humanities staff for Inside and Out at the National Humanities Conference to discuss how the humanities can help us to confront mass incarceration.

1025 NHC Inside Out session

When we come together over a shared text – be it a book, a performance, or an exhibition - we unlock the humanities’ power to center people’s experiences, histories, and cultures. This is no small act in a state with such diverse residents. We are rural, urban, and suburban. We are home to people whose lives span myriad classes, races, genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and national origins. We brighten the political spectrum with colors familiar and new.  

At Illinois Humanities we believe we have a responsibility to make and protect space for the exchange of challenging ideas, meaningful dialogue, and personal reflection. This fall, whether you visit a humanities organization, attend a program, or read a story about the humanities in action, I hope Illinois Humanities will help you encounter ‘small illuminations’ with one another.