Illinois Humanities’ NEA Big Read program offers free community book groups and public events about equity and the "American Dream" throughout Illinois

Press Releases
Illinois Humanities

Read Time 5 minutes
January 18, 2024

For Immediate Release   

Sarah Sommers
Phone: (773) 251 - 4772

Free public events in LaSalle, Springfield, Princeton, Rock Island, and Chicago, Illinois include a documentary screening, a farm industry panel, and writing workshops.

CHICAGO, January 18, 2024 — Illinois Humanities is proud to partner with the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts Midwest to present this year’s statewide book group series, The NEA Big Read: Reconsidering the American Dream. This year’s program includes a series of free book groups, free public events, and hands-on workshops that explore and challenge our understanding of the "American Dream" through two engaging books: Sarah Smarsh's Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth and Patricia Engel's Infinite Country. More than 19 book groups hosted independently by nonprofits, libraries, and other community hubs throughout Illinois will provide these titles for free to interested readers, with book groups available in English and in Spanish.

“Our community reading program allows us to gather to read and talk about challenging questions. This year we’re asking one another, ‘what does the American Dream mean to us, today?’” said Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director of Illinois Humanities. “Sparking conversations that strengthen our communities is what we do at Illinois Humanities. Making and protecting space for conversation, particularly having conversations with people we might not otherwise get to know, is critical for our state’s social and civic fabric.”

Illinois Humanities is partnering with cultural organizations in LaSalle, Springfield, Princeton, Rock Island, and Chicago to present public events and workshops that explore the themes of Heartland and Infinite Country. This year’s events kick-off with a free documentary screening on January 23 in LaSalle, Illinois of the 2012 Frontline documentary film Poor Kids

Filmed in the Quad Cities, Poor Kids brought Americans into the real day-to-day lives of young children growing up in poverty in the U.S. Their stories and the challenges their families faced were stirring, but not unique: More than 16% of Americans under the age of 18 live in poverty today. The free screening and discussion on January 23 is hosted by the LaSalle Public Library and Oglesby Public Library and will feature speakers Christopher Merrett, Ph.D., Dean of Innovation and Economic Development and Director of Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, and Vanessa Hoffeditz, Community Services/Food Pantry Manager, Tri-County Opportunities Council. Guests are invited to learn more about issues facing families experiencing poverty and share their hopes and ideas for future generations of Illinoisans. Though hosted live in LaSalle, the program will also stream live on YouTube.

Additional events take place through April 2024, and will include:

  • Springfield, IL: A panel discussion about supporting, sustaining, and promoting racial equity for Illinois’ small farms, hosted by the Illinois State Museum on February 22;
  • Princeton, IL: A performance and writing workshop led by award-winning storyteller Nestor Gomez, hosted by Midwest Partners in March;
  • Rock Island, IL: A memoir writing workshop hosted by the Midwest Writing Center in April;
  • Chicago, IL: A Spanish-language writing workshop with novelist and playwright Raul Dorantes hosted by the Little Village Branch of the Chicago Public Library on April 6.

We hope reading together and thinking about the issues presented in these public events help us think about the American Dream in terms of equal opportunity and access to resources,” said Rebecca Amato, Director of Teaching and Learning at Illinois Humanities. “It’s exciting to have this conversation expressed through reading, writing, film, performance, and so many other modalities.”

The NEA Big Read: Reconsidering the American Dream book groups will meet through the spring of 2024. Interested participants can join a book group by browsing open book groups near them on the Illinois Humanities website, or start a book group of their own by requesting free books and downloading a book group hosting guide by Illinois Humanities.

Learn more about The NEA Big Read: Reconsidering the American Dream, join or start a book group, and register for an upcoming event at

The NEA Big Read is a program of Illinois Humanities made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.


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. Stay connected with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn @ILHumanities.

About The NEA Big Read

The National Endowment for the Arts Big Read, a partnership with Arts Midwest, broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Showcasing a diverse range of themes, voices, and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery. Learn more about the NEA Big Read.

Since the NEA Big Read initiative began, many organizations have received funds to participate in the program. Learn more about the other organizations in Illinois that will participate in the 2022/2023 season.

About Arts Midwest

Arts Midwest believes that creativity has the power to inspire and unite humanity. Based in Minneapolis, they grow, gather, and invest in creative organizations and communities throughout the nine-state region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and beyond.

Arts Midwest is serving as an organization partner for NEA Big Read.

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