The Spaces We Activate: A Conversation with Tyreece Williams

Tyreece Williams speaking at the "Inside & Out: The Arts, Humanities, and Re-entry" event with WTTW. (Photo by GlitterGuts)

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By Hannah Kucharzak

Read Time 10 minutes
October 13, 2023

Envisioning Justice has provided free public arts and humanities programs in partnership with communities and people affected by the carceral system since 2017. Originally started as a short-term initiative, it has evolved into one of Illinois Humanities’ core programs, funding over $750,000 in grants to individuals, nonprofits, and collectives; launching a dynamic virtual exhibition, RE:ACTION; and providing a public forum to gather, learn from each other, and build the movement to envision a future without mass incarceration.

I met with Tyreece Williams, program manager of Envisioning Justice, to talk about his five years at Illinois Humanities and to get his insight on the work that goes into sustaining engagement with the subject of mass incarceration. His work, which is coming to an end here as he prepares to take on a new role at the Field Foundation, has been instrumental in opening doors to new understandings and reframing a topic that is felt by communities everywhere.

A Conversation with Tyreece Williams

Hannah Kucharzak: Tell me a little about Envisioning Justice. How has it changed since when you first started working on the program, and what is it now?

Tyreece Williams: The overarching intention of Envisioning Justice is highlighting the role of the arts and humanities in our society and the ways in which they make the impacts of mass incarceration on communities in Illinois more visible and understandable to so many different people. But then also: how they can be used as catalysts for new ideas and different approaches to addressing the issues that folks look to the criminal legal system to solve. You know, as we've seen in conversations about public safety: “how do we just keep our people safe?” Clearly, incarceration isn't the answer, per se. The questions so many of our partners are inviting people to ask themselves and each other—and how those questions are being introduced—exemplifies the power of the arts and humanities as bridges to understanding and collective transformation. I think that's been a big theme of a lot of the conversations that have been embedded in Envisioning Justice from the beginning. 

I think a lot of the time, we look to these larger institutions to solve these big problems for us. And, for many of us, those problems still exist: poverty still exists, crime still exists, housing insecurity still exists. So how do we make it clear to folks that like: no, you have a stake in this conversation in envisioning a more just society or envisioning a world where everybody has housing or everybody has food. We all can play a role in that. it's just a matter of making it feel a little more tangible, or like something that is at our front door, if only we look out, and build relationships with each other.

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Tyreece is quietly contemplating the themes and struggles brought up during the keynote address and panel discussion at the 2023 Envisioning Justice Convening. (Photo by Global Visual Media Studio)

HK: And what’s crucial is that Envisioning Justice partners with preexisting organizations and collectives that have already been working for so many years on building community with system-impacted people.

TW: I would add in response to your question of “where's Envisioning Justice now?”—I think it is that Illinois Humanities has a better understanding of its role. Over time, there was a lot of learning that happened institutionally and we understood that, no, in order for us to be the most impactful and the least harm-reductive in this whole process, it does require that we support existing work, that we are using our resources to make sure that they have access to the things that they need to continue that work. But then also that Illinois Humanities serves as a connector of those folks that are doing all of this different work. A lot of them already know each other, don't get me wrong, but the more that we can host intentional spaces for collaboration and ideation to happen, the better. 

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Tyreece welcomes all to the 2022 Envisioning Justice Convening. (Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis)

Because that gets us closer toward building that collective vision, right? Like what a truly just society looks like when we work together rather than if we're all doing everything separately.

And I think over time, the conversations that Illinois Humanities has held space for has expanded from what we've learned from our community partners and the people that have been in this work for a long time. It's not that we should be focusing necessarily on “how do we put less people in jail,” but we should be focusing on “how do we create the conditions in our communities so that this isn't happening—and what do those conditions look like.” In my opinion, that reframe opens up so many possibilities that the arts and humanities can help us realize. 

HK: Something that I really love is RE:ACTION, and that, to me, seems like such a beautiful endeavor to be in conversation with each other. Artists, humanists, and organizers produced prompts for truly anyone to engage with this work, regardless of their personal skill level—and RE:ACTION opened up a digital space where learners can upload the art they created in response, and see what other people have done, too.

TW: The prompts speak to what the ethos of Envisioning Justice is. It's using activities that engage folks with the arts and humanities, to invite some questions, some conversations, some ideation, creation, whatever it is. You know, there are levels to it, right? Because we kind of have to do our own individual reflection sometimes. Sometimes we need to sit with things, we need to process on our own; but then there's also something in having that exchange and hearing how someone else might have interpreted the same poem, how someone else might have interpreted the same article—and kind of seeing how you both see the world similarly, and the ways in which there might be some difference. 

HK: I'm thinking too about the Envisioning Justice Activation Series. Just because folks have family members who are incarcerated or have been affected by mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, their perspectives are not going to be exactly the same. We have to make room for the fact that there are so many points of view here.

TW: Definitely. The most important aspects of doing this type of work are making sure that everyone who was a part of it was supported, ensuring that its values are inherent in every step of the way. Are we being present with people? Are people engaged and enjoying themselves? Are we actually showing up when people need us? In every moment of the creation and execution of an event or project, you know, that relational piece needs to be at the forefront. I think this way of working sets the stage for so much magic to happen.

HK: What’s your most memorable Envisioning Justice moment?

TW: That's a hard one. I would probably say the first Envisioning Justice Convening that was in Springfield last year. 

HK: Right, and we just wrapped up our second annual one.

TW: That was a pretty big moment for me because I was the lead organizer for that convening, and when I say “convening,” it was a convening of Envisioning Justice partners, folks that we've worked with, both as grantee partners, or as programming partners. There was a spectrum of relationships that were represented in that space, but we invited them out to Springfield for two days.

And the reason why it's the most memorable for me, to be honest, is because of where we were at that time. 

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(L-R) Tyreece Williams, Coco Davis, Antwoinette Ayers, and Joshua Jackson at the Envisioning Justice Activation Series event in East St Louis. (Photo by Janiya Fair)

I mean, it was after the height of uprising and people protesting, and it was in a period of the pandemic where people were just now starting to do things in person. It was just kind of a weird—or not “weird”—unfamiliar time where we were gathering a group of people who have been exhausted by all that has been happening in the world in the last two years. I mean—there's always been a lot happening—but with George Floyd and all the uprisings that followed, but then also people dying, predominantly people of color, during the start of the pandemic. And all of the organizing that a lot of these people were doing, and when I say organizing, I mean protests but then also mutual aid. So to be able to hold that space at that specific juncture, and be one of the first organizations in Illinois, to my knowledge, to host something like that at the time was really meaningful. I heard from a lot of folks how meaningful it was to be able to just be together for two days. 

Some people were specifically focused on incarcerated folks and how we increase higher education in prisons, other people are doing more like healing and restorative work with communities impacted by violence, there were some people who were specifically focused on “how do we support young people that have been impacted by the criminal legal system.” 

So everybody was holding so much at that time, and to be able to kind of silence all that noise for two days, I think it was really beautiful.  Well—it's not noise—but you know what I mean. I think it was really, really special.

HK: Why is it vital to do this work in Illinois? Are there any kind of state-specific gaps that Illinois Humanities is filling?

TW: I think when we talk about mass incarceration, a lot of folks think of that as predominantly a Chicago-based issue that doesn't really impact the rest of the state, but that's obviously not true, since a lot of our our facilities are in rural parts of the state, and a lot of people in rural parts of the state are employed by these facilities. So there are a lot of different relationships to the carceral state and the criminal legal system that exist within Illinois. 

A way for us to get to solutions or ideas that are inclusive and are actually sustainable is to consider all of those different relationships, hold space for all of them, and to reconcile all of them, right? So how do we reconcile the young person in Chicago whose dad went to prison, and they've also been in and out of youth facilities—how do we reconcile that experience with someone who lives in Decatur who has not been impacted at all, maybe, at least not in a very explicit way, but who knows it's an issue. Or someone who thinks that we should be locking more and more people up, who thinks that's how we keep our people safe, is more jails, more prisons, more police. How do we reconcile all of these different belief systems, how do we respectfully honor our differences, but also challenge us to look at ourselves critically? And look at not only ourselves, who we surround ourselves with. and the world around us.

There are state-wide organizations focused on issues related to mass incarceration, but there are few doing this through the lens of the arts and humanities. 

The resources Illinois Humanities has produced alongside artists, humanists, and community organizers in our state provide unique pathways for people to grapple with issues related to the criminal legal system. And to take it further, Illinois Humanities is also uniquely positioned to “activate” its resources—and resources created by its partners—by facilitating intentional spaces for curiosity and engagement. I think work like Envisioning Justice is just as critical as policy reform, community organizing, and decarceration efforts because it is oftentimes the arts and humanities that introduce and shape the principles that inform these other vital modes toward systemic change.