Public Humanities Awards Luncheon in Chicago Set to Inspire and Unite on May 22

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Illinois Humanities

Read Time 4 minutes
February 21, 2024

Illinois Humanities Will Honor Trailblazers in Arts, Advocacy, and Community-Building That Strengthen Illinois’ Civic Fabric Through the Power of Storytelling and Inclusion
2024 Award Recipients with names

Illinois Humanities will celebrate this year's Public Humanities Awards and present the Beacon Award to Jane M. Saks, President/Artistic Director of Project&, and co-creator and artistic director of Monuments2Movements. She is a nationally and internationally recognized queer leader, writer, producer, cultural alchemist, creative collaborator, advocate, and activist.

In addition to Saks, three Illinois Humanities community partners who exemplify the humanities in action across the state will receive Public Humanities Awards: educator, artist, storyteller, and Illinois Humanities’ Road Scholar Dr. Ada Cheng, 2023-24 Lund-Gill Endowed Chair at Dominican University; Sherry Williams, Founder and Executive Director, Bronzeville / Black Chicagoan Historical Society; Mark and Nadine York, Civic Leaders, Gallatin County Tourism Committee and the Ohio River Visitors Center.

The honorees highlight the profound importance of leveraging the power of the humanities to bridge differences and create belonging.

“In an era when politicians are trying to ban books written by authors who look, think, or live differently than them, the humanities have never been more important,” said Governor JB Pritzker

“Well, here in the Land of Lincoln, we have no shortage of extraordinary journalists, authors, storytellers, librarians, and archivists who work day in and day out to share the stories that shape our worldview. I couldn’t be prouder to join the Illinois Humanities in recognizing and honoring five exceptional Illinoisans who have dedicated their careers to safeguarding and expanding access to the humanities.”

Governor Pritzker and Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton are honorary co-chairs for the 2024 event. Every year, the Public Humanities Awards celebrates people who have made an indelible impact on the state of Illinois through their work and support of the humanities. This year's awardees join other leaders recognized by Illinois Humanities since 1984, including Tracie D. Hall, Eve L. Ewing, Dawoud Bey (who sits on the Global Advisory Board for Project&), Jeanne Gang, and Tonika Lewis Johnson. 

“I can’t think of a more timely and impactful group of honorees to acknowledge this year,” said Gabrielle Lyon, executive director of Illinois Humanities

“At a time of increasing political division, and when the humanities in particular, are under duress, our honorees highlight the transformative power of telling stories that are simultaneously personal and universal; they not only make space for people to share their stories, they uplift their communities along the way.”

Illinois Humanities will host the awards at Venue SIX10, an event space located on Chicago’s historic Michigan Avenue. The event will provide a chance for attendees to meet the honorees, learn about how the humanities are strengthening the state, and celebrate in community with fellow humanists at the post-awards reception. 

Established in 1984, Illinois Humanities’ Public Humanities Awards ceremony celebrates people who have made an indelible impact on our state through their work in and support of the humanities. The event serves as Illinois Humanities’ cornerstone annual fundraiser. All contributions support Illinois Humanities' mission to 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.

The 2024 Public Humanities Awards are open to the public and will take place on May 22, 12:00 CST, at Venue SIX10. A livestream will be available for those unable to attend in person. 

RSVP Today!

Early sponsors of the 2024 Public Humanities Awards include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Additional sponsorship opportunities are available. For more information about sponsorships, contact Morven Higgins at

More about the 2024 Award Recipients

Jane M. Saks, Beacon Award Recipient
Jane Saks headshot

Jane M. Saks, Resident/Artistic Director of Project&, and Co-Creator and Artistic Director of Monuments2Movements

Jane M. Saks is a writer, producer, cultural alchemist, educator, arts advocate, creative collaborator, artist, and activist. Her work challenges and champions issues of gender, sexuality, human rights, race, and power within the worlds of arts and culture, politics and civil rights, academia, and philanthropy. 

She is a curator and writer deeply invested in working closely with artists and a far-ranging group of collaborators and partners to develop ideas, artworks, and public exhibitions that are paradigm-shifting, reflecting and engaging the diversity of our globe. Her work responds to and transforms our understanding of the world and our place in it. 

Her curatorial work focuses on public art, educational initiatives, special projects, and major new commissions by a wide range of contemporary artists and far-reaching international collaborations and partnerships that focus on the intersection between art and the public.

Ada Cheng, Public Humanities Awards Recipient
Ada Cheng with glasses on

Ada Cheng, Storyteller, Speaker, Educator, Illinois Humanities Road Scholar, and 2023-24 Lund-Gill Endowed Chair at Dominican University

An educator-turned-artist, storyteller, and creator, Dr. Ada Cheng has utilized storytelling to illustrate structural inequities, raise critical awareness, and build intimate communities. Committed to amplifying and uplifting marginalized voices, she has created numerous storytelling platforms for BIPOC and LGBTQIA community members to tell difficult and vulnerable stories. She has consistently engaged in public education and public outreach through storytelling, performances, and public speaking. Because of her artistic and intellectual work, she was named Educator of the Year in 2021 by the 7th Congressional District’s Multi-Ethnic Advisory Task Force & American Multi-Ethnic Coalition. 

Dr. Cheng was a tenured professor in sociology at DePaul University from 2001-2016 when she resigned to pursue performance and storytelling. She has since been featured at storytelling shows and done her two solo performances, NOT QUITE and LOVING ACROSS BORDERS, at theaters, universities, and conferences across the nation. In addition to being a prolific scholar as well as an accomplished storyteller, she is also an emerging playwright, having written and published short plays in response to urgent social concerns of our time.

Dr. Cheng is the 2023-24 Lund-Gill Endowed Chair at Dominican University. She has been a speaker for the Illinois Humanities Road Scholars Speakers Bureau since 2019. She teaches part-time at Dominican University. Her interests span academia, performance, and advocacy. 

Sherry Williams, Public Humanities Award Recipient
Sherry Williams in Bronzeville

Sherry Williams, Founder and Executive Director, Bronzeville / Black Chicagoan Historical Society

Sherry Williams was born and raised on the south side of Chicago in the Englewood Community. She is the Founder and President of the Bronzeville / Black Chicagoan Historical Society. Williams led African American cultural programs at the Pullman State Historic Site and the Senator Stephen A. Douglas Tomb Site and Monument Park grounds from 2007-2017. In 2009, Williams was voted the first African American Vice President of the Pullman Civic Organization. 

Williams is an active member of the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society (Chicago Chapter);  a board member of the Bronzeville Trail Task Force, Inc.; a board member of Chicago Coalition of Park Advisory Councils;  a Board member of Illinois State Historical Society; a former commissioner of the Amistad Commission of the State of Illinois (2010-2012); an institutional member of the Chicago Cultural Alliance 2006 - current; a partner institution of Choose Chicago; and board secretary of the Burnham Park Advisory Council since 2019.

Selected honors include being named a Timuel D. Black Fellow in 2010; recognized as a distinguished alumni of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2021; received the City of Chicago Commission on Chicago Landmarks - 2022 Landmarks Advocacy Award in recognition of years of protecting historic architecture and heritage documentation. In 2022, State of Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza recognized and honored Williams along with five volunteers for the countless hours spent preserving and cataloging over 140,000 individual burial records. This important project preserved one-of-a-kind documents noting Black Chicagoans arriving mostly during the Great Migration (1917- 1960).

Along with her numerous educational undertakings, Williams has established memberships and associations with more than 26 other institutions and organizations. An alumna of Illinois Humanities' Odyssey Project, Williams earned her BA in Education at Northeastern Illinois University - Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies in 2017. She completed her Masters in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana in 2019.

Mark and Nadine York, Public Humanities Award Recipients
Mark Nadine York

Mark and Nadine York, Civic Leaders, Gallatin County Tourism Committee and the Ohio River Visitors Center

Mark and Nadine York have been very involved in community and church activities since their retirement. They are a part of the Gallatin County Tourism Committee which operates the Ohio River Visitor Center which markets the historic and scenic attributes of their area and the 276 Art Exchange, a retail venue, promoting the works of local artists. 

Through their church, Mark and Nadine also work to alleviate the poverty of their community by operating the HELP Center—a non-food pantry—providing household staples such as laundry detergent, cleaners, and items of personal hygiene to needy families. The Weekend Snackpack program, another church program that they coordinate, supplies a sack of healthy snacks to over 100 local schoolchildren each Friday to prevent hunger over the weekend.

In the promotion of literacy, Mark and Nadine have also undertaken the task of keeping their village’s Little Lending Library stocked with books for children and adults.

About the Public Humanities Awards Ceremony

Established in 1984, Illinois Humanities' Public Humanities Awards Ceremony celebrates people who have made an indelible impact on our state through their work in and support of the humanities, honoring them with the Public Humanities Award. This event is Illinois Humanities’ most important annual fundraiser and enables us to provide grants and free public humanities programs throughout Illinois.

Launched in 2020 as part of the Public Humanities Awards Ceremony, the Beacon Award honors an individual who or an organization that has been a champion for – or investor in – the humanities in Illinois, elevating the work of humanists in ways that have improved the quality of the state for its residents.

Learn more