The Art of Action

Around a rectangular table in a conference room at the Bessie Coleman Library, a group of University of Chicago students and community members are meeting to discuss this year’s Art in Action festival. “Okay, who is taking care of sign-making Monday?” one student asks. Several hands go up from the planning committee, made up of seven students and seven community members, including a local pastor, several artists, and members of various South Side organizations. Enthusiasm is high and periodic chatter interrupts the main agenda: the logistics of an event meant to bring the UofC community into contact with those around it.

Art in Action will take place this Saturday, May 29th at First Presbyterian Church in Woodlawn from 11 am to 7 pm. The festival is full of music, art, vendors, and workshops. This year’s musical acts include Queen Portia, a local blues singer, jazz pianist Paris Smith, hip-hop artist and activist HB Sol, and Lakesigns, a student rock band. The event also features workshops for belly dancing and slam poetry. In addition to the entertainment, there will be discussion groups focused on South Side issues, like the impact of the 2016 Olympic Bid, a financial literacy workshop, and a discussion exploring the nature of racism. “There’s a hell of a lot of talented people but there isn’t a place to sell their art,” University of Chicago graduate student Mark Hopwood says. He gestures to a woman in the planning committee, “Dessie Williams is a great example. She makes jewelry, paintings, and children’s toys. Art in Action is somewhere she can sell it.” This year, Art in Action will include a free barbeque lunch and dinner.

Advertising for the festival has been almost entirely word of mouth, but the word has spread. What started as a 70-person event five years ago drew over 400 people last year. “I think this will be our biggest year yet,” Carol, a South side resident says confidently. This time around the committee is planning for about 500 visitors. Art in Action began with the partnership between the Southside Solidarity Network (SSN), a University of Chicago student run organization, and Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), a community advocacy group from Woodlawn. The two groups found they had overlapping goals: SSN, a student group at the University, seeks to facilitate connections between the University of Chicago and the South Side; STOP aims to encourage political and economic awareness among South Side residents. Art in Action was a way to encourage the dialogue that both groups want to see.

Within the university community, regions south of the campus have traditionally been represented as uniformly dangerous, and students have been discouraged from venturing outside of typical University stomping grounds. “The mentality was that if you cross the Midway, you were going to get killed,” says STOP community liaison Wardell Lavender. The same sentiments ring true in the other direction as well–there has been mistrust in the Woodlawn community with regard to the University. “The University and the community were just never together,” Lavender says. “But then guys from the University came to the community and said ‘Look, we want a festival where the community mingles with the University.’”

Art in Action has grown out of a belief that the presence and practice of art can be a form of activism by breaking down cultural barriers and forging relationships with the community. “This event is meant to give students a different view of Woodlawn,” says Hopwood. “It is not a threat, but a community with a history, and it is possible for a relationship with the residents.”

For more information about Art in Action visit