Dressed head-to-toe in purple clothing, Woodlawn local Dessie Williams sat inside Chicago’s First Presbyterian Church selling an array of unusual items. Laid out on her table were several knit pillows ornamented with golden curlicues and glitter, a brown crocheted lizard, and a donation box decorated with the question: “Is the genie good? Evil? Or somewhere in the middle?”
Williams, who is a regular participant in the festival, is mostly motivated by her love of crafting. “You see, I’ve had this niche, since I was seven,” she said, in reference to her work. “I’ve just always been making things, anything.” Her items were made in support of last Saturday’s sixth annual Arts in Action festival, a gathering meant to bring together the often segregated communities of the University of Chicago and Woodlawn. Organized in part by the UofC student-run Southside Solidarity Network (SSN) and the community interest group Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), this year’s event featured work by students and Woodlawn community members, ranging from visual art to performance pieces and advocacy projects.
Some displays at the festival had a pointedly political agenda. High on STOP’s priority list was to raise awareness about inadequate mental health services on Chicago’s South Side. STOP representatives handed out letters addressed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, discouraging the newly elected mayor from closing or privatizing mental health clinics in Chicago. Many Woodlawn residents, the fliers said, depend on the cost-adjusted mental health services provided by local clinics and would suffer if they lost mental health support.
Several of the student displays at the festival also carried a political message. First-year student Christopher Hester passed out fliers on behalf of the Sierra Club, promoting a Clean Air Act which will reduce pollution and toxic emissions from power plants. The display was also set-up up for children to make paper windmills, symbolizing support for alternative forms of energy. Samantha Evans, also a member of the class of 2011 and the Community Service Leadership Training Corps, helped sell t-shirts in support of the event.
Saturday’s heavy rain threatened the success of the festival, which is typically held outside. The move inside, however, created a feeling of closeness which is, after all, the aim of the festival. With hundreds of students and local residents packed into one building, the festival succeeded in bringing people together to support both community activism and artistic expression, if only for one rainy day.