Tye with Beye students ready to end human trafficking.

To call her a Renaissance woman would be an understatement. She’s a painter, a grade school teacher and a board member of a group that champions the rights of marginalized women. Like her art, she’s both colorful and elegant. Meet Tye Johnson, someone you should know.

I first met Tye a couple months ago at her modest gallery-studio in the basement of the mammoth Zhou B Art Center at 1029 W. 35th St. Every third Friday (like April 18), from 7 to 11 p.m., artists at this huge creative incubator of sculptors, painters, photographers, video wizards and musicians, have an open house. Visitors get a chance to see the artists completing works and chat with them about their processes and products.

Over sips of red wine, Tye, a tall African-American woman with a warm smile, talked about how she balanced her comfortable life with public service and artistic excellence. She graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School in the mid-’90s, went on to get undergraduate and graduate degrees from Illinois and Florida universities, began painting feminist and social-justice themes in oil and acrylic, teaching at Beye School and joining the board of the Dreamcatchers Foundation, which champions the rights of sex workers by sending expert counselors to assist women in finding help from abuse and shelter from pimps and johns. 

According to Chicago Sun-Times assistant city editor Madelyn Iheijirka’s April 4 article on a protest by citizens and politicians (against Amnesty International’s stance decriminalizing adult sex workers), in metropolitan Chicago, 16,000 to 25,000 women and girls annually are involved in the illegal sex trade, according to the University of Illinois — a third of those snared by age 15, and 62 percent by age 18. 

Attorney General Lisa Madigan and other Illinois politicians, including Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart have fought vigorously against the burgeoning issue.

When I recently asked Tye why Oak Parkers should care about this issue, she replied:

“Oak Park has always been a community that prides itself on diversity and culture and we all know that this liberality didn’t come without a fight. One of the things I’ve always loved about this community is that it is people-centered. Oak Parkers should care about the work that the Dreamcatcher Foundation is doing and the fight against human trafficking because Oak Parkers care deeply about people and we share the belief that freedom is achieved when hearts are aligned and people of action take a stand against injustice. It’s the Oak Park way, and one of the reasons I’m glad I am a product of this community. “

As part of her educational effort, Tye has helped organize grade-school students to learn about the global and local human trafficking connections. On April 28 at Columbia College, the New Lens Project is partnering with the Dreamcatcher Foundation to teach young girls how to use photography for self-expression and empowerment. It’s part of her vision of art as social change, which is central to black aesthetics and has played a part in Western aesthetics, too, which also looks at individual beauty.

Tye sent me a moving trailer, which will be a prominently featured documentary in the 10th Annual Oak Park International Film Festival, the third Saturday in September at the Oak Park Public Library, which shows a Dreamcatcher counselor rescuing one woman in need. The last scene shows the counselor, the abused woman and the shelter operator all crying in joy with relief.

“The trailer had me in tears,” Tye told me. Me, too.

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