Through photos and stories, a new installment at the Oak Park Art League (OPAL), “Intersection: Art & Words,” demonstrates the good work being done in Austin and Oak Park by everyday people. The exhibit is titled, “Everyday Activists.”
A project devised by Susan Stall of Arbor West Neighbors, Oak Park, and Tameka Wilson of Triton College, River Grove, the two teamed up to find, photograph and interview nearly 20 people from the Austin neighborhood of Chicago and Oak Park. Beginning in August 2020, Stall, former president of Arbor West and current chair of its Advocacy Committee, began contacting activists she knows.
Wilson, a Maywood resident and student at Triton who has now earned Associates Degrees in Intercultural Relations and Arts & Sciences with a focus in photography, worked on the project as a photography intern through Triton College. In addition to photographing the subjects, Wilson interviewed half the participants and created the look of the photos in the exhibit. Stall worked on interview questions and creating short narratives from the interviews. Israel Rivas assisted with photography and some of his photos are in the exhibit.
When Stall, a sociologist who studies community organizing, heard about Wilson’s background, she thought they could join forces to bring everyday activists to light because “community activists work almost every day, often invisible.”
Starting with people she knew, including Alicia Plomin, marketing & development manager for Austin Coming Together, Stall gathered recommendations. As they talked to participants, they learned of others who are “doing important work on the ground,” and the project developed from there.
“The excitement of people about it has been really wonderful,” Stall said. “I didn’t know exactly how it was going to look. I didn’t know how we were going to get the stories out.”
“My biggest takeaway from this,” Wilson said, “is the majority of our everyday activists don’t see themselves as activists. They saw themselves as everyday people. I love the modesty. It wasn’t just one or two, it was the majority. … They would say they see themselves as someone who is just doing what needs to be done in the community.”
The installment divides participants into categories — Environment and Sustainability; Civic Engagement; From the Bottom Up; Youth Mentoring and Empowerment; Art and Words Activism; and Faith- and Rights-based Activism. There are three or four activists in each category.
From the Bottom Up includes “block club organizers” such as Deondre Rutues, of Austin, who, through Network of Neighbors, finds leaders for each block by going door to door in a 40-block radius. Wilson photographed Rutues at community events. She said she took photos that are more “spot on, directly looking at me, more engaged.”
Faith- and Right-based Activism includes Oak Parker Clara L., her last name omitted to protect her because of what she does. Besides antiracism work, she fights for refugee rights and has harbored an undocumented person in a church basement.
Environment and Sustainability features Liz Abunaw of Austin, founder of 40 Acres Fresh Market, whose mission is “to increase access to affordable, high-quality, fresh food in underserved areas.” While currently operating pop-ups and delivery service, she’s working to convert an old Salvation Army building into a large, local market for Austin residents — 40 Acres’ first brick-and-mortar location.
Stall said the exhibit “really crosses a lot of disciplines, everything from psychology to intercultural studies to sociology to political science and the arts. I like to mix and match lenses, the way people look at things.”
Wilson said their goal from the start was representing all types of people.
“We were really working at: diverse by gender, diverse by age, diverse by ethnicity and race, diverse by types of activism,” Stall added.
The photos are accompanied by a booklet with a narrative on each activist, edited down from an hour-long interview.
“The word part was totally made to complement the photo part,” Stall said, “read the narrative as they are looking at that photo and that really enriches the experiences.”
While the exhibit is currently open during regular gallery hours, the official exhibit opening is on Friday, May 14, when OPAL will be open longer to accommodate more visitors. A panel discussion, which includes a Spoken Word performance, will be held on Thursday, May 20.
The panelists include Everyday Activist participants, who will share their passions, but also discuss how to cross “that Austin Boulevard bridge,” according to Stall. “We’d like to see this [be] more than just an exhibit. … It’s such a burning issue. I’d really like to have the panel grapple a bit with the people who come,” she said.
Everyday Activists will travel to Austin Public Library, 5615 W. Race Ave., Chicago, this summer. Another panel discussion event will be held there.
See Everyday Activists at OPAL’s Intersection: Art & Word through May 26. Gallery hours, Tuesdays through Fridays, 1 to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 1 to 4 p.m.; opening, May 14, 1 to 9 p.m., The panel is on Thursday, May 20, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Masks must be worn inside the gallery. More: oakparkartleague.org. 720 Chicago Ave., Oak Park.