Illinois Organizations Fight Racial Inequality With The Help Of A Grant

Feb 5, 2021

More than $4 million in grants have been given to state organizations to promote racial healing. And some northern Illinois groups are sharing how they’re putting those funds to use.

The Illinois Department of Human Services and The Chicago Community Trust are helping some state institutions with a Healing Illinois Grant. 

Grace Hou is the secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services.  

She explained that she and Deputy Governor Sol Flores came up with the idea for the grant during a conversation. Both have done community-based work and have experienced racial healing activities.   

Then came the events of the past year.

“And so, you know, we're in the middle of the pandemic, and we continue to be in the summer. And then the images and the reports of the police brutality,” she recalled. “There was so much anguish, and hurt in Illinois, you know, protests, civil unrest.” 

Hou said they didn’t want to put a Band-Aid on the racial issues in Illinois but instead start a healing process across the state.  

She said The Chicago Community Trust is the primary partner for the grant but there are other smaller nonprofits who helped to make sure the grant was accessible to smaller organizations. 

Conversations, training and different types of storytelling techniques are some of the tools that organizations are using for restoration. 

The West Side Show Room in Rockford is using its $5,000 to offer equity, diversity and inclusion workshops. There are two types of workshops. One is for leaders and the other is for participants. 

“This money goes towards making these workshops affordable or free for anyone associated with a Rockford-area arts organization. And that is any organization in Winnebago, Boone, Ogle or Stevenson County,” said Mike Werckle, the artistic director of the Show Room.

He explained that the theater has done diversity training since 2017 and wanted to offer it to other art organizations. He said the grant seemed like a perfect fit.  

The Paramount Theatre in Aurora received a $40,000 grant. This helped them launch their Inception project. This project presents virtual readings hosted by the theater. Two readings took place in January. Both were written by people of color. 

Amber Mak is the New Works Development director for the theater. She said the Illinois agencies required a timely implementation of the assignments that were funded by the grant. She remembered their words.

“We want this to be used now. These conversations, this healing needs to begin now not something that we plan for, you know, and say, oh, we'll get back to it when,” Mak explained. “And so, they said, ‘You can have this money, you need to spend it by January, by the end of January.’” 

That deadline has since been pushed until the end of March. Hou said this was done to ensure no one felt rushed. 

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum received $32,000. The library is partnering with the Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation to conquer racial inequality. They are doing this with the youth No Malice Film Contest.

Participants ages 11 through 21 can submit short films that focus on racial healing. The films will also be used as a supplemental curriculum in schools throughout the state.   

Heather Nice is the director of education of the library and museum. She said the organization had the idea of doing a film contest about a year ago. After they learned about the grant, they realized it made perfect sense to combine the two concepts.

“Race is something that's very embedded in Lincoln story,” she said. “And while he did many things during his time, you know, there's still ramifications of past race relations and things that happened in his time today.” 

She said racial tensions have gone on for a very long time. And though this grant helps Lincoln’s legacy move forward, the race toward healing is a long way from being finished. 

Angela Staron is the senior director of advancement at the library and museum. She expressed her sympathy for young people who don’t have outlets -- because of the pandemic -- to deal with today’s racial issues. 

“So, this is one way of allowing people to express their frustrations with all of the racial problems that we're having in our country,” Staron explained. “And to think of creative ways to share their perspectives with other people and get them to understand what they're going through and, you know, help everyone heal.” 

Nice added that it is important for the youth to hear stories from their peers, and the curriculum being shared with students is key. She suggested that they are more likely to indulge in conversations that are “peer to peer.”

Hou agrees that hearing experiences from others through stories can help people understand different cultures.  

“We're always trying to find connections, right? And I think Healing Illinois is an intentional way for people to find connections when they may not ordinarily already happen,” she said.

Many other groups across the state are finding ways to alleviate racial biases with the help of this grant. Family Service Agency of DeKalb County is using a $30,000 Healing Illinois Grant to help accelerate a recently created Belonging leadership council. This is a partnership with Northern Illinois University, the City of DeKalb, Ellwood House Museum and the DeKalb County History Center.  

Hou from IDHS said when she thinks about healing, she thinks about bringing humanity to the forefront. She said the Healing Illinois Grant is not a silver bullet but it’s a way to dispel myths about how certain people should or shouldn’t behave. And she wants people to think about how they can provide healing spaces in their own communities.  

  • Yvonne Bose is a  current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.