Shani's Blog

Happy new year fam. Exciting news bubbling up today… First I’d like to let you know that one of my photographs is mentioned in an article from the front page of the arts section in Friday’s New York Times! The piece covers Respond– a fantastic exhibit I’m in at the Smack Mellon gallery. Details are below.

I’d also like to let you all know about a major opportunity for social justice advocates who are interested in learning more about human rights mechanisms. Applications are currently available for this Spring 2015 fellowship– to get yours or to send it out to your networks, simply scroll down.



I’m in the Arts Section of the New York Times!

I’m very happy to share that a photograph I captured during my time in Ferguson, which is currently featured in the Respond exhibit at the Smack Mellon Gallery, is mentioned in today’s New York Times as emblematic of the take-away message of the show! They describe it as “a knockout group show” that “has produced a soundtrack of shouts, cries, chants and whispers to set against the wall of insulating white noise that enwraps the art world at large.” Click here to read the article in the NYT!

About The Exhibit: “After learning of the grand jury’s decision to not indict Daniel Pantaleo, Smack Mellon postponed a planned exhibition in order to respond to the continued failure of the United States to protect its black citizens from police discrimination and violence. In order to channel our outrage into actions that can facilitate systemic change, [the] gallery space will be used to present events, performances and artworks that affirm that black lives matter, express frustration and anger with the institutional racism that enables law enforcement to kill black members of the community with impunity, and imagine creative solutions and visionary alternatives to a broken justice system.”

92 Plymouth Street @ Washington
Brooklyn, NY 11201

January 17- February 22, 2015
Gallery hours: Wed-Sun, 12-6pm

My sincere thanks to Smack Mellon’s current Studio Artists Esteban del Valle, Molly Dilworth, Oasa DuVerney, Ira Eduardovna, Steffani Jemison, and Dread Scott, and the Smack Mellon staff, who were the lead organizers of RESPOND. Hope you’re able to check it out!

Human Rights Training Opportunity


10th Annual Human Rights Institute


The Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center is pleased to announce that applications for our 10th annual Human Rights Institute (HRI) are currently available. The institute promotes good governance and social change by training a select group of participants from around the country to strengthen their local advocacy efforts by using a human rights frame. Alumni become part of a nationwide community of advocates and have access to ongoing education, technical support, and dialogue. This year’s HRI, co-sponsored by the U.S. Human Rights Network, will be held from May 7-9, 2015 in New York City.


To obtain a copy of the application, please click here.

Applications with scholarship requests must be sent by February 23, 2015. The deadline for applications without a scholarship request is February 27, 2015.

This week we celebrated International Human Rights Day on Wednesday, 12/10/14. I’m proud to have curated Open Season that evening– an event where we explored how to achieve a cultural shift in our country’s approach to policing and punishment. The program featured visual and performance art alongside moderated conversations with some of our brightest minds about our culture of confinement. We talked about the need for a paradigm shift that will allow for human rights to be at the center of our ideas about justice.  The overall message is that this is not a time to feel helpless. We can create our own opportunities to be creative about how we’ll construct a new way forward.


I’m so thankful to all of the people who participated. We featured the vision and voices of leading thinkers and artists:
*Dr. William Jelani Cobb, UConn Professor and New Yorker contributor
*Bryonn Bain, Poet and New York University Professor
*Esther Armah, Syndicated Radio Host- The Spin
*Lumumba Bandele, NAACP Legal Defense Fund
*Paloma McGregor, Dancer and Choreographer
*Vincent Warren, Center for Constitutional Rights

Our opening dance performance was rendered by Orlando Hunter, Ricarrdo Valentine and Brittany Williams to a soundscape by DJ Jahsonic. Give Your Hands to Struggle was choreographed by the legendary Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and performed by Chanon Judson and Christine King. Each of these performances was curated with an initiative that endlessly inspires me, Dancing While Black.

Music by Jacob Cohen and visual art by Jerome Lagarrigue, Russell Frederick, Brian Polite, Dominique Sindayiganza, Russel Craig, (and me!)  really set the tone for the evening.

Open Season was curated by me in my capacity as an artist and the Director of the Human Rights Project, but it simply could not have been done without our amazing community partners: the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, NYU’s Prison Education Program, Angela’s Pulse and Articulations. Each member of this dream team committed countless hours to helping think through and plan the event and I couldn’t be more grateful. Additional support was provided by two institutions I deeply respect- the Urban Bush Women and the Studio Museum in Harlem.  The event was documented thanks to the generosity of the International Center for Photography.

We had a full house come through to support, many of whom were actively spreading the word about what we were doing on social media under the hashtag #openseason. One of our amazing attendees, A. Nia Austin-Edwards, put together this assemblage of tweets and photos that capture our night together. Check it out!

Dear Friends and Supporters,

So much to share from the past few months… it’s been a busy and productive time. For those of you who are visual or performance artists, please see below for an opportunity to contribute to an event I’m planning on International Human Rights Day. NYC based fam, I’ll be participating in a not-to-be-missed event at the Brooklyn Museum this weekend. And more, more, more…

See you in the whirlwind,


Art + Activism


Open Season is an event that combines art and creative conversation with nationally recognized experts about race and the culture of policing in America. The inaugural session will be held on December 10, 2014-International Human Rights Day. The Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center, in partnership with Dancing While Black, is pleased to offer an opportunity for performance and visual artists to become a part of this immersive experience.

WANTED: Imaginative, provocative visual and performance art on the topics of community, confinement, race and gender. We encourage submissions that address these themes in a creative and expansive way.

Artists of color who are working in dance, performance, photography, multimedia installation, animation, illustration, painting or drawing. Performance work should be performance ready in a small or unconventional space, no longer than five minutes, require minimal setup and technical support. For visual art submissions, please send up to ten images saved as a pdf portfolio labeled with your lastname_firstname. We encourage submissions from artists who have personal experience with the criminal justice system, including people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated and their family members.

Please prepare a PDF portfolio of no more than 10 images and/or a link to a 5 minute performance you would like us to consider. Include:

  • a 150 word description of the work and why it should be included in Open Season;
  • a resume and 150 word bio;
  • Performance Artists: A list of technical requirements;
  • Visual Artists: List of images by number that includes artist name, name of work, medium, dimensions, and date.

Complete submissions should be sent to ( no later than 11:59 p.m. on November 12, 2014.

The Human Rights Project is grateful for the support of our event co-sponsors Angela’s Pulse and the NYU Prison Education Program.

Press + Conferences

It was a thrill to have my career and journeys to over 35 countries highlighted in Parlour Magazine’s Travel Seven section. This feature showcases a diverse array of travelers, I encourage you to page through to read how and where we are showing up in the world.

Also in media news, I wrote an article about my trip to Ferguson and participated in local report backs about the happenings down there. You can read that article and see some images from my trip on the Huffington Post.

Archived audio of my latest episode of The Spin, hosted by Esther Armah and also featuring Glynda Carr is now available. We discussed a variety of current topics including Stand Your Ground, Ebola and the Black vote. The show, recently named one of the top 6 podcasts by Clutch Magazine, is broadcast nationally and in Accra, Ghana.

In October, I participated in a national conference on art and prisons at Rutgers University called Marking Time.  I spoke about my work designing and developing the Prison to College Pipeline program in Washington D.C. during a session called Best Practices: Arts, Prisons and Community Engagement.

Finally, I’m pleased to report that The Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center co-sponsored Breaking Silence: A Hearing on Girls of Color, a standing room only forum at Columbia University School of Law. HRP also held two webinars with leading practitioners of art rooted in social change, comedian DLo and dancer/ choreograher Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.

Next Up

On November 8, 2014 | 2PM – I will be at the Brooklyn Museum to moderate a panel called Mythologies of the Diva: Reexamining the Image of Black Women in Pop-Culture.

As noted in the press release, “MAPP International Productions and 651 ARTS in association with the Brooklyn Museum present Triple Consciousness: Black Feminism(s) in the Time of Now, a three part program: October 18; November 8; and November 15 at 2PM at the Brooklyn Museum. The series delves into the current themes and manifestations of Black female identity in mainstream media. Participants will include scholars, educators, artists, writers, activists and cultural workers that will engage the audience in a thorough investigation into the current culture of Black women.

The goal of Triple Consciousness is to explore creative, visionary, and transformative ideas that support the holistic empowerment and vitality of Black women. All events begin at 2PM and are free with Museum admission. For more information, visit”

Hi Family,

Many of you know that I recently took a trip to Ferguson, Mo. I published an article recounting my experiences there on my Huffington Post blog. An excerpt is posted below.  For the full article and pictures from the trip, click here.

To learn more about how to support the ongoing efforts for change, visit


One Woman’s Witness: 24 Hours in Ferguson

6:30 p.m./ Lower Manhattan
It’s hard to describe the trepidation one feels when purchasing a gas mask for the first time.

As I sift through the options, the disturbing images that have flooded the nation’s TV screens for more than a week flash through my mind: the countless expended canisters of tear gas; the riot gear-clad military personnel; the fury that flashed in the face of the policeman cameras caught screaming to the peaceful crowd who had assembled to protest the killing of an unarmed teenager just steps from his grandmother’s home: “Bring it you animals… I don’t give a f***!” I shudder at the memory of his rage and add safety goggles and an empty spray bottle to my cart. I’ll use the latter to carry the mix of Maalox and water that helps to restore vision if you’re hit.

I’m in the midst of Manhattan as I assemble these items, nearly 900 miles and a world away from the uprising in Ferguson, Mo. I notice the head of a fellow customer jerk back in surprise when I ask the hardware store staff about which of their products is best suited to fight off the effects of tear gas. I guess somewhere inside I’m a little surprised too… file this under things I never thought I’d have to do. When I get home I pack my new purchases, my freshly charged camera and computer, and a change of clothes into a small waterproof backpack. I won’t carry anything else.

It may seem crazy that I’m voluntarily choosing to enter a zone where any of these protective preparations are necessary, but as I’ve spent hours on my couch in Brooklyn watching the coverage of this situation, it just feels like I can and should do something more. This is a moment that deserves witness and work. I need to be there.


6:00 p.m./Canfield Green Apartments, Ferguson
I’m standing in the smoldering street where Mike Brown’s 18 year-old bullet riddled body was left to lie in state, while guarded by agents of the state, for over four hours of public viewing. In the immediate wake of his death, it’s been reported that police cars crushed the burgeoning memorial and let one of their dogs urinate on the flowers his mother had placed at the site. As scholars have noted, the community trauma inflicted by this series of events was reminiscent of leaving lynching victims to rot in the trees as a warning of the repercussions of resistance. Today, this notion of public punishment operates hand in hand with the biggest, largely privatized prison industrial complex in human history, where whole segments of our populace are secreted away. This is what I know. What I feel is a profound sense of sadness. For Mike Brown (St Louis), Eric Garner (Staten Island), John Crawford (Ohio), Jonathan Ferrell (North Carolina), Ezell Ford (Los Angeles), Aiyana Jones (Detroit), Oscar Grant (Bay Area), Sean Bell (Queens) and all the others who’ve fallen.

I join the steady stream of visitors in whispering prayers for them, for their loved ones, for us all.


12:00/Greater St. Louis
The surreal daytime dynamics we’ve observed makes it feel like the militaristic occupation of this American town is being sold as a new normal. Soldiers lining up their riot shields in the taped off Target parking lot. Families strolling past bomb resistant army tanks without a second glance. Earlier, I witnessed a policeman encouraging a young girl to pet the large German Shepherd caged within the police K-9 unit van. I’m dumbfounded by the sight. It stays with me as I travel home.


6:00 p.m./ My Living Room, NYC
The clearest lesson of my brief journey to Ferguson is that this a love story… It’s about the deep and abiding love of a family for their son, and the love of a community for their friend and brother. It’s about a people’s love for all of our Mike Browns and for the black and brown bodies we come in. It’s about the love of life itself. This love is what allows us to make beauty where there was blood.

With signs that declare I am a man, I am a woman, I am not a number, the people of Ferguson are demonstrating that we have a desire to live — not simply survive encounters with the police. We want to live. We don’t accept that our lives are expendable.

At its core this is a righteous indignation, a resurgence of the human spirit against atrocious conditions, a claim to the human rights we are all entitled to. I think of the young boy so moved by the flower strewn memorial to Mike Brown that he took off his little baseball cap and added it to the site, while his mother shook her head in pride. I think of how the local residents, even in their mourning, seized every opportunity to affirm their humanity– to each other, to the visitors, to the police, to the media that now floods their town.

I think of the courageous people organizing peaceful protests night after night. How remarkable it is to push through your grief, repeatedly enter into hostile conditions knowing tanks, guns, batons and gas await you, and to do it with nothing but gumption on your side. But this is our tradition. Through enslavement, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, and into the 21st century, Black people have historically shown a commitment to the ideals of the American project and a fierce desire to push this country to actualize them.

As the news cycles have begun to turn, hundreds of new school Freedom Riders from around the country are spending Labor Day weekend in solidarity with the people of Ferguson to show that #BlackLivesMatter. People from around the country have committed to keep a spotlight on these issues, to take collective action against injustice, to declare a communal vision for the future. With the leadership of the Ferguson community, we are driven by love to say “another world is possible” and here is what it might look like.

That love is why, in spite of it all, I believe that we will win.



Thrilled to be featured in Parlour Magazine’s Travel Seven section! To learn more about my walk through the world, scroll down…


Whoever said your creativity won’t take you far was lying. See how Shani blends her artistic passion and travel wanderlust for a life that has taken her to over 35 countries and counting!

AUGUST 4, 2014

The Travel Seven: Shani Jamila

By: Shannon Washington

When she isn’t traversing the world as the director of the Urban Justice Center’s Human Rights Project, artist Shani Jamila is back in Brooklyn planning her next journey. We finally caught her to get a look into how she does it for this week’s Travel Seven!

Name:  Shani Jamila
Home City/Country: Brooklyn, NY. USA
Occupation: Artist and Human Rights Advocate

Passport Stamps Include: India, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Gabon, France, Turkey, Greece, Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa + over 25 more.

1. My best travel memory so far is… I love to meet with other socially engaged artists, writers and thinkers from the African diaspora,so it’s been great to have the opportunity to connect with colleagues while speaking at global gatherings such as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Switzerland, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development in Turkey and the World Social Forum in India. Other travel highlights have included playing mas during Carnival in Trinidad, witnessing master kente cloth weavers at work in rural Ghana, wandering the narrow alleys of the souks in Marrakesh in search of the perfect chandelier and reading my poetry at a Venezuelan festival.

2. My favorite hotel & why…My preference is chic boutique style hotels and/or somewhere with great spa services. The best massage I ever received was at the Sofitel in Abu Dhabi.

3. My must-haves on any flight are…Something cozy to wrap myself in, something amazing to read, something to write down my thoughts on and something yummy to snack on.

4. When I’m on the road, I absolutely hate…Only walking the beaten path. It’s important to visit the most popular sites but also be sure to take the road less traveled and see what fun is in store!

5. My dream destination or vacation is…My dream list is long, but Australia is towards the top of where I want to go next. I’m super interested in Aboriginal art and culture.

6. The three things I can’t travel without are…My travels really inform my photography and collage work—so I definitely need my cameras. Bringing a journal to capture the memories I make while on the road is key. Finally I love to have local connects in whatever country I go to, so if I don’t know someone I check in with my networks to see who does. Having a few names and numbers for people to check in with is definitely on my top three list!

Bonus– a spare duffel bag I pack flat in my suitcase in case I need extra luggage space after hitting up the markets for art, books, jewelry and fabric.

7. The Top lesson I’ve learned while traveling is… Travel really helps me live as my fullest and best self. I make every minute count while I’m overseas, because I know that my time in whatever country I’m in is limited by the date on my return ticket home. But the same could be said for our time on earth, so these experiences remind me to make the most of every day I’m blessed with.

Already on your second or third passport? Join the Travel Seven and submit your answers today to—if we like them we will post on here on Parlour!

Happy summer y’all! I hope you’ve all been enjoying the season. For me, this time of year has been packed full of trips and activities as you’ll see below.

As always, I look forward to hearing from you about what you are working on. Please feel free to reach out via my website: can also revisit previous newsletters there, they are archived on the blog page.Sending light,



Art and Activism

This June I traveled to Montreal to co-facilitate a teach-in and participate in a workgroup at the Encuentro IX conference, sponsored by New York University’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. During this bi-annual convening, a community of artists and scholars from countries throughout the western hemisphere gather together for a week of activities. It was a great opportunity to share some thoughts about my career in the arts, community and human rights. I also really enjoyed being able to show some images and receive feedback about a burgeoning artistic project. Finally, the timing was divine as it allowed us to attend the Montreal Jazz Festival! I got to photograph and catch concerts by Angelique Kidjo and Cody Chesnutt, amongst others.

In May, I moderated two panels for Dancing While Black– at the Bronx Academy for the Arts and Dance (5/30) and at the 5 Myles Gallery in Brooklyn (5/3). The latter was held in collaboration with the Museum for the Contemporary Arts of the African Diaspora (MoCADA). I was joined by an array of dancers brought together by organizer Paloma McGregor, and panelists Greg Tate, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Aimee Merideth Cox, Ebony Noelle Golden, Sydnie Mosley, Amanda Reid, Ali Rosa-Salas and Gesiye Souza-Okpofabri.

Finally, I am pleased to announce that I am a newly minted Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project. To start it off, I recently launched a new blog for the Huffington Post! My first piece was published last week, it’s called Creative Resistance: A Study of the Free Southern Theater. Please take a moment to check out this undertold history of the role of the arts in social change, grounded by the story of how my uncle John O’Neal co-founded this theater fifty years ago during Freedom Summer.

Public Speaking + Public Service

As I wrote my last update to you, I was preparing to lead the ninth annual human rights institute– an intensive three day training opportunity for social justice advocates. This initiative of the Human Rights Project (HRP), which is co-sponsored by the US Human Rights Network, happened from April 2-4 of this year.

The institute promotes good governance and social change by training a select group of participants from around the country to strengthen their local advocacy efforts by using a human rights frame. Alumni become part of a nationwide community of advocates and have access to ongoing education, technical support, and dialogue. This year, the cohort participated in the launch of our annual New York City Council report card with past and present NYC council members including Letitia James, Ydanis Rodriguez, Charles Barron and more. To learn more about the 2014 fellows and facilitators, click here.

In the months since, HRP launched a new website that we debuted at a dessert party on June 11th in Brooklyn.

In other news, I’m pleased to have joined over 1000 women in signing on to the letter urging gender inclusivity in the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. I encourage you to check out the statement we issued and offer your support to this movement.

Finally, it was an honor to moderate a panel on the legacy of Henrietta Lacks at the Brooklyn Public Library in May. As senior librarian Taneya Gethers-Muhammed phrased it, “In 1951, Lacks would launch the era of modern science and medicine when her cells were unknowingly removed from her body during a biopsy and used to create the HeLa cell line–the first human cells to thrive and grow in a laboratory. Her cells would be used to develop the Polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilization techniques, and the modern field of virology.” Our topic was Science: An Ethical & Cultural Responsibility.

I’ve been working on an oral history project with my uncle, John O’Neal, who co-founded the Free Southern Theater (the cultural arm of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) fifty years ago during Freedom Summer. Excited to share that this work took a step forward with my first publication as a Huffington Post blogger. Check it out below!

Creative Resistance: A Study of the Free Southern Theater

As the country marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the landmark voting rights initiative that took place throughout the state of Mississippi in 1964, it’s important to note the key but often overlooked role the arts and culture community played in the social change of that era.

That summer, which fundamentally changed the shape of American democracy, was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the Mississippi branches of the major civil rights organizations — the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Their efforts, which included Freedom Schools, voter registration and the noteworthy intervention of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in the 1964 Democratic National Convention, helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Right in the middle of it, the Free Southern Theater (FST), co-founded by my uncle John O’Neal, was born. The brainchild of O’Neal, Doris Derby and Gilbert Moses, this was theater designed to “act as a stimulus to the critical thought necessary for effective participation in a democratic society,” a mission stated in the book The Free Southern Theater by The Free Southern Theater: A Documentary of the South’s Radical Black Theater with Journals. Letters, Poetry, and Essays and a Play Written By Those Who Built It.

The founders — O’Neal and Derby were SNCC field directors and Moses worked as a journalist with the Mississippi Free Press — viewed live theater as the best way to counteract the degrading impact of inferior education, the misrepresentations of the local media and the paucity of cultural resources available to Black people. When I was a child, FST and its organizational successor Junebug Productions held revered places in my mind. My parents made it a point to see their performances whenever they held a show within driving distance, and I spent a teenage summer with my uncle as he worked on a theater production in Appalachia. The theaters’ many accomplishments, which are rooted and reflected in our family of artists, educators and activists, have greatly influenced my own career and life choices.

Shani at SNCC’s 50th reunion with her Uncle John.

Recently I’ve begun working with my uncle on an oral history project about our shared commitment to working at the intersection of the arts and progressive social change. During one of our interviews, he told me that FST, which became a New Orleans-based institution, had piloted its efforts during this pivotal era in Mississippi. He said: “[FST] was not held up apart from the Freedom Summer, but as an integral tool of [it]. It gave the energy for… FST to be transformed from an idea into 50 some years’ worth of work so far. We’re still trying to do the same thing we started out to do.”

One of the company’s first shows, staged at more than 20 Freedom Schools during Freedom Summer, was In White America by Martin Duberman. The play, which was performed as often as twice a day before students, staff, teachers and community members of all ages, is a sweeping look at the collective history of Africans in the United States. Stories included the Nat Turner rebellion, Frederick Douglass’s abolition efforts and a depiction of school desegregation set in Little Rock, Ark.

“We did as many as two performances a day in a four-week period,” my uncle told me. “And then the next day we’d drive and set up and perform.” FST’s intrepid eight-person crew, which included actress Denise Nicholas, who later starred in the TV shows “Room 222″ and “In the Heat of the Night,” took the production across Mississippi to towns including Macomb, Hattiesburg, Greenwood and Greenville. Freedom School staff used it as the basis of its curriculum development, and community organizers used the play as a text for their efforts in voter registration. “The whole curriculum of the Freedom School was built around the play, because the play was built around the struggle of African American people. From the earliest days of slavery all the way up. We’d read it and give a context to people who taught and organized the community that we were performing in,” O’Neal said.

“Denise would be on one side of the auditorium and she would start singing ‘oh freedom over me… and before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.’ And then from other places in the auditorium after the first phrase or two, someone else would join her very nice soprano voice in harmony. All over the auditorium we’d start singing and moving towards the stage from wherever we were.”

The company was committed to staging free performances for the communities they served, so it drew support from individual and institutional donors, which included celebrities such as Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. The theater’s first donation came in the form of a check from Langston Hughes. “We wanted to save it for history’s sake. He had such a distinguished signature — written in purple ink with a felt tip pen. But we needed the money so bad we had to cash it,” O’Neal recently told me with a laugh. “It was not a remarkable sum, except to people who were broke… so I’ll say it was a major contribution. We were scrambling for rent every month and for a meal every day.”

Have their efforts paid off?

Today, Mississippi has the highest number of Black elected officials of any state, a fact presented by director Stanley Nelson in his film “Freedom Summer,” part of the American Experience series on PBS. The New York Times reports that African Americans currently make up 36 percent of the electorate in the state, one of the highest percentages in the nation. FST members have spent the decades since its inception writing and producing plays, launching workshops for actors and developing a model of community engagement and liberatory theater that made an invaluable contribution — for many, work that continues well after a jazz funeral was held for FST in 1985.

As retrospectives honor those who faced danger for daring to register to vote and those who supported their sacrifice, we should not forget the integral role of the arts in social change. The book Free Southern Theater sums it up this way: “Through theater, we think to open a new area of protest, one that permits the development of playwrights and actors, one that permits the growth and self knowledge of a Negro audience, one that supplements the present struggle for freedom.”

Shani Jamila (, a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow, is a New York-based artist and the Director of the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center. To learn more about the work of the Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions, visit

Spring News


Happy Spring!

As I strolled through the streets yesterday I could feel the city awakening. Dancers are back out in the public squares, bright colors adorn the most stylish people, long lines have returned to the street vendor’s carts. It’s good to feel us collectively shake off the remnants of winter, and welcome a new season of rebirth and renewal.

I welcome this opportunity to share a little bit about what’s been blossoming in my world over the past couple of months. If you would like to learn more about anything you read below, feel free to reach out via my website: I hope you’ll also let me know what projects have been making you happy, I look forward to finding ways to support each other.

Walk good family,


Art and Activism

I interviewed two luminaries of the art world for the February 2014 issue of the Harlem Fine Arts Show magazine, a publication that focuses on contemporary African diasporic art. The magazine, edited by the brilliant Khephra Burns, is distributed as an insert in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

I really enjoyed talking with art collector Tina Knowles for HFAS. Well known as the mother of Beyonce and Solange, in addition to her work as a clothing designer for Destiny’s Child and the House of Dereon, Knowles has another passion that fewer people are aware of. She deeply believes in the need to preserve African American culture and history. “We are everything we are because of the people who came before us and fought to have us where we are now,” she explains. Knowles has an impressive breadth of knowledge about the artists whose work she acquires, including masters like Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and Romare Bearden.

Dr. Lee Gause was my next subject. The founder of Smile Design Manhattan, a private dental practice he runs with his brother Alexandre, Gause has devised an innovative solution to provide free care for patients who ordinarily couldn’t afford his services. “We bring amazing people into a room and sell them something they love, which is art. We use the proceeds to provide free dentistry,” he explains. Thanks to this innovative effort, approximately five hundred uninsured and underinsured people have been able to receive treatment.

A month or so later, the tables were turned and I became the interviewee for YES World, a non profit that “connects, inspires and collaborates with changemakers to join forces for thriving, just and sustainable ways of life for all.” Check out the previous blog post to read the transcript of that conversation.

Public Speaking + Publications

This month I had the opportunity to travel down to Charlotte, NC to deliver a keynote address at Johnson C. Smith University. What a joy it was to talk with the students about my career path and global travels, and to share stories about the rich history of artists and social change with the audience. To check out a picture and learn more, read the news article one of the students wrote about the event.

I was happy to return as a presenter at the annual Women of Power conference sponsored by the Center for Caribbean Culture African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI). I served as a moderator for a panel called Ancient Seeds: The Art of New Vision. As stated on their website: “This discussion gives platform to contemporary trailblazers in various stages of emergence on to the creative landscape. Using their work and experiences as touch points, they share their insights as to the opportunities and challenges in creating new work, new processes of production, and their personal sciences for remembering tomorrow.” Extraordinary artists from New York to Nairobi joined us for this discussion, including Sabine Blazin, Manueal Arciniegas and Erica Sewell.

During this period I also moderated a panel on police reform in Chelsea and spoke about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Arise Review, a broadcast hosted by Julian Phillips, that analyzes global finance, politics and development issues.

Finally, I’m happy to announce that the sixth annual Council Watch report, a publication I edited, was released just last week. The report card is a tool for education and action, designed to advance the use of a human rights framework in policy and advocacy. It also measures the commitment of the NYC council of promoting human rights in our city. There have been several articles printed about it, click here for coverage from The Amsterdam News. You can peek inside and order a copy by making a tax deductible donation to the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center.

Next Up

The next big news starts tomorrow! From April 2nd – 4th, I will be leading the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center’s ninth annual human rights institute. We are pleased to have the co-sponsorship of the US Human Rights Network in this endeavor. The institute promotes good governance and social change by training a select group of participants from around the country to strengthen their local advocacy efforts by using a human rights frame. Alumni become part of a nationwide community of human rights advocates and have access to ongoing human rights education, technical support and dialogue. I’m really excited about welcoming everyone to town and look forward to sharing highlights about it with you in my next newsletter.

YES Interview


Shani Jamila is an artist, traveler and human rights advocate. She has spoken about African American culture and history at global gatherings like the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Switzerland, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development in Turkey and the World Social Forum in India. Her international experiences deeply inform her work as a collagist, fiber artist and creative writer. She has exhibited or performed her work at institutions including the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, the Phillips Gallery, Rush Arts, Corridor Gallery, Le Poisson Rouge, Busboys & Poets, Bohemian Caverns and the City College of New York.

Shani is the Director of the Urban Justice Center’s Human Rights Project. Previously, she designed and directed an arts based mentorship program to support the education and empowerment of incarcerated teens. She also led a seminar series at Howard University that utilized cultural work to examine domestic social justice issues in an international human rights frame.

A proud graduate of Spelman College and UCLA, she has been awarded multiple grants for post-graduate study at institutions including Cornell University and the University of the West Indies (where she spent a year as a Fulbright fellow). Her work has received international recognition in publications such as the Trinidad Guardian and Express newspapers, the London based literary magazine Sable, and ESSENCE– as “One of the 35 Most Remarkable Women in the World.”

Shani participated in the 2005 Leveraging Privilege for Social Change Jam.

YES! had a chance to journey with Shani…

where are you now? and, if applicable, what were your last three trips?
I live in Brooklyn, NY. The last three places I visited were Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Jordan.

describe your current project.
I direct the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center, which promotes domestic compliance with universally accepted human rights standards. We work to:
- Educate local legislators, media, and the public about our government’s role in advancing or restricting human rights.
- Equip advocates with human rights tools, models and networks.
- Inspire positive action and collaboration.
- Develop and share models for using human rights to demand higher standards of government accountability at local and national levels.

To learn more about our work, visit our site:

what’s your vision for the next year – for yourself? for the world?
As an artist, advocate and public speaker, part of my work is to inspire people to believe that “another world is possible.” Over the next year, I’d like us to find innovative ways of applying our creativity and passion to its realization.

two truths and a lie about yourself?
(readers, guess which is the lie.)

1. My greatest passion is exploring global cultures, so I have traveled to over 35 countries so far.

2. I am a certified scuba diver.

3. For six years, I interviewed an array of leading writers, artists and scholars, as the host and producer of a talk radio show in Washington, DC.

a quote that inspires you?
“A Woman in harmony with her spirit is like a river flowing.
She goes where she will without pretense
and arrives at her destination prepared to be herself and only herself.”
- Maya Angelou

the best thing you took away from the Jams you attended?
I left my Jams inspired by the collective commitment to the creation of a better world that the attendees shared. It was a pleasure to be in the company of a diverse group of people who are committed to supporting progressive movement.

any time sensitive announcements?
Our 9th annual Human Rights Institute will be held from April 2-4, 2014, in New York City. The Institute is a three-day professional development conference that brings select human rights advocates and policymakers from across the country to network, share ideas, and collaborate with others who are working to advance domestic human rights. Participants learn about the international human rights framework, apply it to their local organizing efforts and become contributors to the growing domestic human rights movement. We are delighted to offer this event in partnership with the U.S. Human Rights Network.

You can learn more about Shani at

*#2 is the lie… For now.

YES! connects, inspires, and collaborates with young and intergenerational leaders for a thriving, just and balanced world.
Please visit if you would like to learn more!

Happy new year everyone! I hope this newsletter finds you all warm and happy.

It’s now been one year since I began this newsletter to stay in touch with each of you. It’s been a joy to have this tool to share tidbits about the work I’ve been engaged in. One of my favorite things about doing this is the communication it’s inspired with many of you about the ways we can collaborate and support each other.

If you would like to learn more about anything you read below, feel free to reach out via my website: You can also revisit last year’s letters there, they are archived on the blog page. Thanks for reading.  I’m wishing you a year filled with more blessings than you can count.

With eyes to the future,


Art and Activism

In December, I was honored to join Paloma McGregor to co-facilitate Dancing While Black at New York University’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. Giants of dance including Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, Bill T. Jones, John Perpener, Eva Yaa Asantewaa, and Nia Love gathered to discuss the ways that race, justice and dance have intersected in their lives and practice. It was a fantastic experience leading the group in story circles about their performance and activism.  Truly a special night. More coverage of the event is available at  Black Dance magazine.

Since my last update to you, I also had the opportunity to take my first trip to the Middle East. My travels took me to Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. One of the highlights of  my visit was attending the Abu Dhabi Art fair.


What an incredible opportunity to bear witness to modern and contemporary art from galleries around the world! I left deeply inspired by what I saw both in this space and more broadly by the cultural immersion that travel uniquely provides. I can’t wait to see what new international journeys 2014 will hold.

Public Speaking + Public Service

On the evening of Monday, December 2nd, the Human Rights Project (HRP) along with Common Cause/NY and New York Law School/Center for New YorkCity Law, held a roundtable at New York Law School with six New York City Council members -Inez Dickens, Daniel Garodnick, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Annabel Palma, James Vacca, and Mark Weprin – on the future of the City Council.

The roundtable, moderated by Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY and Christina Greer, Fordham University Professor, featured an in-depth discussion on the Council’s rules and operations going forward, touching on topics including discretionary funds, the progression of legislation, the roles of Council, working with Mayor Elect DeBlasio, and the incoming 21 Council members. In my capacity as the director of HRP, I provided opening and concluding remarks.

I also co-facilitated an introduction to human rights webinar and a panel on the arts and human rights at the bi-annual conference of the U.S. Human Rights Network. It was a fantastic opportunity to join with colleagues from around the country to assess the state of the domestic human rights movement and share strategies for how we would like to move it forward.

If you would like to contribute to building this movement, the Human Rights Project would love to be one of your first tax deductible donations of the new year. We welcome your support, work like this can only continue with the generosity of individuals like you.

Thanks family. I’m looking forward to continuing to build with you in 2014!