Shani's Blog

This month began with back to back speaking engagements about my work. On Friday, October 2nd, I spoke at the 50th anniversary commemoration of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts as part of an exciting discussion about art and social change. It was an honor to join a powerhouse group of change makers as we talked about how we use cultural work to empower our communities.

On Saturday October 3rd, I spoke at the Creative Solutions symposium. This summer I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a residency in upstate New York, where I was given time and support to do my work at the intersection of art and social change. It was a thrill to join colleagues from a number of progressive social justice organizations to speak about our projects and share our experiences there.

Many thanks to those of you that came out to make both of these engagements a full house!

Happy Summer Friends,

I hope this newsletter finds you well! It’s with excitement that I write to share some of my highlights from the past several months. For more, feel free to check out my website,

Wishing you joy,

Installations + International Travel

It was such an honor to deliver my talk on citizen artists during the Black Portraiture{s} II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories conference in Florence, Italy this May. The gathering of artists, curators, and scholars including Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas, Renee Cox and Sanford Biggers was truly historic.

I’m so proud of our panel Sister Outsider: Black American Women, Identity and Global Travel. I was humbled to share the stage with my fellow speakers– Michaela Angela Davis, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, Sharon Harley, Asia Leeds and moderator Cheryl Finley– who each presented with their characteristic grace, insight and clarity. For those of you who asked about how to see what we did, check out the video!

My talk begins at the 13 minute mark, but I definitely encourage you to take in the session in its entirety. Additionally, more videos from the conference are posted at, they are definitely worth watching.

After the conference concluded, I went on to spend several weeks touring Italy as I studied art and philosophy as a David Driskell fellow with the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts. It was an amazing opportunity to further immerse myself in these subjects that I love, and to see them come to life through experiences like visiting museums in Sienna and the Venice Biennale.

Upon my return in June, I had the opportunity to lead an arts workshop/ community installation in honor of Black women and girls who’ve been impacted by state violence. Thanks to the wonderful staff of Writing On It All, we had a whole empty house on Governor’s Island to use as our collective canvas!

I really enjoyed working with the dancers, community members and fellow artists that took a ferry from either Brooklyn or lower Manhattan to participate in Altar. It was a lovely opportunity to transform the space and our spirits.

In the immediate wake of McKinley and Fairfield, and in the midst of this larger moment, we need to seize every opportunity to create sacred spaces for healing, creative resistance and expression. May the vision we articulated for Black women and girls come to pass.


Conferences + Media Mentions

For the past several years, in my capacity as the Director of the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center, I’ve organized an arts based training that engages a select cohort of social justice advocates from around the country.

Our tenth annual institute was held in New York City this May. We discussed cultural strategy, community building and ways to use human rights mechanisms to address inequality in the U.S. I always learn a lot from both our facilitators and our fellows. Congrats to our latest class, who now join a nationwide cohort of really impressive alumni.

Just before the institute began, I had the opportunity to speak about my work fusing the arts and human rights at NYU’s Creative Arts and Social Work conference.  Many thanks to the organizers, especially Dr. Deborah Willis who chaired our panel and invited me to participate.

Finally, as regular readers of this newsletter know, I am a contributor to the internationally broadcast, all women of color radio show hosted by Esther Armah– The Spin. In May, I joined dream hampton and Glynda Carr to discuss White on White Crime: Texas Shoot Out, the Boycott Nike and Say Her Name campaigns. Click here to tune in. The first season of 2015 ended with the same group that began it: writer asha bandele, political scientist Dr. Christina Greer and me discussing Haiti and the Dominican Republic, vaccines and the black body, and forgiveness in the wake of the Charleston massacre. If you’d like to hear this one, click here to listen to the show.

Thanks for taking the time to read up on the latest happenings in my life! I wish each of you all the best and look forward to staying in touch.

Dear Friends,

Sending sunshine to each of you! It’s been a productive first quarter of the year, it’s a pleasure to share some of my highlights with you. Looking forward to hearing about the work you are engaged in and to exploring ways we might collaborate.



Academic Announcements

Attending my beloved Spelman College will always be one of the best choices I ever made. As a student there my work was affirmed, my path was set, my chosen family was found. That is why I was so honored to have my career featured on Spelman’s home page during the month of February. Thank you, my cherished alma mater, for celebrating my work in the arts and human rights.

I’d also like to thank Princeton University. I’m happy to announce that my artwork is currently being shown in their All Rise exhibition. I traveled down to attend the opening reception, it was fantastic to meet so many wonderful people! For those of you in the vicinity, I strongly encourage you to visit the campus to view this show– open until April 4th.

Finally, I am really looking forward to presenting on global travel, art and social justice during Black Portraiture{s} II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories, an upcoming conference in Florence, Italy. This historic gathering of artists, curators, and scholars is being organized by Deborah Willis, Awam Amkpa, Ulrich Baer, Manthia Diawara, Robert Holmes, Ellyn Toscano from NYU; Henry Louis Gates from Harvard; and Thelma Golden from the Studio Museum of Harlem. Participants include Michaela angela Davis, Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, Hank Willis Thomas, Imani Uzuri, Sanford Biggers and more. To preview the full schedule, click here.

Art Exhibits + Media Mentions

In addition to the Princeton show mentioned above, I was so excited to have artwork exhibited at the SCOPE New York flagship fair this March, as part of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation’s The Time Is Now exhibit. The show, which featured twenty Rush contemporary alumni artists, was held one block across from The Armory Show piers at Metropolitan Pavilion West alongside 60 international galleries.

In media news, I’m humbled to note that it has now been ten years since Decipher Radio launched on WPFW 89.3FM in Washington D.C.! I participated in the anniversary broadcast, which included retrospectives from all of us who were founding members. I’ll always be grateful that my first gig as a radio talk show host allowed such creative freedom, intellectual rigor and just plain fun. Please join me in offering continued support for this strip of programming and in wishing a happy anniversary to Decipher: the music, the movement, the message.

I’d also like to give a shout out to The Spin, the internationally broadcast radio program hosted by Esther Armah that I am proud to be a regular contributor to. Since my last letter to you I’ve participated in two new episodes– in March 2015 I was on with Dr. Blair Kelley to discuss Selma, Ferguson and the campaign to put a woman on the $20 bill. Click here to listen in. In January, I was on the first episode of 2015 with writer asha bandele and political scientist Dr. Christina Greer. Here is the link to tune into that show.

Lastly, I have a new blog about my trip to Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery march, an event that came to occupy an iconic place in the American imagination. To check it out, visit my site on the Huffington Post.

I hope you enjoy!

Next Up

Next up, the tenth annual Human Rights Institute will be held in New York City this May. I always enjoy leading this arts based training that engages a select cohort of social justice advocates from around the country in my capacity as the director of the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center.

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