Community Engagement and Peace Building Through Krannert Center

By Janet Huber

Sam Smith, Krannert Center’s director of civic engagement and social practice (MSW ’94), works to capture the increasing social impact of the Center’s engagement practice in local, national, and international contexts and along the thematic lines that reflect the Center’s commitment to social justice. His role has been shaped by ideas and direction from the core engagement team including Co-Directors of Engagement Emily Laugesen and Monique Rivera and recently retired Director of Outreach and Engagement Crystal Womble.

In recent years, Smith’s work has been influenced deeply by Michael Rohd, theatre artist and founder of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, and his beautiful distinctions between artistic, social, and civic engagement-based practices. Essentially for Rohd, “civil practice” refers to projects that bring artists into collaboration and codesign with community partners and local residents around a community-defined aspiration, challenge, or vision.

Additionally, Theaster Gates, the preeminent social practice artist for Chicago, Illinois, is also a significant influence. Gates’s broad, expansive, and ambitious work in the Woodlawn community in Chicago and the underlying belief that “Beauty is a Right” bolsters the equity orientation of civic engagement and social practice at Krannert Center.

Smith’s work then is relationship and project focused, supporting individuals, organizations, and communities who may be culturally deserted and consciously extending the impact of Krannert Center – its expertise, resources, models, and practices – into underserved and challenged communities and pressing current social concerns. The work survives through invitation and partnership with frontline activists, cultural workers, campus units, and community organizations.

Smith said, “Current areas of interest, focus, and work include community peace building. The PEACE (Promoting Education, Arts, and Community Engagement) Project began several years ago to unite work happening in Sierra Leone with neighborhood and community work in Urbana. This project involves peacemaking and community development that promotes safe, vibrant communities, restorative justice practices, and reforms to the juvenile legal system. In June 2021, we celebrated a five-year milestone of work in the Urbana Vawter/Silverwood neighborhood.”

The PEACE Project

Smith's Ongoing Projects

Restore, Renew, and Reinvest

Grants in Centralia and Champaign, Illinois, to examine and rectify the hurt caused to vulnerable communities by the United States’ “War on Drugs.” Projects involve STEM teaching and learning, community assessment and design, and efforts directed toward economic development, youth engagement and development, and violence prevention.

Juvenile Justice Engagement

A series of projects and activities that explore the need and feasibility for a juvenile justice council in Champaign County, which would advise stakeholders in strategies to reduce incarceration among juveniles, address ethnic disparities, and identify resources to respond to increasingly complex individual and community trauma. Currently presiding over the Illinois Association of Juvenile Justice Councils and completing a multiyear, multicounty Southern Illinois Violence Prevention Project.

Presidential Initiative: Expanding the Impact of the Arts and the Humanities

Teresa Barnes, Maimouna Barro, Mary Gathogo, Erik McDuffie, Tekita Bankhead and Sam Smith (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign); and Lynette Jackson and Kirk Hoppe (University of Illinois Chicago)

The development of a joint Africana World Studies project on the Urbana-Champaign and Chicago campuses will help break down longstanding academic silos of African studies and African-American studies. Through a three-semester sequence, the project is expected to lead students to new opportunities for language learning and community engagement, and it will impact the curriculum at both universities. The project leaders anticipate that the primary participants will be undergraduate students.

Diaspora and Border Racial Justice Youth Project

A Call-to-Action project from the Office of the Vice Chancellor designed to unite United States minoritized high school students and immigrant high school students in a study and exploration of commonalities of racialized histories of colonization and racism. Using storytelling and other forms of expression, students will design and present work that captures their life stories and experiences.

Thomas Paine Elementary School Summer Enrichment Camp

In collaboration with Urbana schools, a two-week summer arts camp based on the “Viewpoints“ work of Mary Overlie and VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) facilitated discussion practices of Philip Yenawine and cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen to promote learner-centered meaning making and community building.

Music is a Healer: The Legacy of Oscar Braimah Sulley

In collaboration with Dean Kevin Hamilton; PhD student Mark McKnight; Banks, Bridgewater and Lewis Fine Arts Academy; and Joshua Stuart Harris of University Library System Media Preservation, a project to study, preserve, and present the original compositions of musician, teacher, and composer Oscar Braimah Sulley.

The PEACE Project
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