Beyond the Box: Reimagining Freedom


Present Tense, 2019, video stills

In 2018 I was introduced to Circles & Ciphers, a hip hop based restorative justice organization in Rogers Park. Circles & Ciphers has been active in Rogers Park since the summer of 2011 offering a variety of programming – in prison, school, group home, and community settings – to young people of color. Through art-based peace circles, education, and direct action they collectively heal and work to bring about the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. Their programming offers essential opportunities for creative expression and community building in a neighborhood and to a population that is often overlooked and under-supported on the North-Side of Chicago. With the support of the Envisioning Justice grant from Illinois Humanities we developed the video project: Present Tense in 2019.  This project fundamentally affirmed our belief that relationship and community building is key to impactful and meaningful collaborative social justice projects and affirmed our belief in the power of envisioning together. This year we are excited to collaborate again and apply as an artist team for a direct grant for the Artist Response Program.


This last year has put a magnifying glass on the social and racial dynamics in America. The pandemic laid painfully bare the brokenness of the system in America and the groups most affected by the pandemic. Communities of color are significantly more impacted by the virus in a multitude of ways. The protests that arose in response to the killing of George Floyd across the nation, including Chicago, amplified the fundamental and essential importance of equality and racial justice. If we want to live in a truly just society, we need to deepen our conversations around what equality looks like and what collective freedom means and we need to create spaces for radical imagination.


What does collective freedom look, sound, and feel like? This question and its political stakes will guide our second collaborative multi-media project. Working with this theme seems especially poignant at a time we have to navigate gathering and living with restrictions due to the pandemic, protecting our collective health. These safety precautions led us to the idea of creating our project outdoors, in parks and abandoned lots in the Rogers Park neighborhood. These outdoor sites do not only keep us safer, but also function as sites for the activation of our collective imagination. When we think about the narratives and spaces crafted for us—the physical spatialization of race and inequality—that is the materialization of someone’s imagination. And part of our projects is democratizing and resisting the imposition of that imagination is also cultivating our own counter-imaginaries—our own liberatory imagination.


Through the creation of performative actions, through rhyme and rap in parks and abandoned lots in the Rogers Park neighborhood we will activate these spaces as sites for our own radical imagination. We invite the community of young people that is part of Circles & Ciphers and their extended (chosen) family to come together and respond to the notion of collective freedom based on their personal perspectives, including considering the ways Covid-19 and the justice system has impacted their lives. Circles & Ciphers community members have been at times directly impacted by the justice system and some have family members that are currently incarcerated. For this project we will also include the voices of those community members that are currently incarcerated, their experiences and imagination are imperative to understand what it will take to achieve freedom and that our individual freedom is inextricably bound up with our collective freedom. This process has already been set in motion and we are inviting people that are currently at Cook County Jail to submit poetry, drawings, writing reflecting on their ideas and imaginations of freedom. We are asking trusted community and family members to read and perform and activate these reflections.


Through a series of zoom circles and gatherings outdoors we will develop personal reflections into poetry, freestyle fraps and performances that address the theme of the project and incorporate thoughtfully the writing and visuals that have been submitted from Cook County Jail. These performances will take place late summer, early Fall and activate sites in Rogers Park for the public. These performances will be documented on video and the audio will be recorded separately.


The final step in our project is that the outdoor audio recordings of the freestyle raps will be mixed at Circles & Ciphers own sound studio, Kaba Studios. The video documentation of the performances will be edited into music videos, paired with interviews with community members. The documentation of the performances and our process serves to amplify and share creative strategies for healing and community building with other communities, organizations and institutions. For example, our previous video project Present Tense was shown at the Black History Month Film Festival in Chicago, followed by a panel discussion about the work in which the members of Circles & Ciphers who had been involved participated. It is imperative that the experience of participating in this project is an empowering and joyful experience that makes the young people of Circles &Ciphers and their extended community feel seen, heard, supported and recognized members of a creative community. COVID-19 continues to impact black and brown communities in disproportionate ways and implores us to imagine a new set of social systems and community structures. This needs to be a collective effort and we need to invest in fostering a new collective imagination, informed by diverse perspectives. Our project aims to create this space for radical imagination and show what it looks like when communities of color are given the agency to engage their creative powers, reflecting on destructive systems and imagining their own new just ones.


Circles & Ciphers is a hip-hop infused restorative justice organization led by and for young people impacted by violence. Through art-based peace circles, education, and direct action we collectively heal and work to bring about the abolition of the prison-industrial complex.


AnnMarie Brown, director of operations, circle facilitator

Akeem Soyan, creative arts liaison, circle facilitator

Nikia Watkins, outreach, liberation intern 


Kirsten Leenaars is a Chicago based video artist. Through her work she examines how our collective imagination produces and shapes our lived realities. Leenaars engages with communities in long-term collaborative processes to explore how, through the co-creation of moving images, new forms of relating, being, and looking at the world can be imagined.

Artist Response Grant, DCASE

We’re happy to announce our selection as an Artist Response Program grant recipient from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events for our Beyond the Box: Reimagining Freedom project! This funding will help us realize the project in the best possible and most meaningful ways. #DCASEgrants