EXPO CHICAGO @ The Commons

On Tuesday, September 25, Sweet Water Foundation hosted the For Freedoms Town Hall, gathering more than 50 people from EXPO CHICAGO in the Thought Barn for an evening of conversation on the topic of Art and Public Space. The Town Hall, organized in collaboration with the Smart Museum of Art, welcomed a panel of speakers from March for Our Lives and AfriCOBRA who discussed strategies for integrating art into the reclamation of public space. The evening’s dialogue was enhanced by the surrounding environment given SWF’s focus on integrating art into each space at The Commons through its holistic practice of Regenerative Neighborhood Development. Read on to learn more about the evening.


As is tradition at The Commons, the group shared a meal of greens and cornbread prepared by SWF’s Resident Chef, Mama Betty, before the Town Hall began. With nourished bodies and minds, three March for Our Lives representatives and Sweet Water Foundation’s Executive Director, Emmanuel Pratt, led a productive conversation about the importance of integrating youth voice into the reclamation of public space. Youth play a critical role in the transformation of disinvested spaces. The Commons is one example of a space that has fully included youth in the reclamation of waste materials, as seen in youth-driven projects and products such as Re[CREATE]Ed Spaces and Fractal Seating Units.

Finding A Voice

During their conversation, March for Our Lives representatives expressed the way they have felt a voice since March of 2018 when the organization began. More importantly, they feel their voice is making a difference. Unfortunately, while many young people are experiencing a newfound voice, the reality remains that many are still pushed to margins, without a means to express and amplify their voice. For many of the young people who interact with SWF, it is difficult to encourage them that their voice counts, when their experience has been the opposite. The Commons has become a space where youth, local residents, and visitors alike feel that their voices are heard and where they can imagine new possibilities amidst the realities and chaos they experience on a regular basis.


The evening ended with a discussion with some of the founders of AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) - Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, and Gerald Williams; along with Aay Preston-Myint. AfriCOBRA is an artist collective that was formed in 1968 with a focus on creating culturally relevant art, and the way that art could be weaved into Black liberation movements. Aay Preston-Myint is an artist whose art focuses primarily on “memory and kinship, often within the specific context of queer community and history.” This conversation was particularly relevant at The Commons where there has been a deliberate emphasis on supporting artists of color in the transformation of 4 contiguous city blocks. This reclamation of public space would not be possible without understanding and honoring the history of The Commons and that of each person who spends time there.

The Thought Barn was constructed in September of 2017 to bring together diverse groups to engage in solutions-oriented dialogue. The For Freedoms Town Hall convened individuals from all walks of life to listen, share experiences, and generate ideas. The Thought Barn, true to its purpose, provided a safe space for this dialogue.

Courtney Hug