Citizens unite for annual Chicago Humanities Festival


Courtesy Gabriella Coleman

Gabriella Coleman’s cover of her new book that she will be discussing on Nov. 8 at noon at the Benito Juárez Community Academy, South Laflin Street and West Cermak Road. A book signing will follow.


Citizens, by definition, are legally recognized subjects of a state or commonwealth. Anyone and everyone can claim that title. But what does it really mean to be a citizen? The Chicago Humanities Festival has embarked on a two-week journey to answer this question—this year’s festival theme—by presenting the work of musicians, writers, historians, performers and foodies.

The festival started Oct. 24 and will continue through Nov. 8, culminating in a celebration at Pilsen’s Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport St. Tickets are $12 for the public and $5 for students and seniors.

Jonathan Elmer, the festival’s artistic director, said this is the first time he’s been part of the annual celebration. Appointed in March 2015, Elmer, with 25 years of arts programming experience, is an English professor at Indiana University, Bloomington and director of the College Arts and Humanities Institute. 

The Chicago Humanities Festival is an annual series of events showcasing citizens from around the world through collaboration, performances and conversations with exemplary individuals. Elmer said this year’s theme reflects both relevant and timeless issues within society today.

“We were trying to emphasize the plurality of ways in which people embody their experience as citizens,” Elmer said. “There is no one cookie-cutter way or formal equivalent between everybody.”

He said all citizens approach their duties as members of society in different ways, so he wanted the festival to reflect this diversity through its speakers.

“CHF is stepping up to confront some of the major, urgent issues of the day,” Elmer said. “I’m really curious to see how these different presentations resonate one with another and add up to more than the sum of their parts.”

Masha Gessen, a Russian-American writer who was scheduled to speak Oct. 24 and is a dual citizen, said her own experience of carrying two passports is a special advantage that is becoming more common. 

“I think more and more people are in that situation,” she told The Chronicle. “I definitely feel a responsibility, and I also feel shame connected with both passports—the Russian one much more than the American one.”

Gessen is one of 130 speakers taking part in the festival. Many of the festival’s humanitarians have strong ties to the Chicago community, including Maria Hinojosa, Gabriella Coleman, Anthony McGill, David Hartt and Sam Prekop, who are all newcomers to this year’s celebrations and will present their work. All tickets to the Chicago Humanities Festival can be purchased through its website. 


The immigrant

experience of citizenship

María Hinojosa—a Mexican-American journalist and prominent figure in public radio and the Latino community—said she will speak Oct. 31 on what it means to be a citizen and how her work addresses the challenge of the citizenship theme. 

Hinojosa founded the Futuro Media Group and hosts NPR’s “Latino USA.” She was born in Mexico but grew up in Hyde Park and is a visiting scholar at DePaul University, so she returns to Chicago often.

“I have the best of both worlds. I get to live in my first and second city,” Hinojosa said.

She said she thinks it is paramount that she keep her connection with Chicago and the Midwest alive. 

“It is a very particular impact the Midwest and Chicago [have] had—and continue to have—on the national conversation [of] immigration and citizenship,” Hinojosa said. “I love being perceptive to the very different vibe when I’m in Chicago. It makes me a better journalist and better American.”

Hinojosa was the second person in her family after her father to become an American citizen. She gave up her Mexican citizenship at the time—the late ’80s—but now is in the process of regaining it.

“I understood that if I was going to talk about political engagement in this country, then I needed to put my money where my mouth was,” Hinojosa said.

She said everyone in her family had different experiences with gaining citizenship, and it is a complicated topic that needs to be openly discussed in the U.S.

“We get mixed messages about this country and how this country feels toward us,” she said. “We need to acknowledge it [and] make that leap.”

Hinojosa said the immigration conversation fuels her reporting, but people often criticize her for reporting on immigration because she is an immigrant.

“I care about all of this not because I am Mexican, but actually because I am an American citizen,” Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa said she hopes young people control the power of their voice and story.

“My hope is to empower them to feel like they can own it,” Hinojosa said. “We don’t have the luxury to not have people engaged.”

Hinojosa will speak about citizenship and the role of Latinos in the U.S. Oct. 31 at 6 p.m. at the Northwestern University School of Law in the Thorne Auditorium, 375 E. Chicago Ave.


Smart cities,

smart citizens 

Contemporary artist David Hartt, who studied at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and lives and works in the city, combines a historian’s view of cities with the original music of Chicago-native Sam Prekop, whom Hartt commissioned for his latest video installation, “The Republic.” The film focuses on the shattered city of Athens and the struggling city of Detroit, and takes a fictional approach to viewing the past through the eyes of Plato, according to Hartt. He said he wanted to focus on the history behind the cities and remember their former glory.

“I was interested in this end of history moment,” Hartt said. “What happens when those ideas have run their course and they no longer can provide meaning or substance to the way we live and conduct our lives?”

He said the film was about addressing those concerns from the citizen’s perspective.

“It’s a relationship between the citizens’ concerns and the ideological guidelines that govern our existence, and perhaps, how they are misaligned,” Hartt said.

He said Prekop had the sound he wanted to incorporate into the film, “specifically as a distancing measure—a way to help fictionalize the bringing together of both Detroit and Athens,” Hartt said.

Prekop said he describes his music as experimental art rock and developed the score for “The Republic” on Hartt’s request.

“It’s a different audience,” Prekop said. “I’m looking forward to hopefully exposing new people to my work.”

David  Hartt and Sam Prekop will perform their project Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. at The Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario St. Tickets are sold out for the event, but interested parties can join the waitlist by calling (312) 494-9509. 


Political change

through hacktivism

Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist and author with a master’s degree in socio-cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago, joins the festival with her new book, “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.” Released in November 2014, the book focuses on hacking group Anonymous and the rise of the worldwide movement of digital activism through online hacking. 

In the summer of 2015 she released an updated version of the book with a new epilogue. The group was behind the famous attacks of WikiLeaks, Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, Coleman said. She points out in her book that among its many online operations, the eclectic collective famously launched Operation Avenge Assange in late 2010 as a protest against financial institutions that refused to process donations to WikiLeaks, and OpTunisia in support of the Arab Spring revolts in early 2011.

“Anonymous started to attack the Church of Scientology in the ’90s,” Coleman said. “I started to look at them, never thinking they would become a global protest movement.”

She said she became intrigued after that point and dedicated nearly two years to connect with Anonymous. It took her about 14 months to complete the book, during which time she was challenged with maintaining Anonymous’ secrecy without disenchanting their image too much. 

“What I like about them is they have a mythical, mysterious quality,” Coleman said. “Part of the book was about opening that curtain to peer behind that mystery and myth, [but] I didn’t want to fully open the curtain.”

Coleman highlights the importance of secrecy in activism in her book and said street protesting, combined with online hacking, can help citizens make a difference in governmental institutions. 

“They work best when there are synergies and symbioses,” Coleman said, pointing out that to create a definitive and powerful difference, the balance between online and offline work needs to be used as different ways but are equally important to solving the problem. 

“The online stuff is helpful for spreading the mean [like Occupy Wall Street] and building a strong base,” she said. “But after, the online stuff is less important.”

Coleman said direct action can help with more policy-oriented intervention—some of which can happen online or offline. She stressed the importance of the complementary processes and said if you do not have one without the other, it can put the cause in a weaker position.

Coleman said when she released the first version of her book in 2014, she received criticism for not condemning Anonymous.

“It makes people uncomfortable because there is supposedly a lack of accountability,” she said. “But the main problem may not be anonymity, but something else.”

She gave one of her favorite examples of how Anonymous could have intervened to create social change was when a voting machine was decommissioned in the United States because it was found to have been compromised by security vulnerabilities.

“The computer scientists and policy advocates who were trying to get the machine decommissioned spent 10 years doing this—whereas if Anonymous had hacked the voting machine, especially in the weeks before election, that would have quickened the process significantly.” 

Coleman said some people think Anonymous hurts the cause but said they do not see the benefits of the group.

“I don’t think it hurts the cause, I think it can help the cause. But it’s not going to do it alone.”

To her, the theme of citizens is represented in a lot of her work. 

“Citizens need to be made. Even though we are granted rights as a member of society, that doesn’t make you a citizen,” Coleman said. “[We need to] fight for those rights and those who don’t have rights.”

Coleman said hackers are a good population to look at because they are a very privileged group, and she said that is what makes them interesting. 

“Why are a small group of hackers using their privilege for the social good? That needs to be explained.”

Coleman said that a society needs to think about the processes that people fight for their rights and examine why certain rights that exist on paper do not exist in practice. 

“You have to have constant vigilance to ensure those rights are not under threat.” 

Coleman will share her experience writing the book and learning about Anonymous on Nov. 8 at noon at the Benito Juárez Community Academy, South Laflin Street and West Cermak Road. A book signing will follow.