On a recent Thursday night in Harold Washington Library, slides of public murals flash by on a projector. About two-dozen people sit and stare at the paintings and then lean forward to jot down notes. One picture depicts struggles that Latino immigrants face in the city. Another shows a few of Chicago’s landmarks such as the Hancock Building in bright colors.
Community art isn’t new to this audience, whose lives, experiences and backgrounds are as diverse as the artistic works they’re admiring. Many, like Donna Kiser, consider themselves writers or poets.
In fact, this evening’s event — Folk Arts of Illinois — was hosted, in part, by Journal of Ordinary Thought, a communal literary publication that aims to give a voice to the everyday person, but that’s now fighting to stay afloat.
“[The journal] was held together predominantly by the writers,” said Kiser, 56, who has opened workshops in Albany Park and Near West Side. “People from all walks of life … come together where they may have never met before.”
Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA), a nonprofit started 17 years ago, published the quarterly journal as well as helped organize and hosts events. In December, however, the organization announced its plans to dissolve, which signaled the uncertainty of the journal’s future.
“We didn’t think the Alliance would go away,” said Carla Jankowski, 65, who leads a writing workshop at the Bezazian Library. “We kept hoping there would be some way we could make it reorganize itself.”
The alliance has cited financial reasons for its disbanding. According to its most recent tax returns, public funding fell more than $100,000 in fiscal year 2011— from about $221,000 in 2010 to now almost $119,000. With public funding making up roughly 75 percent of its overall revenue, the Alliance has a slightly $100,000-plus deficit as of 2011. The nonprofit had broken even financially in the two years prior.
The drop in public funding is unusual, according to Woods Bowman, professor of public service at DePaul University, noting that despite having positive net assets of about $51,000, the Alliance still decided to fold.
“They still have some degree of financial flexibility to right the ship. Maybe they decided the future prospects aren’t looking too good,” Bowman said.
As the nonprofit moves ahead with its dissolution, a few core supporters want to keep one of Chicago’s literary beacons lit.
Kiser and Jankowski are spearheading the journal’s recovery. Founded in 1991 by former University of Illinois at Chicago professor Hal Adams, the journal was designed as an outlet for community-based writing and thought. Although the future is unknown, the five writing groups still collaborate on poetry and nonfiction pieces.
They plan to continue publishing community writing, but the name they want, Journal of Ordinary Thought, remains copyrighted until the nonprofit dissolves.
Beyond the written word, the journal also opened avenues for activism. Through a newsletter, writers were told of marches, community gatherings and protests. The workshops and events, Kiser recalled, created space for people to speak up.
“They feel comfortable saying what they think and how they feel,” she said, adding that the workshops are primarily in low-income neighborhoods.
The last issue was published online in spring 2013. A factor in keeping groups together during this transient phase is the possibility of published pieces, Jankowski said. Still, she said many people in her unit have gone on to self-publish novels and books of poetry.
But besides the work produced, Jankowski said “community” is what helps distinguish the journal. Some writers, she explained, come from backgrounds of alcohol abuse and mental illness; others range from blue collar workers to people with advanced college degrees.
“We are the writers of the Journal of Ordinary Thought,” Jankowski said. “And we’re hoping to keep it going.”