Standing before a diverse sea of faces from Rogers Park, Insight Arts executive director Craig Harshaw uses the set-up time between acts in the group’s “Night of Insight” event for a little consciousness-raising.

“We have to change our way of thinking,” he tells the audience. As he describes the “genocidal development in our neighborhood” and outlines the organization’s “campaigns for change,” Harshaw’s passion is obvious, but his delivery of statistics and facts is never dogmatic.

Soon he turns the audience’s attention back to the stage. A troupe of neighborhood teenagers calling themselves 15 Stories High performs four vignettes based on real-life stories from the community. Black spoken-word performer Keith M. Kelley presents an ode to creditors and ruminations on racism, violence, and children being tried as adults. The pan-Asian spoken-word group I Was Born With Two Tongues finishes the night with poems that pay homage to parents, a response to a racist and misogynist rap song about Asian women, and an angry, enthralling work entitled “Excuse Me America.”

Launched in March, Nights of Insight are held on the third Saturday of every month to give Rogers Park residents an affordable introduction to contemporary art as well as provide a showcase of the area’s ethnic variety. Fostering artistic development was one of the goals of Insight Arts when it was founded in 1991 by a coalition of local artists, community activists, and educators, including Harshaw, who hoped to develop and promote performance as an expression of community issues. Today the organization offers free arts education to young people and developmentally disabled adults, provides administrative support to a wide range of resident ensembles (from hip-hop groups to an all-female drum corps), and sponsors various arts publications and cultural events. At the same time members work on social justice issues, such as fighting the “prison industrial complex,” the criminalization of youth, and the juvenile death penalty in the United States.

In helping to found Insight Arts, Harshaw says he was deeply influenced by a book by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian literacy advocate who believed “you have to teach people to read the world in order to read the word.” Harshaw sees empowerment as the ultimate goal of artistic expression. “An artist has the choice to relate to whatever community he or she wishes to,” he says. Events like the Nights of Insight use art to examine complexities and conflict, Harshaw says, instead of presenting diversity “in a Benetton way.”

The Nights of Insight also provide audiences with a comfortable space to check out a new art form or a different viewpoint, says Karen G. Williams, Insight Arts’ artistic director. She joined the group as a volunteer in 1995 after moving to Chicago from Omaha to attend the School of the Art Institute. After graduation in 1997 she discovered she wanted to use art as a tool in education and activism. “It just began to blur for me,” she says. “It’s realizing that there’s much more than art being entertaining.”

It’s a philosophy that Harshaw has been advancing for more than a decade of involvement in Rogers Park. He first came to the city from his native Michigan in 1989 for an internship with the community’s Wisdom Bridge Theatre. “It was really this neighborhood that attracted me to stay,” he says. “I really hadn’t expected anything like this neighborhood. Really, really different people know each other, and it’s part of their life to check on each other and in a way to take care of each other.”

Harshaw and Williams always keep the community’s diversity in mind when planning their programs, hoping that the different messages will open the door for some cross-cultural dialogue and activism. Discussing Insight Arts’ activities during intermissions often inspires people to do more than “cry over the new Starbucks coming in,” Harshaw says. “Almost every event that we do, someone gets hooked.”

Insight Arts and Women in the Director’s Chair are cosponsoring a special Night of Insight on Saturday, July 15, at 7 PM. The program includes the work of performance artist Lara Oppenheimer and videos by Alexandra Yabrough, Eve Sandler, and JoDee Samuelson. It’s at Women in the Director’s Chair, 941 W. Lawrence (fifth floor). Tickets are $5. Call 773-973-1521 or 773-907-0610 for details.

–Jenn Goddu

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.