Over the past 20 years, across Chicago neighborhoods, Jim has been quietly leading an underground educational network called Stockyard Institute. Born and raised deep in the city, trained from self-education as an artist and from community education as an Eagle Scout, Jim took up residence in an abandoned school in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in 1995, where he began to work with community youth. In the early days, Jim invited youth to talk openly about the violence that marked their everyday lives– an unheard of practice in city pedagogy, which has always emphasized teaching children to look away from difficult knowledge and refrain from formally expressing emotionally-charged, authentic lived experiences– and invited them to express the needs that sprung from the everyday neighborhood through making collaborative sculpture. Together, they created the “gang-proof suit,” a symbol of the freedom youth yearned for, to walk without fear of being overtaken in the streets, to be liberated from the systems of schools and culture that made them feel locked in place with their fates sealed. From this initial gesture, Jim established Stockyard Institute as a vector space, bringing resources, knowledge, skill-building, and opportunities together from various parts of the city underground to create a network of civic love only seen at the street level, under the radar, and often against the rules of massive Chicago city institutions that direct from the top. Who gets to say what’s worth doing, being, or becoming? For whose benefit are they saying this? What happens when the neighborhood leads its own education? What happens when the youth are invited to make the tools they need to be liberated from cycles of oppression?
Over the past 20 years in Chicago, Jim has been a shadow helper of unparalleled impact, who is almost never seen in person except inside communities, and never seems to credit himself for his enormous efforts by name, only saying work is done by “Stockyard Institute.” When I asked him why he always says this name, or says that work is done, “by us,” he replied (and I must paraphrase), “I speak in collective terms because all of this work is equally shared. Youth risk something when we create a radio station and they speak their voices into the neighborhood, sharing their true stories. It empowers them, and it is a big deal to stake a claim to one’s own life experiences. All of our contributions are equally important.” Currently, at the age many people are considering retirement or have retired, Jim is quietly beginning a new project, building a new peace center inside the converted classroom of an operating public school in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, which ranks among the city’s neighborhoods most affected by violent crimes. These examples only reflect a tiny fraction of the number of works for goodness Jim has engineered over his lifetime, without monetary budget to speak of, but with strong networks of relationships and bonds between individuals committed to uplifting fellow Chicago residents, who scrap together what is needed from what is around in the urban plenty. This work is directly disobedient to the systems of education that say there is official knowledge that is most important, that schools have it, that all people must buy into it in order to ever have any chance of having “the American dream.” On the contrary, Jim has accumulated a life’s work of examples of what transformations are possible when the streets are not seen as a place of deficit but potential, when urban children are not seen as deficient people who need to be molded into proper citizens, but powerful people with vision, force, community spirit, civic pride, and the brightest possible future.
Where schools become pipelines to prisons, in a zero-tolerance society where students must accept a binary choice of either (1) blindly and uncritically complying with orders (which often reproduce oppression and disenfranchise kids of color, queer youth, immigrant youth, homeless youth, and others in the urban majority), (2) or dropping out of school and being cast out of social options, Jim Duignan is proposing that we have to look for a third option, and a fourth, and a fifth, and 3 million more: by creating meaningful, anti-institutional education that centers around the lives of urban youth, rebuilt from scratch in collaboration each time, mindfully embracing all of the complications of reality that mark survival tactics, he has transformed the lives of countless individual urban youth, like himself, and has been central to the creation of a network of resource sharing in the underground of civically-engaged creativity, ingenuity, and care in Chicago. This work is slow, patient, underground, durational, and built in bonds of keeping one’s word over decades.
-Rachel L. S. Harper
Nomination for the MIT Disobedience Award 2017
Contact Jim Duignan at email@example.com