‘Serving communities always comes down to location:’ A conversation with Chicago artist and activist Tonika Johnson

Profile: Tonika Johnson, artist and activist

Why do you live where you live – and why is your nonprofit located where it is? These are questions that artist and community advocate Tonika Johnson, IFF’s keynote speaker at a recent MacArthur Foundation-sponsored event for Chicago arts and culture organizations, challenged nonprofit leaders to ask themselves.

Johnson’s eye-opening Folded Map Project juxtaposes photographs of Chicago homes on different sides of the highly segregated city (e.g., the 2800 block of North and South Ashland) and facilitates conversations between “map twins” – the homes’ residents. Johnson is also a co-founder of Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.), which brings together members of her community to strengthen Englewood’s collective voice and build relationships with local government officials, businesses, and other organizations.

Johnson’s work has been exhibited at Rootwork Gallery, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Harold Washington Library Center, and Loyola University’s Museum of Art. She was one of Chicago Magazine’s 2017 Chicagoans of the Year for her photographs showcasing Englewood’s often-overlooked beauty and resilience. Johnson has a BA in photography and journalism from Columbia College Chicago and an MBA from National-Louis University.

Following Johnson’s electric keynote, IFF sat down with her to learn more about the origins of the Folded Map Project, how it applies to nonprofits as well as individuals, her advice for organizations that teach the arts to children of color, and more.

IFF: When did you first start noticing the extreme segregation in Chicago?

Johnson: My earliest observations began when I was a freshman in high school, living in Englewood and having to get to the bus stop by 5:45 AM every morning to commute to my new high school on Chicago’s far North side, Lane Tech. I experienced drastic environmental changes in the space of that two-hour commute. Englewood had a lot of businesses that were fast food restaurants, liquor stores, beauty supply stores, and storefront churches. Once I reached the North side, there were tree-lined streets with flowers, boutique stores, and a lot of cafes – the kinds of places that just didn’t exist in my neighborhood.

That was also my first time going to the North side and recognizing that street names like Paulina, Wolcott, Western, and Ashland were the same in my neighborhood but looked completely different. Seeing that every day stuck with me. Plus, I had a whole new group of friends who were from all over Chicago. We really got to know each other’s neighborhoods through our friendships. I found that helpful – I had never heard of Humboldt Park or Wicker Park before my freshman year of high school. I did not know there was a large immigrant community on the far North side until I got to Lane Tech. And all of these things I was made aware of as a high schooler were pretty much the seeds of the Folded Map Project.

IFF: What about your experiences in adulthood – how did those build on your high school impressions and catalyze the Folded Map Project?

Johnson: When I became a new homeowner in Englewood in my twenties, I quickly realized how fragmented the neighborhood is – it’s divided into multiple wards, with multiple aldermen [local government representatives]. That’s how I met my lead co-founder of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, or R.A.G.E., Asiaha Butler. She had the idea of starting R.A.G.E. to help concerned residents who were all struggling to get the same information and stay up to date.

After seven years of doing that community work and attending those meetings, I was reminded of my childhood observations. A lot of the issues we were struggling to resolve – crime, school closings, business closings – were related to what I’d observed back then. I started to understand the history of Chicago’s disinvestment in specific neighborhoods and how it relates to my own family’s story. And I saw that it was all resulting from Chicago’s history of segregation and the racist policies that were instituted decades ago.

Then came the presidential election campaign of 2016, when the entire city of Chicago started getting the negative attention that I was accustomed to just Englewood experiencing. I decided things had gone too far. I wanted to do something that would help people see how systemic Chicago’s segregation is – literally see it – in a new way.

That led me to pursue a fellowship with City Bureau to start working on what would become the Folded Map Project. At first, I just wanted to get the images. From there, it evolved into residents meeting each other and, in many cases, becoming friends and allies.

IFF: You’ve heard a lot of Chicagoans describe how they came to live in certain neighborhoods. Thinking back, what themes stand out?

Johnson: We often look at reports on segregation and don’t feel like it’s a reflection of our individual decisions. But it really is. When you explore why you live where you live, you can start connecting your own personal criteria for selecting a neighborhood with the cycle of segregation.

When you explore why you live where you live, you can start connecting your own personal criteria for selecting a neighborhood with the cycle of segregation.”

At the same time, at a larger scale, it’s a conversation that helps us understand how the city’s investment in certain neighborhoods – and disinvestment in others – directly influences those personal decisions we make. A lot of residents I’ve spoken to have an a-ha moment. For North siders, it’s often something like Oh, wow, I really was influenced to move into a certain neighborhood. For South siders, it might be You’re right! I really couldn’t live in a certain neighborhood even if I wanted to. That helps residents remove the responsibility of feeling like they willingly contribute to segregation. It refocuses the blame – for lack of better word – on our elected officials. Because when people who want diverse communities don’t have neighborhoods that offer diversity at an affordable cost, it becomes a systemic inequity.

That means two things. First, as a result of our city failing to remove barriers to integration, we must take on the responsibility of getting to know people from other neighborhoods, people with different lived experiences. And second, we must let our elected officials know that many of us want Chicago to be more reflective of the diversity that exists. It’s no longer about being satisfied that the city is investing in your neighborhood. It’s about demanding that the city invest in all neighborhoods fairly, regardless of where you personally live. It’s about delivering resources equitably.

IFF: What was it like for North and South siders to hear each other’s views on living where they do?

Johnson: I think Folded Map created a space where Chicago residents who wouldn’t otherwise get to know each other saw each other’s points of view. A lot of the people from the North were honest and vulnerable enough in their answers to say, “I was told to not visit the South side. And since I didn’t know anyone who could tell me where to go, I just didn’t. But I do want to help – I just don’t know how.”

The South siders I’ve spoken with often feel validated hearing North siders say that. And I’m honored and proud to have created a project that demonstrates how many people across Chicago want to solve this.

IFF: What do you think nonprofits serving Chicago can learn from the Folded Map Project?

Johnson: I think nonprofits can use it as a starting point for reflecting on how actual infrastructure investment has been disproportionately done on the North side. A lot of nonprofits – especially those established decades ago – just don’t think about the importance of office space and where that space is located.

We’re at a point, though, where they really should be thinking about it. The South and West sides of Chicago don’t have infrastructure for a variety of programming that nonprofits want to deliver. And that perpetuates segregation, because people who live in those communities have to travel – sometimes a long way – to access nonprofits’ programs. Plus, nonprofits that want to offer programming in certain neighborhoods are beginning to realize how difficult it is to do so because there aren’t always buildings that can accommodate their vision.

Don’t get me wrong: South and West side neighborhoods have many assets. But when it comes to new development, there are limitations. A lot of neighborhoods are utilizing their public assets, like libraries and parks. That’s great, but to redirect investment we have to start looking at where nonprofits choose to expand, especially since a lot of school closings have happened in neighborhoods of disinvestment. In Englewood alone, a total of 16 schools have closed. Those provided infrastructure for all kinds of programming, including after-school programs – infrastructure that’s now gone.

I think it’s a great time for nonprofits to do more than just recognize the problem. They would serve themselves and the city well by figuring out a way to be visionary and fill this growing gap, whether it’s through satellite sites, a shared space for multiple nonprofits, or something else. Development needs to occur, because serving communities always comes down to location.

IFF: Many of IFF’s clients run early childhood education programs. As a teaching artist and someone for whom arts education had a huge impact, could you share your views on best practices for arts educators?

Johnson: In my experience, a lot of arts educators make a troubling assumption. They assume that youth of color want to create art in response to inequitable issues going on in their communities. Based on that assumption, organizations build a curriculum around an issue like crime.

The best way to explore your imagination is to be allowed to create freely.”

But dictating a topic or theme does a disservice to young creatives. It’s a form of controlling young people’s artistic imaginations. As a young artist, you want to improve in your craft. You want to be exposed to new forms of artistic expression – not told what subject to address so that an organization can “prove” it’s been successful in a certain area of social justice. The best way to explore your imagination is to be allowed to create freely. The larger systemic issues will come through once young artists have had the opportunity to reflect on their lives.

Thinking back on how I was introduced to photography, I learned that I had a passion for street photography because I was allowed to do so. I cannot imagine what it would have been like if my teacher had told me to think about some issue and create work in response to it. I would have been like, “What? My life isn’t that deep – why are you assuming that’s my experience?” And for youth whose lives do involve traumatic issues, they might not want to use art to address that. They might want to use art as a place of peace and escape.

You shouldn’t tell an artist to create something that you want to see. It’s just not helpful.

IFF: Your love of street photography led you to study photojournalism. Yet you didn’t end up going down that career path. Why not?

Johnson: I knew I loved street photography and portraiture. But I started paying attention to how documentary photography and photojournalism contribute to the perpetuation of specific, negative stereotypes. They may illuminate social justice issues, but they also recreate damaging imagery in the process. And to be in Chicago studying photojournalism at that time [in the late 1990s], I knew full well that if I was going to pursue it as a career I was going to have to photograph my own neighborhood in a damage-centered way to tell stories about crime. Because those were the stories you covered.

I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to document my community as I saw it, which was as art. Since I did not have a clear path for how my photography could be viewed as art – street photography wasn’t considered art the same way that abstract photography was – I resorted to it being a hobby. And I chose not to be an active freelance photojournalist. I used my art to do a lot of community-based photography jobs, which is how I started doing photo documentation for R.A.G.E. I wanted to document my community’s stories and do it at a professional, high-quality level.

IFF: What’s next for you?

Johnson: I’m starting a new project called Belonging, as well as continuing to build on the Folded Map project. Belonging is about teenagers of color in Chicago, who identify places in our city where they feel they don’t belong. I’m specifically interested in featuring boys of color. I want to provide them with a platform because there’s a one-dimensional perception of young males of color in Chicago. A lot of people assume the majority of them are crime-involved and gang-involved. That is not the case. However, young males of color feel people view them that way. I want them to be able to talk about how they first came to realize that.

Meanwhile, I’m working on the next iteration of the Folded Map Project, which will involve photographic comparisons between the Northwest and West sides, as well as engaging residents from those neighborhoods and having them meet each other.

I’m also excited about my partnership with Chicago Public Schools to create a curriculum around Folded Map for ninth grade world studies students. It’s important to me for Folded Map to be accessible to the larger community beyond an exhibit – particularly to students who are now the age I was when I first started noticing segregation and its effects.

Finally, there’s the website that’s being created for Folded Map. This issue is national, so I would love for Folded Map to be a tool for anyone to explore their own geography as it relates to race, segregation, and equity. You can fill out the contact form on my website to get updates or express your interest in getting involved. I’m envisioning working with the people who have filled out that form to develop some downloadable activities to get to know another neighborhood and share responses as part of a larger movement.

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