Our Staff


Elgin Bokari Smith

Elgin is an artist and illustrator, DJ, and youth development practitioner. Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, Elgin discovered a passion for art in elementary school while drawing his favorite cartoon characters on his homework. With encouragement from his sixth grade teacher, Elgin moved on to comic books and public murals. He then attended Central Visual and Performing Arts High School where he studied visual arts, ceramics, and piano. In 2009, Elgin received a BFA in Graphic Illustration and Sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Cicago. Elgin has  worked with Theaster Gates, Changing Worlds, Columbia College, Kuumba Lynx, and Northwestern University School of Law, was a Whitney Biennial artist-in-residence, is the cofounder of Pocket Con, and is the President of Elephant Rebellion.


Destine Phillips

Coming Soon


Ryan Keesling

As founder of Free Write Arts & Literacy, Ryan has been working in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (CCJTDC) and in the community with criminalized youth and young adults for two decades. He has developed highly effective, trauma-informed methodologies for engaging incarcerated youth in arts and literacy programming. Ryan designs creative spaces with his students while utilizing learning strategies that attend to their needs, validate their aesthetics and interests, and are grounded in real-world practices that the students can plug into when they return to the community. Though Ryan has positively impacted the lives of thousands of young people in Chicago, he always keeps his head down and heart focussed on the growth of his students. 

By amplifying the voices of incarcerated youth through publishing, exhibition, and multidisciplinary means of contributing to the public discourse around issues of youth incarceration, Ryan has helped juvenile justice stakeholders, gatekeepers, and the general public connect to young people’s stories that contain many solutions to the problems of racism and inequity. Ryan works daily to build young peoples’ capacity to directly impact the national conversation about the Prison Industrial Complex, police, education, transformative justice, divestment from systems of violence and investment in community-based solutions. When he is not directly working to expand opportunities for youth, he leverages his privilege and experience by engaging the public and consults on broader initiatives that seek to address the conditions that create youth jails.

Ryan is also an accomplished DJ, studio engineer, and live sound technician. He has toured the world in those capacities and continues to release music and DJ under his alias, Ryan Searchl1te.


Alyssa Martinez

Alyssa arrived as an arts administrator through her passion for helping people and her love of creating informative spreadsheets. She does a variety of production, development, and project management work for music and nonprofit organizations, and produces community and cultural events including her own mutual aid initiatives, and meetups that center on and for mothers of color in the arts. From 2015-2019 she ran a crowdsourced microgrant program called the Chicago Community Grant Program which awarded over $20K of small yet high-impact grants to over two dozen grassroots initiatives all over Chicago.

In addition to her administrative work, Alyssa is a poet, visual artist and social practice artist releasing work under the name A.Martinez. She received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Writing Program in 2009 and has gone on to be published in LVNG Magazine, translated in Contratiempo Magazine, poiesis, and she will self-release a handbound chapbook of poetry and drawings, Turn, in 2021. Her work explores identity, memory, spirituality, and the body. A.Martinez is a proud recipient of the 2019 3Arts Make a Wave Award.
Alyssa is a proud mother of an awesome kid. You can find out more about her work and projects at alyssahydemartinez.com.

Angel Pantoja

Angel is a California native, raised in Chicago’s Gage Park Neighborhood. Angel participated in Free Write Arts & Literacy programs, and obtained his high school diploma within the Illinois Youth Center St. Charles. Angel has since pursued his education through nontraditional means, attending Shimer College as a student in their Great Books program. As an intern at Young Chicago Authors in 2015, Angel shadowed noteworthy teaching artists, grew as a spoken-word artist, learned to develop unique curricula, and facilitated creative writing workshops. As a poet, Angel applies his voice as a champion against the punitive justice system, advocating for the use of restorative justice. Angel’s poetry has been published in The BreakBeat Poets (Haymarket Books/New School Poetics), Big Dreams I Am Chasing (Free Write Arts & Literacy Anthology), and Words Unlocked (Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings [CEEAS]). He has been awarded the Louder Than A Bomb Spirit of the Slam award, the John Vietnam Nguyen Warrior Healer Award, and second place in the CEEAS Words Unlocked Poetry Competition. Through his work he intends to serve as a mentor for youth and to empower targeted and victimized communities by means of education. He is currently pursuing his studies at St. John’s College participating in their Great Books program, and working on writing a children’s book as a Free Write Truth and Justice Fellow.



Denzel Burke

Coming Soon



Arnold Aprill

Mr. Aprill comes from a background in professional theater as an award-winning director, producer and playwright. He founded the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE) in 1993 and the Radical Compliance Arts and Learning Laboratory in 2013. He has taught at the University of Chicago, National Louis University, the University of Mississippi, Columbia College, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is one of the co-authors of Renaissance in the Classroom: Arts Integration and Meaningful Learning, and is a contributor to the Routledge International Handbook of Creative Learning. He consults nationally and internationally on the role of the arts in teaching and learning, on innovative approaches to program evaluation, and on manageable and useful approaches to assessing arts learning. He has been recognized for exceptional leadership by the Arts Schools Network, by the Chicago Community Trust and by the Leadership for a Changing World initiative, supported by the Ford Foundation. Mr. Aprill worked as a senior specialist in arts learning for the University of Tasmania, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Sydney through the Fulbright Scholars program.


Damon Williams

Damon is an organizer, writer, rapper, poet, comedian, and educator from the south side of Chicago, and the Co-Host and Co-Executive Producer of AirGo. He is the co-founder of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, a grassroots alliance of artists, journalists, and activists harnessing creative capital and cultural production to deconstruct injustice in America and worldwide. The Collective operates the Breathing Room, a Black-led liberation space for arts, organizing, and healing on Chicago’s South Side.

Williams started acting at a young age in many commercials and movies, including an ad for the Jordan Brand starring and directed by Spike Lee, and the feature-length film RollBounce.  He attended Grinnell College, where he found his voice as a performer of spoken word poetry and as the creator and co-host of KDIC 88.5’s weekly hip-hop radio show The BoomBox, which was accompanied by an online talk show of the same name.  He graduated in 2014 with degrees in Economics and Sociology. Williams has led community outreach and seminars aimed at youth for over ten years, encouraging financial literacy and combating growing economic inequality in urban America.


Mariela Villanueva

Coming Soon


Cortez Williams




Walter McDavid

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Our Board of Directors


Tshaka Barrows is a founding member of the Burns Institute (BI). As Deputy Director he works closely with the Executive Director and Senior Management to advance the Burns Institute’s mission to protect and improve the lives of youth of color and poor youth. His work involves strategic planning, organizational development, financial oversight, project development and managing relationships with funders, partners, community leaders and system decision makers.

Tshaka joined the Burns Institute in 2001 as Regional Manager for the Community Justice Network for Youth (CJNY) after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. Previously, he worked to build the CJNY from 35 active member organizations in 2001 to over 200 nationwide today! He developed several curricula including a comprehensive juvenile justice history curriculum, as well as racial and ethnic disparity taskforces in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago and New Orleans. He is proud to have worked with and supported so many community leaders committed to ‘Stopping the Rail to Jail’. Tshaka can be reached at tbarrows@burnsinstitute.org.


A.D. Sean Lewis is a Chicago-based young professional collaborating to create a more just world. Professionally, Lewis works for the City of Chicago’s Office of Inspector General Audit and Program Review section as a performance analyst. Lewis primarily audits and researches the police department, the fire department, and the emergency communications center. Lewis has researched and assessed the risk of the City’s police oversight structure and related processes and also helped to develop the audit section’s method of prioritizing and choosing audit projects.
Outside of the 9-5 grind, Lewis recently co-founded the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a revolving and sustainable bond fund that bonds pre-trial detainees out of Cook County Jail, the largest jail in the United States. Lewis also co-founded Love and Protect, an organization that supports those who identify as women and gender non-conforming persons of color who are criminalized or harmed by state and interpersonal violence through direct service as well as advocacy work. Lewis writes to incarcerated trans and queer people and volunteers with young people, including providing free childcare to community organizations through the Chicago Childcare Collective and mentoring college-bound students through the Posse Foundation.
In the summer of 2015, Lewis successfully petitioned the City of Chicago to change its trans-exclusionary healthcare policy, resulting in Chicago providing healthcare coverage to all employees and dependents for the City and its sister agencies.
Outside of all of that, Lewis is an avid power lifter, runner, athlete, and vegan cook.


Asif Wilson Ph.D. currently serves as Associate Dean of Instruction at Harold Washington College in Chicago, Illinois. He has over 10 years of experience teaching, designing curriculum, and conducting education research—from elementary school through post-secondary contexts. Dr. Wilson’s educational interests include popular education, teacher and pre-service teacher education, justice-centered pedagogies, trauma and healing, and education history. He has written a number of published articles, book chapters, and curriculum for in and out-of-school settings. awilson243@ccc.edu