Our Staff

FOUNDER & EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

RYAN KEESLING

Ryan is an artist and educator with Masters degree in Education from Northwestern University, and is the founder of Free Write. Since 2000, Ryan has been designing and implementing literacy and arts programming for youth in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. He serves on Cook County’s Justice Advisory Council, the Chicago Community Trust’s Arts Infusion Steering Committee, and is currently collaborating with Chicago Public Schools to design a digital arts career academy for youth leaving detention. In addition to being a leader in the field of literacy and arts education for court-involved youth, Ryan is also an accomplished musician and DJ and has toured the world in that capacity.

PROGRAM DIRECTOR

ROGER BONAIR-AGARD

Roger is a native of Trinidad & Tobago, a Cave Canem fellow, co-founder of NYC’s louderARTS Project and author of 3 collections of poems; tarnish & masquerade (Cypher Books, 2006), GULLY (Cypher Books/Peepal Tree Press 2010) & Bury My Clothes (Haymarket Books, 2013) which won the Society of Midland Authors award for Poetry & was long-listed for the National Book Award. A Brooklynite now living in Chicago. Roger teaches Creative Writing with Free Write Jail Arts & Literacy Program at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. He is Nina’s father.

PROGRAM DIRECTOR

ELGIN BOKARI SMITH

Elgin is a visual arts teacher and youth development worker. 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. Elgin began work as an artist assistant for Theaster Gates, Chicago ceramic artist and Whitney Bi-Annual artist-in-residence. In addition to his work with Free Write, Elgin teaches visual arts for Changing Worlds and Columbia College.

ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR

MATHILDA DE DIOS

Mathilda is a youth advocate, community worker, sister, daughter and mother. Mathilda served as a researcher and co-editor of the Future 500: A directory of youth organizing and activism in the United States, edited the BUILD Voices Anthology (2008) and is a contributing author to Filipino American psychology: A Collection of personal narratives (ed. Nadal, 2010). Mathilda co-created the Know Your Rights Curriculum (2013) with the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law. Mathilda completed the certification programs Advancing Youth Development(AYD) and the Youth Development Practitioner and Certification Program Levels 1 and 2, has a Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and Urban Studies from Colorado College and a Masters of Education in Educational Psychology from University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a co-founder of Ugnayan ng mga Anak Ng Bayan (NYC) and a member of the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce, Youth Struggling for Survival (YSS), and serves as co-chair of the Youth and Family Engagement Committee of the Juvenile Justice Leadership Council of Illinois. Mathilda is committed to building a multicultural arts movement for social justice. In 2013, Mathilda joined Free Write as the Associate Director. She leads creative writing and arts workshops, organizes student work for publication, builds and strengthens community partnerships, and ensures the integrity of Free Write’s daily operations.

ARTS AND LEARNING CONSULTANT

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.

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Our Board of Directors

TSHAKA BARROWS

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.

SUZANNE CONNOR

Suzanne Connor is the retired Sr. Program Officer for Arts & Culture at the Chicago Community Trust where she worked for nine years. She managed a grant portfolio up to $5 million annually in furtherance of Trust strategies to strengthen diversity, community vitality, and improve outcomes for vulnerable populations. She was the co-founder of the Arts Infusion Initiative, designed to expose, inspire, and connect court-involved teens with arts instruction that is infused with SEL skills.

Suzanne has also worked at the Arts & Business Council of Chicago, Rebuilding Together, Edgewater Community Council, and has held elected office in Michigan. She has a BA in Sociology from St. Bonaventure University and an MA in Education from New York University. Suzy can be reached at suzychicago@gmail.com.

MARILEE K HOPKINS

Marilee K Hopkins CPA, practiced public accounting for over 30 years before her retirement in 2011. She continues in a consulting capacity for Crowe Horwath LLP where she was the partner in charge of the forensic practice. She was retained as a consultant or expert witness in numerous engagements, most prominent was determining the damages to Kuwaiti businesses from the 1990 invasion by Iraq. She is currently the Financial Advisor to the Dow Corning Qualified Settlement Facility with operations in Houston.

Ms. Hopkins holds a Not for Profit: Core Concepts certification from the AICPA and has been active as Treasurer and Board member to numerous charities over her entire career. Planned Parenthood, Young Women’s Leadership Charter School and Chicago Lights are the Chicago-based charities. She currently is serving as Chair of the Presbyterian Foundation a $1.5B organization with a Trust Company subsidiary. Ms. Hopkins has 3 adult children and 9 grandchildren who live in Park City, UT, Kansas City, KS and Wichita, KS. Marilee can be reached at marilee.hopkins@crowehorwath.com

MIKE LEONARD

Mike Leonard is a nationally recognized trial lawyer who has successfully tried to verdict a wide variety of cases in Federal and State courts across the country. He is a “go-to” trial lawyer who has represented individuals in single plaintiff actions; individuals and companies in class and collective actions; some of the nation’s and region’s largest corporations; and individuals in Federal and State criminal trials.

Mike has been recognized as a top trial lawyer and commercial and criminal litigator by the following: The National Trial Lawyers; America’s Best Attorneys; Super Lawyers; Leading Lawyers Network; American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys; and Crain’s Chicago Business.

Mike has a keen interest in the craft and science of trial practice, and he is a frequent lecturer on trial and litigation related subjects. He is an instructor in Northwestern School of Law’s prestigious trial practice program, where he has also coached some of its Mock Trial teams. Mike can be reached at mleonard@leonardmeyerllp.com

ANGEL PANTOJA

Angel Pantoja, a California native, raised in Chicago’s Gage Park Neighborhood. He obtained his high school diploma within the Illinois Youth Center St. Charles and has since pursued his education through nontraditional means. Angel was a student of Free Write Arts & Literacy, has served as an intern at Young Chicago Authors, and is shadowing noteworthy teaching artists, growing as a spoken ­word artist, and learning to develop unique curricula and facilitate workshops. As a poet, Angel applies his voice as a champion against the punitive justice system. His works are a powerful “narrative from the hood” evoking the violence he experienced growing up, stories of survival, and illustrations of a rare point of view. Angel’s poetry has been published in The BreakBeat Poets (Haymarket Books/New School Poetics), Big Dreams I’m Chasing (Free Write Jail Arts), 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.

Angel recently completed the AmeriCorps Public Ally program working as Youth Leadership Coordinator for Enlace Chicago to improve the quality of life of Little Village residents. He is a board member of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Reform Youth Council. Angel is a freelance facilitator of Know Your Rights workshops and various poetry workshops. Through his work he intends to serve as a mentor for youth and to empower targeted and victimized communities by means of education in sustainably positive lifestyles. Angel can be reached at pantoja.a8953@gmail.com.

JUDY POMERANZ

Judy Pomeranz is an art advisor who assists clients in starting, building, refining and enhancing their collections, and lectures on a wide variety of art subjects. She is also an art critic and fiction writer, whose stories, articles and reviews appear in a wide variety of periodicals and anthologies. Her first novel, Love Without Asterisks, was published by Miniver Press in 2013, and her second, Lies Beneath the Surface, is due out in 2016.

Judy serves as President of the Ralph and Evelyn Davis Family Foundation, which provides grants to organizations assisting at-risk children and youth in the Chicago area. She is a member of the Board of the Chicago Public Education Fund, of the Leader Council of Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, and of the Advisory Board of Embarc Chicago. She recently served on the boards of Gads Hill Center and Better Boys Foundation, both in Chicago, and Alexandria Neighborhood Health Services, Inc., in Virginia. She is a Governing Member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sustaining Fellow of the Art Institute of Chicago, Circle member of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and Legacy Circle member of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. She is also a member of the National Press Club and Cosmos Club of Washington, DC, and the Arts Club of Chicago.

Prior to devoting herself to art and writing, Judy worked briefly as a litigation attorney in Chicago, served as Director of GATT (WTO) Affairs in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration in Washington, and worked at the secretariat of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland.

She holds an M.A. in Writing (concentration in Fiction) from Johns Hopkins University, a JD from Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, and a B.A. from DePauw University. Judy can be reached at judypomeranz@gmail.com.

KENDRICK WASHINGTON

Kendrick Washington is a Civil Rights Attorney with the United States Department of Education in the Office for Civil Rights. He is also currently an Adjunct Professor for the Trial Advocacy Program as well as a Coach for the Bartlit Beck Trial Team at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

Prior to his current role, Kendrick served as an Assistant General Counsel for the Board of Education of the City of Chicago. He started his legal career as an Assistant Public Defender for the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2011, Kendrick also served as a Children & Family Justice Center Clinical Fellow with the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern Pritzker Law School.

Kendrick graduated from Northwestern in 2010. Prior to law school, Kendrick was a sergeant in the United States Army and a veteran of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. Kendrick can be reached at kendrickwashingtonii@gmail.com.