The word "and" comes after everything Jane M. Saks does. A cultural alchemist, arts advocate, creative collaborator and producer, educator, published writer and poet, Saks has now introduced her newest work, Project&.
"Social justice is the rent you pay for the space you take up on earth," Saks said in quoting her great grandmother, who instilled that strong belief through the family tree. "You are given responsibility for just being here on this earth. You decide what kind of participant you are going to be, how you are going to change things for the better. But you have to be part of it. You must participate. My parents reinforced that throughout my life as well."
Saks grew up in Chicago's various neighborhoods and Evanston in a politically active, socially engaged and civically committed family. Her mother owned the Esther Saks Gallery and her father ran the neighborhood, family-owned chain Saxxon Paint and Hardware. Both her parents used their businesses to support social issues and community challenges. Their involvement in the arts, politics and social-justice issues, Saks said, set the tone for her and her three sisters.
Saks fondly remembered her family gathering around the TV to watch the Watergate hearings. It was unusual to have TV time in their home during the summer and 10-year-old Saks was intrigued by the events. As a result, she wrote a carefully crafted letter to then-U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan in D.C. asking to shadow her for a few days.
"I just wanted to come down and learn from her about social justice in this broad sense," said Saks. She received what she described as a fabulous letter back. The letter was about commitment to the here and now and how Jordan wanted to give to the present and the future as opposed to giving back like others talked about. It was an invitation for Saks to walk alongside her and to commit to social change. "Just that idea that I was being asked to walk with her, that there wasn't anyone walking ahead of or behind anyone else, it stuck with me. It was so powerful."
A self-described insomniac with a serious case of curiosity, Saks has challenged issues of gender, sexuality, human rights, race and power within the arts and culture, politics and civil rights, academia and philanthropy worlds.
"I came out at a time when people were fighting to survive with no assistance from the larger society," said Saks, who identifies as a queer woman. "Yes, we've come a long way in many regards, undoubtedly, and in significant ways and for many people in the LGBT communities, but not for everyone and not equally. The LGBT community is unique in so many regards. It's off the chainand that's what I loveand it's unique because every population is represented. We are the most diverse community. Therefore, we also embody and have to address all the challenges the entire society has to face."
Among the number of boards she serves on, awards she has earned and collaborators she has worked with, Saks is a Chicago LGBT Hall of Famer, a member of the Mayor's Cultural Advisory Council for the City of Chicago and the producer, co-producer, creative advisor and series producer on many original creative works in various media and art forms.
In 2005, Saks was appointed the founding executive director of the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College, where she served as executive director until January 2014. The program, the first of its kind, offered an innovative approach to merging arts and cultural production with critical theory, research and education. At the core, the fellowship intersected gender, creativity and community.
Now the decades of Saks' work has built up to become Project&. The project went public in January and went live online this month. Excited about the work and recent launch, Saks said it is incredible to be at this dynamic moment of the work, adding the idea's time has come and it is a necessary mission.
"Project&'s mission is focused on cultural production with social impact," said Saks, Project&'s founding president and artistic director. "I believe the impact begins at the very startat the first points of creation, collaboration. How we do our work, who we do it with, how we learn and challenge and grow through the creative process has social impactas well as the resulting cultural production. It's about the true value of diversity in every regard, in every direction, level and deeply at every point."
Project& focuses its work in three program areas: fellowships, global dialogues and innovative studios. The experimental and entrepreneurial are embraced and address topics and issues related to LGBT equality, human rights, race/gender, economics and social equity, participation, immigration and response to violence. Saks explained the topics often overlap and influence each other.
"We feel that our mission and vision are vital," said Saks about launching Project&. "This is a decisive moment in our country and globally. I believe that new deeply engaged models of participation are needed now more than ever. Art has the ability to create those opportunities and challenge us to move further and risk more and see differently. Art and culture have the unique ability to make good on the democratic promise. The democratic process promises one thing and one thing only: equitable participation. It can be one of the most radical ways to engage in democracy. If you ask me, we need that kind of participation more than ever."
Thus far, the Project& team has brought Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Lynsey Addario to Chicago for a public program with the Council on Global Affairs in February and in April hosted former South African Justice Albie Sachs who wrote the marriage equality constitutional decision for the South Africa. Project& showed the first screening outside South Africa of the film about his life. Coming up, the team has a commissioned premiere in October in New York City with MacArthur Fellow and musician Claire Chase.
"I've been incubating this model of cultural production with social impact for some years and seen success," said Saks. "We need this kind of risk-taking and brave collaboration to deal with the challenges the world faces and to address the deeply human questions we all ask ourselves personally and publicly.
"Art can encourage our greatest human capacity. It's a strong tool for lasting social change. That's why I believe creating art is a social political act in and of itself, because it can create necessary dialogues and probes for deep human response and engagement. Historically, it's been at the center of all social and human struggles. Art is often most dangerous and risky because it does not imitate, simulate or recreate experiences, but is the actual experience. It is dangerous, in the best ways."
For more information on Saks and Project&, visit www.projectand.org .