Arts in Action initiative to expand

After listening to several community conversations about racism in DeKalb County, the DeKalb County History Center and Ellwood House Museum took a closer look in their collections to see if there were any stories connected to the Black and Latino experiences in DeKalb County.

Staff found unsettling information. There were examples of restrictive housing in neighborhoods along with restrictive cemeteries, ultimately keeping races separated not only during life but also in death. Newspapers from the 1920s revealed Ku Klux Klan rallies of 15,000 people, while in the 1970s newspapers reported on migrant housing where Latino workers lived with infestations of insects and rats. There also were stories of inspirational hope and perseverance. For months the organizations struggled with how to turn the conversation into action.

A committee was formed, and discussions began. In March of 2021, as part of a Healing Illinois grant, the online exhibit “Arts in Action”was launched. Using an artistic perspective provided an opportunity to combinethe complex local history with a medium that invited further discussion and analysis.

Based on the positive feedback from the online exhibit, the History Center and Ellwood House Museum secured three additional grants to expand the project.

Illinois Humanities is funding a website that will provide a central location where our community can see itself, become curators of their stories, and offer an opportunity to interact with and grow the content. This grant also includes support for an in-person exhibit and programming during the spring. Additionally, four other museums in DeKalb County – Kishwaukee Valley Heritage Society, Kirkland Historical Society, Hinckley Historical Society and Sandwich Historical Society – are beginning to review their collections and work with the community to expand the local history narrative to include people of color.

The DeKalb County Community Foundation awarded the History Center and Ellwood House a grant that will be used to develop curriculum and lesson plans that could be used by classroom students and stay-at-home learners to hear and understand the untold stories of Black and Latino history in our county.

”The Community Foundation believes in highlighting and elevating the importance of people’s stories related to race and racial injustice,” Teri Spartz, community engagement director, said in a news release. ”We are proud to support this innovative and collaborative approach to better understanding the significance of race relations and local history in DeKalb County. The project brings a needed awareness to a diverse perspective on DeKalb County history.”

The Mental Health Board through Community Investment Funding also recently approved a proposal for a project manager and an app that would connect the stories of people of color to physical places in DeKalb County.

“The DeKalb County Community Mental Health Board is excited to fund the Arts in Action project,”Deanna Cada, executive director, said in the release.“ This project does important work to bring to light to the diverse stories of DeKalb County and takes strides to build a sense of belonging for all residents of our community.”

With this project, the History Center and Ellwood House are looking forward to greater collaborations, building trust from community members of all races, and an increased sense of belonging for everyone who lives in our community.

If you have stories to share or would like more information, contact Michelle Donahoe at or Brian Reis at To visit the current Art in Action website, go to