The Summer Compositions project centered on providing literacy training to two public housing residents:

Jill Williams1 is a former resident of the Stateway Gardens development.  She now lives in an apartment in the Englewood neighborhood on a “housing choice voucher.”2  Fifty-six years old,  Jill grew up in a sharecropping family in the Mississippi Delta and migrated to Chicago in the late 1960s. 

Theodore Smith is a former resident of the Henry Horner Homes.  He now lives in the mixed income community developed on the site of the Horner development.  Seventy years old, Ted is a self-taught photographer who has been documenting the lives of his neighbors for more than thirty years.  He is known on the street as “Picture Man.”

The duration of the project was June through August.  Its aims were (i) to help Jill and Ted extend their abilities to decode text by engaging other literacies they possess (above all, their fluency as storytellers) and (ii) to document the process.

We also conceived of Summer Compositions as a reconnaissance--an exploration of larger possibilities.  We sought seed funding, in order to preserve our creative freedom to feel our way into the project rather than over-determining it at the outset in a bid for major funding.

The Field Foundation provided a $4,000 grant to support the participation of Michael Burns, a literacy specialist.  And we raised an additional $5,000 from individual donors to support filmmaker Aaron Cahan.

The summer proved demanding and instructive.  We began with a set of hypotheses, hunches, and intuitions.  Some have been confirmed; others called into question.  We have emerged with a secure grasp of the project, its promise and requirements, and are now committed to producing a major documentary and an extended narrative.

The paths we have traveled with Jill and Ted over the last few months are quite different.  I will describe each in turn.

Jill Williams

The first phase of our engagement with Jill took the form of intensive instruction.  Over a period of five weeks, Michael worked with her two or three times a week at her home in Englewood.  He was accompanied by Aaron who filmed every session.

Michael established a strong rapport with Jill.  This short exchange conveys something of the flavor of their relationship.  They are discussing Jill’s use of “we” in the singular.

Michael determined at the beginning of the summer that Jill read at slightly below a first grade level and that she does not appear to have any learning disabilities.  His assessment was that she knows how to read, but doesn’t yet know that she knows.  He encouraged her to see herself as learning to read rather than seeing him as teaching her to read.

As the summer progressed, Michael found he needed to step back somewhat because of family obligations.3 At that point, I assumed a more active role.  This has taken the form of eliciting stories from Jill and then using her own words as text for her reading practice.  Aaron films these conversations.  Afterwards, he transcribes Jill’s stories.  I shape and edit the raw transcripts.  Then we return to Jill with a text, and she reads it aloud.

These sessions are at once instructional and editorial.  As she reads, Jill sometimes reacts to a word or phrase that doesn’t sound right to her ear or recalls additional details in response to our questions.   We then interpose revisions in the text.  The editorial process is also animated by interactions between the oral and written story.  Jill can rarely read more than a few sentences aloud before she looks up from the page and tells the story anew.  As the oral narrative spills over the text, we work to capture the revisions and additions suggested by the retelling.  Jill’s process of learning to read is thus braided, as we hoped it would be, with the composition of a literary work that matures from draft to draft.

Let me give you a glimpse of the process:  Jill told us a story about an incident that occurred shortly after her family moved from the Mississippi Delta to the North (or, as she would put it, “to the city”).  She was fourteen.  Together with her younger brother Lonnie, she went into a sandwich shop at 47th and Halsted to order a cheeseburger.  The man behind the counter refused to serve them.  Jill was insistent.  The man prepared a cheeseburger.  Then he lifted the bun, spat on the burger, and gave it to her.  She went outside, threw a rock through his window, and took off running.  And then . . . the story unfolds from there.

Here is a brief excerpt fashioned from several tellings of the story:

The man said, "What you all want, nigger?" 

“Who you calling nigger?”  We were looking around to see who they're calling nigger.  We were the only two, though.

"You!” he said.  “What you want?"

"Give me a cheeseburger."

"We don't sell no nigger no cheeseburger.  Get your spook ass out of here."

He was an old man.

"Come on, this is the city, man.  We got rights.  That's freedom.  We free to do what we want to and go where we want to.  So we're going here."

With characteristic narrative gusto, Jill tells this part of the story:

Once her words have been transcribed, Jill reads them aloud, at a very different pace, pausing in wonderment at how certain words, "nigger" among them, look on the page.  Here she encounters the word "freedom" in written form:

This is a woman who grew up in a sharecropping family in a world where, as she puts it, blacks had to “sneak to read.”  The laws making it a crime to teach a slave to read were no longer on the books, but the sanctions remained.  Her mother, Savannah Williams, was literate.  She kept reading materials hidden under the porch of their shack.  (When they were discovered by plantation authorities, one of Jill’s older brothers took a beating to protect their mother.)  Against this background, it’s not surprising that Jill, having been denied schooling in the South and been ill served by schools in the North, regards learning to read now in her fifties as a matter of great symbolic as well as practical consequence. 

It’s a matter of consequence for us, her fellow citizens, as well.  Some may find Jill alien and difficult to understand.  She speaks rapidly in her own distinctive argot combining idioms from her sharecropping youth with those of the inner city.  Yet she is a terrific storyteller and an incorrigible truth-teller.  She hasn’t learned to accommodate herself to the prevailing narratives about poverty, inner city violence, public housing “transformation,” and so on.  She doesn’t tell you what she thinks you want to hear.

Her story—extending from the shadows of slavery in the deep South to high-rise public housing in the urban North to conditions of abandonment in the invisible ghetto of the 21st century—is a necessary narrative.  A society in which that story can’t be shared, because she is impeded in telling and we are impeded in hearing, is a morally hazardous place.  Racism is, among other things, a narrative phenomenon: others need only know the color of your skin to know your story.  Yet that is only the most extreme form of a phenomenon that has other manifestations.  The narratives deployed by power to rationalize public policies affecting the poor, stories that often take the form of social scientific folklore,4 have a similar effect.  Such narrative impoverishment has grave human consequences.  If we think we know their stories before we hear them, Jill and others similarly situated can be abused with impunity.

Sometimes a project only discloses its essence once you’re immersed in it.  I have known Jill for some fifteen years.  I have written about her5 and have helped her through some hard times.  Yet it’s only in the last few months that I have begun to understand why I find her so compelling.  She refuses the role of victim.  She is fierce, but not bitter.  She has deeply felt grievances, yet is alive to the possibility of redress.  She believes she lives in a nation where justice and equality are possible.  This patriotic conviction, this sense of membership in a society that has shown so little regard for her, is reflected in the tenor of her storytelling.  Although her narrative is full of abuse, exploitation, and cruelty, it is not a lament or a case study.  It is, rather, an epic, a picaresque novel, a blues song.  It is an expression of vitality and an exercise in freedom.


In addition to storytelling and reading, this project has involved a good deal of practical activity.  Jill and her family live on a "housing choice voucher" in deplorable conditions.  We helped with a thorough clean-up of the apartment as a prelude to treating it for bedbugs.  Once the apartment had been treated, we brought her furniture (beds, chairs, a freezer, etc.) donated by an Invisible Institute supporter.  And we are now helping her figure out her housing status.  Her landlord long ago disappeared (though he seems until recently to have continued to collect rent checks from CHA).  It appears the building may be in foreclosure.  The utilities have been turned off, and a notice has been posted that the water will soon be cut off.

This is the second time this has happened to Jill.  After she was forced to relocate from Stateway, her first placement—a rat-infested apartment with raccoons and possums living in the basement—ended up in foreclosure.  Jill and other residents learned of this not from CHA but from the bank.  By the time she moved out, scavengers were ripping pipes out of the building.

These conditions of abandonment are an integral part of the story.  Most of our conversations with Jill take place at a large, high table in the center of her apartment.  That is where she tells us stories and works on her reading.  Centrifugal forces swirl around that table, breaking her concentration and frustrating her aspirations.  Those circumstances are necessarily part of the story.  Similarly, our neighborly efforts to help her in small practical ways are, as we understand them, an extension of our listening.

The next phase

Summer has passed into fall.  We now stand at the threshold of the next phase of this undertaking.  We have three objectives:

  • Continue to support Jill, as she extends her capacity to decode text.  She has significantly improved in the course of the summer.  Her confidence is growing.  An essential element of her identity throughout her life has been that she is someone-who-can’t-read.  The challenge she now faces is less a matter of reading technique than of revising her identity to become someone-who-reads and so knows how to learn to read better.
  • Make a concentrated effort, employing the method of composition described above, to produce a literary text that weaves Jill’s stories into a single narrative.  At this point, I envision a work of at least novella length.
  • Produce a documentary that raises critical questions about the impediments to Jill telling her story and the impediments to her fellow citizens hearing her story, while telling a compelling story.  Aaron has been central to this project.  He has filmed virtually every encounter with Jill and Ted over the last three months.  And he has been deeply involved in the creative process by which the project has evolved.  The Invisible Institute is committed to creating the conditions for this talented young filmmaker to produce his first full-length documentary. 

In order to realize these objectives, we will need to raise substantial funds.  Thanks to those who provided seed funding forSummer Compositions, we are now in a position to do so secure in the knowledge that we know what we are doing.

The Invisible Institute works to make visible fellow citizens and fundamental issues threatened with invisibility.  That has been the aim over the years of our reporting on public housing.  We take our bearings from the perception that the erasure of CHA high-rises—a massive restructuring of the city on land long inhabited by its poorest citizens—is also a remapping of our moral imaginations.  It affects what we see and what we think, how issues are constructed and the parameters in which they are discussed.  The Invisible Institute seeks, on multiple fronts, to resist these tendencies.  That was the mission of The View From The Ground.  And it is the essence of the oral history on CHA communities that our colleague Audrey Petty is currently writing for McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series. 

Jill Williams has now emerged as a key collaborator in this larger effort.

— Jamie Kalven          

    September 22, 2011


1 In our proposal, we referred to her as “Jennie Williams.”  That is her legal name, but she is universally known to her friends as Jill.  We have adopted that name for the purposes of this project.

2 This is the rebranding of the Section 8 program.

3 While Michael’s role has changed, he remains an integral part of the project, providing technical support and guidance.

4 The term is Albert Murray’s.  See The Omni-Americans, his exhilarating polemic against reductiveness in the social sciences.  Why, he asks, is it so hard to grasp “something that is as obvious as the fact that human nature is no less complex and fascinating for being encased in dark skin”?

5 "One Strike: Jennie Williams" - Part 1 and Part 2The View From The Ground, June 18-19, 2002