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Team - Free Write

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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.


Roger Bonair-Agard

Roger is a native of Trinidad & Tobago, and Brooklyn; a Cave Canem fellow, and author of four full length collections of poetry, tarnish & masquerade (Cypher Books, 2006), GULLY (Cypher Books/Peepal Tree Press, 2010) and Bury My Clothes (Haymarket Books, 2013), which was long listed for the National Book Award, and won the Society of Midland Authors Award for Poetry 2013, and Where Brooklyn At?! (forthcoming in 2016 from Willow Books).  A two-time National Poetry Slam Champion, Roger is also co-founder of NYC’s LouderARTS Project. He has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and been featured at universities and literary festivals throughout the world.  Roger is extensively published in journals and anthologies and is the creator and facilitator of The Baldwin Protocols, an arts based intervention for students of color in higher learning and a reading series engaging visual and narrative arts. He lives and works in Chicago and New York City.  He is Nina’s father.


Mathilda de Dios

Mathilda has a B.A. in Political Science and Urban Studies from Colorado College and a M.Ed. in Educational Psychology from University of Illinois at Chicago. Mathilda was a researcher and co-editor of the Future 500: A directory of youth organizing and activism in the United States, editor of the BUILD Voices Anthology (2008) and 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. She completed the Advancing Youth Development (AYD), Youth Development Practitioner and Certification Program Levels 1 and 2. She is a co-founder of Ugnayan ng mga Anak Ng Bayan (NYC), serves as co-chair of the Youth and Family Engagement Committee of the Juvenile Justice Leadership Council of Illinois, and is a board member of First Defense Legal Aid. Mathilda is committed to building a multicultural arts movement for social justice.


Alexandra Antoine

Alexandra is an interdisciplinary artist whose work addresses the themes of identity and culture through the use of typography, line and portraiture. She uses the portrait as a tool to re/present individuals of the African diaspora while exploring her relationship to them within the larger narrative of her Haitian identity. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and Art Education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work has been exhibited around Chicago at institutions such as the Hyde Park Art Center, Roman Susan Gallery, Roots & Culture Gallery, South Side Community Art Center, ARC Gallery and Griffin Gallery.



Mariah Balaban

Mariah is a native New Yorker who received a B.A. in Film Studies from Sarah Lawrence College, and an AM in Social Service Administration (a.k.a. MSW) at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration (SSA). After a 10-year career in corporate media and freelance writing (including four years as a children’s book editor at Scholastic, Inc.) Mariah embarked on a career change. She spent five years at the JCCA, one of New York City’s largest child and family services and foster care agencies, working as a Program Evaluation Specialist in the Quality Improvement department, and then as a Therapeutic Caseworker in the agency’s Specialized Treatment Family Foster Care program. She moved to Chicago in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree in policy and administration at SSA, during which she interned in the Illinois State Medicaid Office’s Department of Planning and Implementation, and at the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.


Toni Asante Lightfoot

Toni is a graduate of Cave Canem African American Writer’s Workshop and a teacher of writing workshops. She is a co-founder of the poetry collective the Modern Urban Griots. She is a leader in the national arts organization, Blackout Arts Collective. Ms. Lightfoot was President of the African American Writers Guild, founded by Marita Golden. In November 2002 Lightfoot became the Business and Outreach Manager Guild Complex in Chicago. Lightfoot has authored several books including two collections of poems entitled Kiss My Ears Like Jazz and Unearthing Me.


Tim Nickless

Tim is a teacher, musician, audio engineer and DJ, who has worked with an eclectic array of genres of music and artists. Tim has taught music production as a part of youth programming at Free Write Arts & Literacy and also at Alternatives Inc. As a teacher, Tim is focused on trauma informed care and restorative justice. As a musician Tim has found his personal identity through self expression and exploration of the deeper, less mainstream styles of music. He holds a bachelors degree in Audio Design & Production from Columbia College Chicago. He has hosted a radio show at Northwestern Universities radio station WNUR 89.3 FM for over 5 years and has played music at nearly every notable music venue in Chicago.



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.



Ryan Keesling

Ryan holds a B.A. in Literature and Art from Depauw University, is a graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, and is an Illinois State Board of Education certified teacher. For nearly two decades, Ryan has been designing and implementing literacy and arts programming with Chicago’s incarcerated, court involved, and criminalized youth. 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.

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Cortez Williams




Walter McDavid


Mariela Villanueva


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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Want to volunteer?

Contact Us

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

A.D. Sean Lewis

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.


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


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


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


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