At some point during the process of going through our Engagement Challenge award proposals, someone on the reviewing committee said, “Let’s do something different.”

Coya Paz, the artistic director of Free Street Theater, is the first-ever ProPublica Illinois/Illinois Humanities Engagement Challenge recipient. (Courtesy of Coya Paz)

With that in mind, we’re excited to announce Coya Paz, the artistic director of Free Street Theater in Chicago, as the first-ever ProPublica Illinois/Illinois Humanities Engagement Challenge recipient. Paz will receive $15,000 to develop a project — with ProPublica Illinois — that facilitates public workshops in rural and urban communities across the state to engage residents in the investigative stories produced by ProPublica Illinois.

This project will use theater performance and workshops to deliver ProPublica Illinois’ investigative reporting to communities in Chicago and throughout the state. It will also train participants — or “news ambassadors” — to host future workshops in their own communities around ProPublica Illinois investigations. Illinois Humanities will support Paz and ProPublica Illinois’ efforts to build relationships in these communities, and connect them to its statewide network of cultural organizations.

While all the finalists for the challenge were intriguing, Paz’s offered a different approach to engaging and educating the public with journalism. It also offered an opportunity to connect the arts community to journalism.

“For almost 50 years, Free Street has sought to innovate our founding mission — to use performance to break down the barriers that divide us, and to create opportunities for a wide-range of people to participate in their own self-representation,” Paz said. “We felt a strong kinship with [ProPublica Illinois’] mission of creating journalism that is ‘informed from the very beginning by the communities who are at the center of the stories.’ And we were excited by the challenge of collaborating on a project that would allow us to consider how performance might serve that mission.”

In addition to the creativity of Paz’s project, it sits at the intersection of what both of our organizations value: listening to and working with the communities we serve at every stage of our work.

Coya Paz's (middle row on left) project will use theater performance and workshops to deliver ProPublica Illinois’ investigative reporting to communities in Chicago and throughout the state. Here, she is pictured with members of Free Street Theater’s ensemble. (Courtesy of Coya Paz)

For ProPublica Illinois, we’re committed to impactful reporting on the issues that affect Illinoisans’ lives, and collaboration is baked into the way we do that. At Illinois Humanities, we see the humanities as a tool for fostering dialogue across difference and strengthening democratic participation. Both organizations are committed to serving communities statewide and meeting people where they are.

We know that in a state as large and diverse as Illinois, it’s challenging for two Chicago-headquartered organizations to do this. That’s why we created this challenge. We believe Paz’s project will help us bridge urban, suburban and rural divides through dialogue that’s challenging, yet accessible and fulfilling. We’ll aim to earn trust with diverse and geographically disparate communities, and inform how we report with those communities in a way that reflects their diversity.

Sounds like a lot. And it is. But with Paz’s help, we believe we can get there.

We’ll keep you posted as details come together and we begin to roll out our plans. So be sure to sign up for ProPublica Illinois’ weekly newsletter.

Paz will discuss the project at the People Powered Publishing conference in Chicago on Nov. 8 and 9. If you’re interested in attending the conference and learning more about this project, register here.