What is DECODE?

On Friday, October 2, 2020, the Chicago Literacy Alliance presented an annual thought-leadership summit to explore challenges and solutions to increasing literacy in Chicago. DECODE was an experience for educators, literacy professionals, engaged philanthropists, civic decision-makers, and parents and children of Chicago communities. Through digital interactive panel discussions, access to field experts, and sharing of vital resources, we:

    • Broke down the complex barriers to literacy acquisition
    • Strategized literacy-based solutions to urgent social challenges
    • Analyzed the literacy landscape to inform decisions and action

DECODE 2020: Literacy, Liberation, & Civic Life

How do the tools of literacy empower us to engage in and contribute to our community, political life, and democracy in Chicago? How does that change during a global health and economic crisis, and a time of deep civil unrest in our city and beyond?

The Chicago Literacy Alliance is proud to present a series of lively and passionate discussions around using the tools of literacy to build a better democracy. Tune in as we explore how systemic challenges impact communities of color in Chicago, the role that literacy can play in dismantling those systems, and how expanding our thinking around what literacy achievement looks like could create new pathways toward equity for Chicago’s youth.

Donors make our work possible. Together, we provide capacity building, alignment and advocacy to our community. Your gift directly supports CLA programming and initiatives.

For questions or inquiries, contact Annie Rezac, CLA Director of Strategic Initiatives: arezac@chicagoliteracyalliance.org


8:45am – 9:15 am

Program opens. Log on, check in, and get primed

9:15 am – 9:45am

Welcome and special statement from former Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, Maria Hadden, Dr. Bettina Love, and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin.

9:45am – 10:40am

Session 1 – Tomorrow’s Citizens – creating equitable and accessible pathways for today’s youth to lead

Ydalmi Noriega

Director of Community and Foundation Relations, Poetry Foundation. Facilitator

Dr. Gholnecsar (Gholdy) Muhammad

Professor of Language and Literacy, Author. Panelist

Dr. Kim Parker

Parent, literacy and education expert. Panelist 

Diamond Smith

Honor student, De La Salle Institute, Bronzeville.

10:40am – 11:00am

Session 1 Q&A

11:00am – 12:00pm

Lunch break and virtual CLA resource fair

12:00pm – 12:50pm

Session 2 – Living a Civic Life – exploring solutions to the barriers that disenfranchise individuals, families, and communities living with low literacy

Nora Garcia

Director of Programs, Healthy Communities Foundation

Idris Goodwin

Director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado College

Clarisol Duque

Chicago Chief of Staff, Sen. Dick J. Durbin

Grace Chan McKibben

Executive Director, Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community

12:50pm – 1:10pm

Session 2 Q&A

1:10pm – 1:30pm


1:30pm – 2:20pm

Session 3 – The Impact of Chicago’s Literacy Sector – discussing the power of collective impact and creating a shared vocabulary around different forms of literacy and desired outcomes

Hilesh Patel

Leadership Investment Program Officer, The Field Foundation of Illinois. Facilitator

Tenisha Jones

Senior Director of Strategy and Operations for Westside United. Panelist

Nick Freeman

Co-Founder and President, Innovare – Social Innovation Partners. Panelist

Kevin Coval

Award-winning poet and author. Panelist

2:20pm – 2:40pm

Session 3 Q&A

2:45pm – 3:45pm

Peer-Led Breakout Groups

After hearing from our panelists regarding literacy and the pathway to liberty, DECODE participants will have the opportunity to unpack what they learned and generate ideas for potential solutions to the barriers of living a more literate life. Participants will have the option to select which breakout they will attend based on the panel themes from the day. Each panel will have a moderator to pose questions, ensure equity of voice, and take notes.

Duane B. Davis

Lead Moderator


Ydalmi Noriega

Ydalmi Noriega is a Chicago-based writer and arts administrator from the West Coast of Puerto Rico. She serves as the Director of Community and Foundation Relations at the Poetry Foundation.

Dr. Kim Parker

Dr. Kimberly N. Parker currently prepares preservice teachers as the Assistant Director of the Teacher Training Center at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, MA. Kim taught in public schools, universities, and graduate schools for 18 years and served on several committees for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE). As a Heinemann Fellow (2016-2018), Kim documented her successful work de-tracking her ELA classroom for students of color. Her continuing scholarship is focused on the literacy lives of Black youth, particularly those of Black boys.  She is a co-founder of #DisruptTexts and #31DaysIBPOC. Twitter: @TchKimpossible

Alderwoman Maria Hadden

Alderwoman Maria Hadden is the first openly LGBT woman on City Council as well as one of the first Black Aldermen to serve the north side of the city. She currently sits on eight committees at City Hall, including the Committee on Housing and Real Estate and the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Buildings. On these committees, she is focused on working with her colleagues on environmental issues, comprehensive COVID recovery, reinvestment in people through services, programs, and resources, and finding innovative paths to home ownership and affordable housing for all Chicagoans. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, she formed the Rogers Park Community Response Team to help connect neighbors to food and rent assistance. 

Maria lives with her wife, Natalia, and their two dogs in a cooperative apartment in the heart of Rogers Park.

Dr. Gholnecsar (Gholdy) Muhammad

Dr. Gholnecsar (Gholdy) Muhammad is an Associate Professor of Language and Literacy at Georgia State University. She also serves as the director of the GSU Urban Literacy Collaborative & Clinic. She studies Black historical excellence within educational communities with goals of reframing curriculum and instruction today. Dr. Muhammad’s scholarship has appeared in leading educational journals and books. Some of her recognitions include the 2014 recipient of the National Council of Teachers of English, Promising New Researcher Award, the 2016 NCTE Janet Emig Award, the 2017 GSU Urban Education Research Award and the 2018 UIC College of Education Researcher of the Year. She works with teachers and young people across the United States and South Africa in best practices in culturally responsive instruction. She is the author of the best selling book, Cultivating Genius: An Equity Model for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.

Diamond Smith

Hello, my name is Diamond Smith and I am a very dedicated, ambitious, and passionate individual. Despite losing my grandmother who was like my motivation, I still strive to be the best individual I could be. I believe self-motivation is the key to be successful throughout life because motivating yourself gives you a greater chance of pushing yourself even when you feel you can’t push yourself anymore. I dedicate my time to work at The Museum of Science and Industry and communicate with guests all over the world about the Cardiovascular System. I learned about the Cardiovascular System before I could communicate with those all over the world because, I wanted to be educated as possible when it comes to giving out important, and valuable information to those who are interested in learning. I’m currently a Junior at De La Salle Institute. I am an assistant track coach, I’ve qualified to be a part of The National Honors Society, I’ve been able to maintain a 3.7 GPA and higher throughout the years in which I have been attending De La Salle. I’ve received The Daniel Murphy Scholarship due to my academic excellence throughout my middle school years of learning, and the continuation of my academic excellence I fulfill in high school. I thank WITS for my excellent academic experience with using literature.

Nora Garcia

Nora Garcia is the Director of Programs at the Healthy Communities Foundation (HCF). She leads the foundation’s work on the intersection of health equity and social determinants, focusing on the impact of direct services, local networks and policies on community health outcomes. Nora is responsible for implementing the foundation’s overall grantmaking strategy and building partnerships with stakeholders across the geographic region that the foundation funds. Previously, she was a consultant to the Field Foundation of Illinois, the Pritzker Traubert Foundation and she also managed the City of Chicago’s Peace Grants Program. Her early experience focused on educational equity, youth development and comprehensive immigration reform with roles at Communities in Schools of Chicago, BUILD and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). Nora earned an MSW from the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

Clarisol Duque

Clarisol Duque is the Chicago Chief of Staff for U.S. Senator Richard J. Durbin. In this role, Clarisol serves constituents in northeastern Illinois which includes Chicago and the six collar-county region that totals more than 8 million people. She manages all aspects of Sen. Durbin’s Chicago office operations and personnel. Clarisol also works on a wide-range of federal issues including immigration in particular the DREAM Act and Comprehensive Immigration Reform, healthcare, education, criminal justice reform and the environment. Clarisol’s focus is on serving the needs of the Chicagoland community by working closely with community-based organizations, advocacy groups and individuals and partnering with elected officials and agencies at all levels of government.

Idris Goodwin

Idris Goodwin is a multidisciplinary artist and creative community builder. Across two decades Idris has forged a diverse career as an award-winning playwright, Break Beat poet, director, educator, and organizer. He is the author of the Pushcart–nominated essay and poetry collection These Are The Breaks. His publications with Haymarket Books include the recent Can I Kick It?, the award winning Inauguration co-written with Nico Wilkinson, Human Highlight: Ode to Dominique Wilkins, and the controversial play This Is Modern Art, both co-written with Kevin Coval. His words, voice and sometimes entire body, have shown up on HBO Def Poetry, Sesame Street, NPR, BBC radio, and the Discovery Channel. He’s received support from the NEA, the Ford, Mellon, and Edgerton Foundations, and the Playwrights’ Center’s McKnight Fellowship. His widely produced stage plays include And In This Corner: Cassius Clay, How We Got On, and Hype Man: a break beat play.   Idris is the newly appointed Director of The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, where he taught in the department of Theatre and Dance and was voted Teacher of the Year. For upcoming performances, content and creative writing tools  visit www.idrisgoodwin.com

Grace Chan McKibben

Grace Chan McKibben is Executive Director at the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, which seeks to empower the Chinese American communities in Greater Chicago through planning, advocacy, and organizing. The Coalition is currently leading Census outreach and education; voter registration and engagement; and coordination of COVID response and assistance in the Chinatown and surrounding areas.

For over 25 years, Grace has held senior level positions in education, government, corporate, and nonprofits. In these roles, she created numerous programs that brought communities together and amplified the voices and influence of marginalized communities. She is a fierce advocate of equality, inclusion, and access for immigrants, persons of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. She currently serves on the Chicago Low-Income Real Estate Trust Fund Board; the Illinois State Asian American Employment Plan Advisory Council; the City of Chicago Language Access Task Force; the Illinois ACLU Board; and the National ACLU Board.

Hilesh Patel

As the Leadership Investment Program Officer at The Field Foundation of Illinois, Hilesh Patel manages the Leaders for a New Chicago Awards and is dedicated to working with Chicago’s aspiring leaders and their organizations. Hilesh was previously the Deputy Director of Hyde Park Art Center, overseeing Public Programs, Marketing & Communication, Finance and Operations and co-leading strategic planning initiatives. He has worked to integrate racial equity work, civic engagement, and leadership development into the core mission of his professional practice and has more than 15 years’ experience in Chicago communities in education, social service and corporate sectors.

Nick Freeman

Nick is the Co-founder & President of Innovare – Social Innovation Partners, where he empowers #ChagemakersInEducation. Nick currently leads the strategic partnership’s initiatives, including the development and implementation of an innovative and comprehensive partnership strategy. He also supports customer success through onboarding and ensuring implementation fidelity of Innovare’s products. He is a private sector transplant, former data strategist in Chicago Public Schools, recent Education Pioneers, and 2019 Surge Institute alumnus. Nick is a self-proclaimed data geek, proud Chicago Hyde Park native, a die-hard Chicago sports fan, and enjoys spending quality time with his family, friends, girlfriend, and dog as often as he can.

Tenisha Jones

Tenisha Jones is a civic leader, cultural organization lover and a life-long student of data. Aa a results-driven Education and Community Development Expert with 15+ years of experience in developing proposals, grant-writing, and program strategy management, Tenisha has a track record of leading highly successful cross-sector collaborations to level the playing field for underserved families across Chicago. Tenisha also brings a keen insight and understanding of challenges, needs, and solutions existing within communities to the WSU team.

Tenisha is a 2015 Civic Leadership Academy Fellow who serves on the Executive Alumni Committee and serves as a board member of Austin Coming Together and the Chicago Land Equity Network. She holds a B.S. from National Louis University and is an MPP Candidate at Northwestern Kellogg School of Management. Outside of the office Tenisha enjoys living the basketball-mom life, traveling to games with her daughter.


Duane B. Davis

Duane Davis has spent the last 25 years as an educator in Chicago and the Chicagoland area.  Born and raised on the southside of Chicago.  Duane grew up in South Shore and attended St. Philip Neri Elementary School and Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. After completing his undergraduate degree in English with honors  at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, he began the Teachers for Chicago program which at the time was an alternative certification program partnering local universities with the Golden Apple Foundation and Chicago Public Schools to address the teacher shortage in Chicago. Duane, also while teaching full time, obtained his Masters in English from Loyola University Chicago.

Duane has worked with and coached teachers through various school improvement initiatives and at the postsecondary level through the Teachers Academy of Math and Science, Kaplan K12 Services (The High School Transformation Project), The New Teacher Center, Lewis University, Illinois State University, National Louis University and Elmhurst College. He currently serves as the Executive Director K12 Education Initiatives  in the Office of the President at the University of Chicago and is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago with a  focus on early career teachers. 


Jill Hopkins

Jill Hopkins is the host of The Morning AMp on Vocalo Radio, 91.1FM in Chicago, the  Making Beyonce podcast for WBEZ, and the online quiz show, Pop Quiz Hot Shot. She’s also a pop culture critic with bylines at The A.V. Club,  Chicago Reader, Consequence of Sound, Riot Fest’s blog, Noisey, and more.  

Jill’s a comedic essayist with regular appearances at The Paper Machete, and is the emcee of the live Moth StorySlam events in Chicago for NPR. She’s moderated panels and conversations for the Chicago Humanities Festival and Chicago Ideas Week.  

Jill is also a longtime club DJ, who has manned the decks opening for Big Freedia, Har Mar  Superstar, Michael Shannon, and a host of local bands.  

NewCity Magazine named her as one of 2019’s “Music 45: Who Keeps Chicago In Tune”.


Christine Kenny – Executive Director, Literacy Works
Kira J. Baker-Doyle –
Director, UIC Center for Literacy
Briana Davis –
Assistant Director of Research, UIC Center for Literacy
Curtis Shaw Flagg –
Senior Manager of External Relations, Open Books
Jamie Crockett –
Program Leader, Associate Board Coordinator, SitStayRead
Mary List –
Regional Executive Director, Children’s Literacy Initiative
Ruby Camacho –
Associate Director, UIC Center for Literacy
Sharnell Jackson –
Creative Creative Officer, Data-Driven Innovations Consulting
Tena Kunik –
Chief Executive Officer, Working in the Schools (WITS)