2023 Panelists


Christy Bolingbroke

As the Founding Executive/Artistic Director for the National Center for Choreography at The University of Akron (NCCAkron), Christy Bolingbroke is responsible for setting the curatorial vision and business model to foster research and development opportunities in dance and to advocate for the creative process as a more central part of culture in the United States. In 2017, DANCE Magazine named her one of the most influential people in dance. More recently, the Association of Performing Arts Professionals acknowledged her and NCCAkron’s work “for programmatic excellence and sustained achievement in programming” at just six years since the organization’s inception. Previously, from 2011-2016, she served as the Deputy Director for Advancement at ODC in San Francisco, CA, overseeing curation, performance programming, marketing, and development organization-wide. From 2006-2011, she was the Director of Marketing at the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn, NY. She earned a B.A. in Dance from the University of California, Los Angeles; an M.A. in Performance Curation from Wesleyan University; and was a DeVos Institute Fellow in 2005-2006. She currently serves on the Akron Civic Commons Core Team and on The University of Akron Arts Advancement Council. Prior service to the field includes the Dance/USA Presenters' Council; Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Arts Innovation Management Initiative; South Arts MOMENTUM program; the New England Foundation for the Arts National Dance Project Advisory Panel; the Ohio Arts Council ArtsNEXT panel; McKnight Foundation Choreographic Fellowships; and the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation New Works. (Photo by Shane Wynn.)

Vanessa Hernández Cruz

Vanessa Hernández Cruz (she, her, ella) is an interdependent Chicana Disabled dance artist and Disability Justice activist. She is from the unceded lands of the Tongva and Kizh lands, colonially known as Los Angeles, California. She graduated from California State University Long Beach with her BA in Dance Science. Over the past few years Vanessa’s work has been shown nationally and internationally. In 2023 she is premiering her latest contemporary dance work titled Metal, Plastic Skin. She was recently commissioned by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) to create and perform a new work titled La Lucha Sigue/The Fight Continues to celebrate and honor Corita Kent and Dolores Huerta. She recently was a guest speaker at Chapman University where spoke about Disability dance and workshopped her contemporary ballet repertoire, Nycto-Eternity. Vanessa was a guest artist-in-resident and collaborator for Bradford Chin’s dance MFA Thesis "The world was ending, so they danced, & they were free" at the University of California, Irvine. 

In 2022, she premiered two solos: Nycto-Eternity and Timeless Hourglass at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles as a guest artist with the international dance company, LuxBit Art Company, based in Seoul, Korea. In 2022, she was commissioned through the DCA to produce the dance film Los Portales del Corazón for the ‘Dance in the Districts’ program. In 2022, she was selected into the first national cohort for LatinXtentions yearlong Dance Mentorship Program led by David Herrera.

Her performances transcend through space, time, energy, and most importantly to her ancestors. With this energy, she hopes to build community and to share the path that she is paving for future multi-marginalized Disabled artists. Through dance, community, and interdependence she believes that collective liberation can be achieved. (Photo by Maya Umemoto Gorman.)

Pierre Lockett

Pierre Lockett, Founder and Executive Director of Forward Momentum Chicago, is a passionate arts advocate for youth. With 20 years of teaching and as a former professional dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and The Joffrey Ballet, Pierre combines his passion and expertise for dance with his desire to inspire youth through invigorating dance programs to establish Forward Momentum Chicago (FMC). Since 2014, Pierre and his team of teaching artists with FMC have taught more than 35,000 children in 85 Chicago Public Schools. He has worked extensively with youth from all areas of Chicago and understands firsthand the powerful impact the arts play in a child’s social and emotional development.


James Ian

James Ian is a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, actor, model, and writer. He has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Type 3, and is a passionate advocate for authentic representation of disabled actors in music, TV, film, and other media. James’ music is featured on the iHeartRadio website, and he is the singer and primary songwriter of "SPACES," a first-of-its-kind song that highlights those living with SMA. "SPACES" has won several PR industry awards and music awards, and James recently performed the song at the Closing Ceremony of the Special Olympics. His filmography includes several movies, commercials, TV series, and documentaries, including The Allnighter, Pugsley, Kimboo & Kids, and Inner Warrior.

Shawn E. Okpebholo

GRAMMY®-nominated artist, Shawn E. Okpebholo, is a critically-acclaimed and award-winning composer. The press has described his music as "devastatingly beautiful" and "fresh and new and fearless" (Washington Post), "affecting" and “seductive” (New York Times), and "lyrical, complex, singular" (The Guardian). Some honors include The Academy of Arts and Letters, First Place Winner in the American Prize in Composition, and the Inaugural Awardee of the Leslie Adams-Robert Owens Composition Award. 


Okpebholo's music has been featured extensively and in diverse settings worldwide, including prestigious performance spaces such as Carnegie and Wigmore Halls, and the Kennedy, Lincoln, and Kimmel Centers; renowned music festivals such as Aspen, Bowdoin International, Ojai, and Newport; and with orchestras including Cincinnati and Houston Symphonies, the United States Air Force Strings, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Music Now Series. His art songs have been presented by opera companies including the Chicago Lyric, Los Angeles, Portland, and Des Moines Metro Operas, the Opera Theater of St. Louis, Chicago Opera Theater, and Urban Arias. 


His music has been performed by some of today's leading solo musicians, including Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Rhiannon Giddens, as well as vocalists J'Nai Bridges, Lawrence Brownlee, Will Liverman, and Karen Slack; pianists Awadagin Pratt, Aldo-López Gavilán, Lara Downs, Paul Sánchez, and Howard Watkins; flutists Adam Walker and Brandon George; and violinist Rachel Barton Pine.


NPR selected Okpebholo's art song, The Rain, as one of the 100 Best Songs of 2021, with only a few classical works to make the ranking. His compositions have been featured on six commercially released albums, including his first album solely devoted to his music, Steal Away, a collection of re-imagined Negro spirituals, and his second solo GRAMMY®-nominated, Lord How Come Me Here?.


As a pedagogue, Okpebholo has given masterclasses at many academic institutions worldwide, including two universities in Nigeria, and he has served on the faculty of summer music festivals. His research interests have been a gateway for ethnomusicological fieldwork in both East and West Africa, resulting in compositions, transcriptions, and academic lectures. He earned his master's and doctoral degrees in composition from the College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) at the University of Cincinnati, and studied film scoring at New York University through the Buddy Baker Film Scoring Program. Currently, he is Jonathan Blanchard Professor of Music Composition at Wheaton College-Conservatory of Music (IL). He was in residence with the Chicago Opera Theater (2021-2023 seasons), culminating with the premiere of his first opera, The Cook-Off, with librettist Mark Campbell.

Monica O’Connell

Monica O’Connell, an Atlanta-based writer/researcher, has served as an administrator, programmer, and consultant across a range of scholarly and artistic environments. She holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from New York University and served as the Executive Director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago from 2007-2015. She has been a John Nicholas Brown Center for the Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage fellow and a Chicago Community Trust Fellow. She has served as a board, council, or panelist member for the Old Town School of Folk Music, the Society for Ethnomusicology, the National Endowment for the Arts, Society for American Music, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and 3Arts, among others. 

Her work on diversity and equity in arts organizations, Black jazz women, and listening for archival silences has been published in the Black Music Research Journal, Women & Music, Chamber Music America Magazine, and the anthology Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies, among other venues. She co-authored “Forty Years of Fellowships: A Study of Orchestra’s Efforts to Include African American and Latino Musicians” with Nick Rabkin on behalf of the League of American Orchestras. 

Teaching Arts

Lawrence Blackwell

Lawrence Blackwell is the Director of In-Schools Programs at Memphis Music Initiative, where he leads a team of 16 teaching artists. As a performing artist, Lawrence has created, directed, and performed pieces that explore African American and Latino American culture. As a professor of theater, he has worked at Colombia College Chicago, The University of Memphis, Rhodes College, Southwest Community College, and LeMoyne Owen College. He currently serves on the Board of Cazateatro Bilingual Theatre and the Memphis/Shelby County Film Commission.

Mike Nourse

Mike Nourse (he/him) is an artist, educator, and program director with 20 years experience in the field. He has managed studio programs at Marwen, led citywide design and architecture programs for Chicago Architecture Center, and has been the Director of Education for Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) since 2011. Mike’s program and teaching philosophies stem from community conversations, art and social interaction, and civic engagement. Mike has redefined education at HPAC, leveling the playing field by establishing free teen programs, increasing support and pay rates for teaching artists, creating accessible programs for working artists, and launching Open Arts, an open tuition model that sees students decide tuition contributions. Mike is also a co-founder and former (volunteer) Executive Director of Chicago Art Department (CAD), launched in 2004, a learning-based organization with subsidized residencies and exhibitions supporting socially-driven artists who question the city we live in. Now with full-time staff members, he transitioned to CAD’s board of directors in 2022 where he currently serves as chair. Mike continues to center his work on directing large-scale programming, defining equitable pathways for artists and educators to launch and questioning the world we live in.

Jennifer Ridgeway

Jennifer Ridgway is a teaching artist and imagineer consultant with nearly 30 years of experience. She is on the Maryland State Arts Council Teaching Artist Roster. In April 2020, Jennifer began showing up in the world as Yard Dramas, an organization she launched in response to the needs of neighbors during the pandemic. Today, Yard Dramas develops creative experiences designed in collaboration with individuals and communities to bridge connections, increase learning, and grow new ideas, pathways, and solutions to challenges. Her work activates artistry, amplifies ordinary stories, increases empathy, agitates change, and creates joy. Since receiving her MFA (UNC-Greensboro), she earned a certificate in Arts/Culture Strategy (University of Pennsylvania) and is an inaugural cohort member of the Anti-Racist Educators of the Arts Learning Lab (A-REALL). Jennifer co-founded the Teaching Artists of the Mid-Atlantic to support, empower, and advocate for Mid-Atlantic Teaching Artists.


Sheldon Epps

Sheldon Epps was Artistic Director of the renowned Pasadena Playhouse for two decades. Currently, he continues to serve The Playhouse as Artistic Director Emeritus. He has also served as Artistic Advisor for Theatre Under the Stars, in Houston. Epps has directed numerous plays and musicals at many of the country’s major theaters, including the Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, the Guthrie, Playwrights Horizons, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Arena Stage, and the Goodman Theatre.

Epps conceived and directed the Tony-nominated musicals Play On! and Blues In the Night, which was nominated as Best Musical for the prestigious Olivier Award in London. He co-directed the Tony-nominated Broadway production of Baby It's You! 

Epps also has had a busy career as a television director, helming episodes of shows such as Frasier, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, Girlfriends, the new Netflix series The Upshaws, and many others, and he also directed the BET holiday movie, Christmas Party Crashers. He is the recipient of the prestigious Alumni Achievement Award from his alma mater Carnegie Mellon University. 

Epps currently serves as Senior Artistic Advisor at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, and he is the author of the best-selling “theatrical memoir,” My Own Directions, published by McFarland Books. 

Marissa Lynn Jones

Marissa Lynn Jones is the Executive Director of The League of Chicago Theatres, a non-profit organization serving more than two hundred theaters across the city of Chicago. She believes and is dedicated to the power of storytelling to transform the narrative that shapes humanity. Prior to joining the League of Chicago Theatres, Marissa was the Associate Managing Director and IDEAA Director at Goodman Theatre, where she managed the implementation of Goodman’s strategic plan around Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Access and Anti-Racism, and helped artists share diverse stories, on and off stage, around the city of Chicago. Prior to joining the management team, she was the first participant in Goodman’s executive apprenticeship program where she led several projects including the Chicago August Wilson Festival, Goodman Theatre’s first Black Theatre Summit, and the 2015 Chicago Accessibility Summit in partnership with the Chicago Community Trust. She also participated on the Joyce Foundation’s Spotlight Grant Committee. She spearheaded Goodman’s Black Words Matter Celebration, managed the opening festival of the Alice Center for Education and Engagement, and curated the theater’s first sensory friendly and touch tour performances. 

Marissa served on the League of Resident Theatres EDI and Mentorship Committee and on the board for Haven Theater Company in Chicago. Prior to her time at Goodman, Marissa served at Collaboraction Theatre, Broadway in Chicago, and American Theatre Company. Marissa was born and raised on the southside of Chicago in the Woodlawn neighborhood and is a graduate of Drake University with a BFA in Theatre Acting and BSBA in International Business.

Sarah J. Hom

As a proud disabled woman of color, Sarah J. Hom (she/her) is passionate about and dedicated to increasing accessibility, equity, and inclusion in the arts from backstage to the front of house and everything in between. She is Roundabout Theatre Company’s Director of Audience Services and serves as a staff leader for their EDI work. She is also a member of Tessitura’s Community DEAI Advisory Committee and the co-chair of their People with Disabilities affinity group, a steering committee member and archivist for the Museum, Arts and Access Consortium (MAC), and a member of the A.R.T./NY Disability Advisory Council. Sarah is a frequent guest speaker on disability inclusion and EDI initiatives and was featured as one of their “Theatre Workers to Know” in American Theatre Magazine.

Prior to joining Roundabout, Sarah held senior positions with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and the Colorado Symphony and was Board Chair for Phamaly Theatre Company. While she is a big fan of being inside a show and outside in the snow (as an adaptive skier), these days she is most often found at her computer working on a masters in Disability Studies at CUNY. A former costume designer, Sarah remains a dedicated practitioner of numerous fiber and fabric crafts.

Visual Arts

Laura Anderson Barbata

Born in Mexico City, Laura Anderson Barbata is a Mexican transdisciplinary artist currently based in both New York and Mexico City. Since 1992 she has initiated long-term projects and collaborations in the Venezuelan Amazon, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, Norway, and the United States that address social justice and the environment. Her work often combines performance, procession, dance, music, spoken word, textile arts, costuming, papermaking, zines, and protest.

Her work is in various private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), el Museo de Arte Moderno (México D.F.), and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (Madrid, Spain). Her work has received the Anonymous Was a Woman Award; grants from FONCA Mexico; Mario Trujillo García Defense for Human Rights Award, Mexico; Rockefeller Bellagio Artist in Residency; and Honorary Fellowship of Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies LACIS, UW Madison, among others.

She is currently on the Board of Directors of the College Art Association where she also serves as VP for Diversity and Inclusion.

Dejay B. Duckett

Dejay B. Duckett has been the Vice President of Curatorial Services at the African American Museum (AAMP) in Philadelphia since 2017. During her tenure at AAMP she has organized 18 exhibitions including Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past (2018), Sonya Clark: Self Evident (2019), Portals and Revelations: Recent Work by Richard Watson (2021); and co-curated Rising Sun: Artists in an Uncertain America, a collaboration with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (2023).

Formerly, Duckett was the Associate Director & Associate Curator at The University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery where for 15 years she curated projects including Henrique Oliverira: Adencalcinoma Poliresidual and Darkwater Revival: After Terry Adkins. Duckett earned her B.A. in Art History from Spelman College (1994) and an M.A. in Museum Studies from Seton Hall University (2001), where she researched the evolving role of the culturally-specific museum in the 21st century. In 2019, Duckett was awarded the Distinguished Alumna Award from the College of Communication and Arts at Seton Hall University.  


René Morales

René Morales is the James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA), which he joined in 2022. His first exhibition for MCA, a major career survey of the work of Gary Simmons titled Public Enemy, opened in June 2023 and subsequently traveled to Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), where Morales had previously served as Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Curator. At PAMM, where Morales worked for 16 years, he organized countless programs and nearly 60 exhibitions, including Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Surrounded Islands, 1980–83 (2018), Dara Friedman: Perfect Stranger (2017), Sarah Oppenheimer: S-281913 (2016), Susan Hiller: Lost and Found (2016), Marjetica Potrc: The School of the Forest (2015), Nicolas Lobo: The Leisure Pit (2015), Global Positioning Systems: Selections from the PAMM Collection (2014–15), Amelia Peláez: The Craft of Modernity, A Human Document: Selections from the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, and Monika Sosnowska: Market (2013–14). With the support of the Knight Foundation, Morales spearheaded the acquisition of more than 300 works from the Sackner Archive for PAMM’s collection. Other notable acquisitions for PAMM include major works by Helio Oiticica, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Danh Vo, Virginia Jaramillo, and Gabriel Orozco.

Morales is a 2019 recipient of the prestigious Center for Curatorial Leadership Fellowship and has served as a juror for multiple prominent awards and grants, including the Whitney Museum’s 2019 Bucksbaum Prize. He is a former member of the board of the City of Miami Art in Public Places program, as well as the Professional Advisory Committee of the Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places program. Prior to joining PAMM, he worked at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where he organized and co-organized several exhibitions, including Island Nations: New Art from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Morales studied at Swarthmore College, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in biopsychology and art history, and Brown University, where he received a Master of Arts in art history, focusing on the work of Odilon Redon before completing pre-doctoral research on the work of Wifredo Lam, and later on, the work of Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica.