Nonprofit writes a “LUV” letter to the South Side through community-driven art installation series

Cosette Nazon-Wilburn and Damon Reed

Just off 53rd Street in Hyde Park, a five-foot tall fiberglass heart captures a sort of “new normal.” The piece, painted by Woodlawn-based artist Damon Reed, is wrapped in colorful images of hands typing, Zoom meeting screens, and faces eager to connect. Part of the nonprofit Love, Unity & Values (LUV) Institute’s year-long Parade of Hearts project, Reed’s is one of 12 hearts dotting South Side sites and sparking community conversation. The art installation series marks the Grand Boulevard-based nonprofit’s 10th year serving young men and women of color who have experienced trauma and aims to bring symbols of unity and healing to communities struggling in the midst of the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, racial tensions, and ongoing violence.

LUV Founder and Executive Director Cosette Nazon-Wilburn credits the University of Chicago’s Community Programs Accelerator (CPA) with helping her organization build in its early years and get to a place where a campaign of this scale, and other expanded programming, was possible. LUV’s work centers on college and career readiness through a social emotional learning lens. When the organization was first established, it offered one program. LUV now offers five programs for youth, three professional programs, and an array of special projects like the Parade of Hearts, targeted to support and empower young people who are in foster care, youth who have been justice involved, youth who have experienced economic hardship, and parenting teens.

“We didn’t really know how to talk about what we were doing and the Accelerator really helped us to understand how we were making an impact, and not only how we were making an impact, but how do we articulate it so people would get it?” Nazon-Wilburn, who has additionally participated in or worked with UChicago programs like the Civic Leadership Academy and the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, among others, says.

Other support the Accelerator offered included assistance with grant proposals, program evaluation, demographic research, communications and branding plans, and strategic planning. 

“They really helped us to build a strategic plan and that was huge for us because we now had a north star. But it wasn’t just the strategic plan, it was how are we crafting a narrative to move our agenda forward?” she said.

From its initial organizational budget of about $200,000, LUV Institute is now nearing a million dollar budget and continuing to launch new programs and initiatives.

Parade of Hearts Installation
Parade of Hearts Installation

The Parade of Hearts project came about in response to pandemic challenges and parallel violence and tension across the South Side, Nazon-Wilburn says. A shooting in her own condo building in January of 2021 inspired Nazon-Wilburn to reach out to community groups and educators and create a space where community members could process their pain and look to the future. “We saw this as an opportunity to bring healing to communities to help community members envision a new normal,” she says.

That space took the form of community input meetings in which local residents discussed what envisioning a new normal and restoring love in the community meant to them. Eleven South Side artists took those conversations and brought their messages to life on one of the 12 fiberglass hearts, which will remain on display through September in 11 neighborhoods including Grand Boulevard, Back of the Yards, Woodlawn, Douglas, Kenwood, Hyde Park, and others. 

In addition to Reed’s “Reconnecting” heart in Hyde Park’s Nichols Park, he also contributed a heart displayed on King Drive in Bronzeville that emphasizes the idea of trust. Other hearts in the series feature themes such as mindfulness, creating safe spaces, inner positivity, and the power of community. Reed says the series was not only a creative and emotional outlet for community members but also a way to bring public art to the South Side when it’s often overlooked.

“The project is about artists being creative but at the same time it’s about uplifting and inspiring communities,” Reed said. “[When the pandemic started] everybody was kind of inside and the future of everything was really questionable. People were unsure about things so to create something like this—fine art in a public space—is a really good thing for people.”

LUV has also hosted events and tours around the installations throughout the year and plans to auction them off at a culminating ceremony and festival in September.

“The reason why these partnerships are so important is because you have a lot of people who have these big audacious ideas, big dreams, big aspirations to transform their community but they don’t always have the skill set to do that,” Nazon-Wilburn says. “Having a partner like the Accelerator has given us the skill set to get there.”

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