Jessie Woods Day: May 21


As proclaimed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1994: May 21 is Jessie Woods Day in Chicago, in honor of the incredible woman who founded Urban Gateways in 1961!

Jessie Woods dedicated her life to providing children and their families with unique cultural experiences and exposure to the best of Chicago’s arts world. And in order to do that, “all she needed was some small light!”

In honor of Jessie’s legacy, we invite you to spend some time with this heartfelt poem written by Urban Gateways’ Honorary Board Member and INCREDIBLE author Ronne Hartfield, in celebration of Jessie Woods in 1994:

Dancing in the Light: Jessie’s Legacy
by Ronne Hartfield, April 1994

“…only then did I know that to live in the world all that I needed was some small light and know that indeed I would rise again and rise again to dance.”   –Lucille Clifton

all that she needed was
some small light

1. she knew this first
when once, waking
from a deep childsleep,
she stretched her own five fingers
toward the sun and
like a leaf, opened.

all that she needed
was some small light

2. she flew then,
leaping into wide blue air
spinning in endless space
slowing, in this new time,
into a stillness
different than before.

all that she needed was
some small light

3. she held the dance
in her open hand,
an answer to an unasked question
and what she knew was this:
that she would rise again to dance
and her hands
would reach out to touch the hands
of a thousand thousand children
and all of the children
would learn to dance.

all that she needed was
some small light

4. she grew then
into this knowledge
and gave her life to it
and kindled skiesful of small lights
so that all of the children
could hold in their hands
the vast secret joy that lives
deep inside, invisible and quiet,
until it begins to move
and becomes a painting or a poem
or flute music rising over a city rooftop
and the children rise again
and rise again to dance.

all that she needed was
some small light



Photo: Jessie Woods in 1995 with the National Medal of Arts awarded to Urban Gateways that year by President Clinton.

Jessie Woods founded Urban Gateways in 1961; what started as a single in-school arts program at Raymond School on Chicago’s South Side and a grant to provide discounted concert + performance tickets for Chicago students, has transformed over the decades into a broad array of arts programs reaching over 95,000 participants per year in the Chicago area.

“Something kept us going during the early days of hard work and little assistance,” Jessie Woods said. “Perhaps it was the dream of giving children a chance to experience another world previously unexplored, a chance to learn without textbooks and lectures, a chance to grow in a larger environment.”

We’re incredibly grateful to Jessie and her co-founders for their passion and persistence; they provided the foundation for all we do. 🙏