Upstanders: How Artist Chris Devins Is Standing Up Against Antisemitism, Racism, Bigotry, and Hate

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Start with the person in the mirror. Humble yourself, take some bias training, learn humility and begin to unravel your own biases and programming. From there, move on to your area. Improve the environment around you, call out these issues when you encounter them, speak up. Use your talents and skills to address the issues. Be part of the solution, not the problem.

An upstander is the opposite of a bystander. A bystander is someone who stands by while others are being bullied, maligned, or mistreated. An upstander is someone who stands up to protect and advocate for the victim. We are sadly seeing a surge of hate, both online and in the real world. Many vulnerable minorities feel threatened and under attack. What measures are individuals, communities, and organizations taking to stand up against Antisemitism, Racism, Bigotry, and Hate? In this interview series, we are talking to activists, community leaders, and individuals who are Upstanders against hate, to share what they are doing and to inspire others to do the same. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Devins.

Chris Devins fights antisemitism, racism, bigotry and hate with Public Art, including murals and sculptures. Chris Devins, MUPP (2012) is a Chicago, IL based Urban Planner/Artist known for large, outdoor murals of A. Philip Randolph and the Pullman Porters, Rashid Lynn (Common), Lorraine Hansberry, Chance the Rapper, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, the Bronzeville Marianos grocery store’s “Sunday Morning” wall and “Legends” fence, Chatham 2.0, Hyde Park Heroes, and other community Art initiatives that portray south side Chicagoans in a positive light. He is part of a team (with Civic Artworks) that won a 2016 Best Practices award from the Illinois Chapter of the American Planning Association. This year, in 2023 he won the Richard Driehaus Foundation/Landmark Illinois Award in the Cultural Preservation category for his mutli-mural placemaking initiative, the Bronzeville Legends Initiative.

He founded his multi-disciplinary practice, Chris Devins Creative officially in Bronzeville, Chicago in 2014, as an outgrowth of his work in the community even as more residents’ homes were being demolished at a local project. As he pondered the loss of yet another important Bronzeville development, Chris began to think about Identity, the role it plays in a neighborhood’s economic and social viability, and the potential of public/street art as a way to strengthen community and combat racism.

Chris Devins Creative/Chicago Artist

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in the half Jewish, half African-American Hyde Park neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. I was born in a time of American segregation and discrimination, as a bi-racial young boy with a 100 percent Irish father and a Black mother. At the time my parents met, Hyde Park was the only neighborhood of the city where inter-racial couples could live openly and race mixing was still against the law. I attended Catholic school for both grade school and high school, receiving an excellent education. I skipped 4th grade in school and so was always a year younger than everyone. Hyde Park was an oasis; a Utopia and I did not experience real racism until I attended a high school.

At home though, from the very beginning of my life, I experienced the harsh reality of racism first hand. My Irish grandfather would not talk to me or my mother and would not allow us into his home or acknowledge us in any way. My Irish grandmother would call me on the telephone to wish me ‘Happy Birthday” and on certain holidays. I felt shame, I blamed myself, thought something was wrong with me and I felt sad for my mother, whose isolation from that side of the family I could feel. I carried shame and isolation with me through the rest of my early life. In my early 30’s, my mother’s alcoholism took root and she died young. My father, I found out later, died 9 months after my mother.

Can you share a personal story of how you experienced or encountered antisemitism, racism, bigotry, or hate? How did that experience shape your perception and actions moving forward?

As a bi-racial person attending an all-Black grade school, I encountered no racism at all. Things changed when I attended high school. Coming from the multi-racial Utopia I grew up in, I was shocked at the virulent racism I encountered in high school. After hearing no racial slurs growing up, suddenly I was assaulted with racial epithets of every kind. The world, which was once an organic whole, was now presented to me by classmates as one divided into n-ggers, sp-cs, wh-ps, k-kes, guidos and others.

There was a teacher I respected very much. One day, he asked us to stand before the class and describe our ethnic and familial background, which I found odd. When it was my turn, I described my family exactly as it was and described myself as a “Black Irishman”, half Irish (through DNA tests I now know that I am 54% British) and half Black (39% stolen Nigerian). After class, the teacher, a White Man, pulled me to the side and said, “You know if you have any Black in you at all Christopher, you’re Black, period.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, I was 13 at the time, but it was a rude awakening. Like that, for the umpteenth time, half of my heritage was erased and I felt a sense of shame.

Can you describe how you or your organization is helping to stand up against hate? What inspired you to take up this cause?

My Art practice, Chris Devins Creative, creates large murals of Black, Brown and Jewish Chicagoans, in south side neighborhoods, to show the good that comes from these areas, to give the Youth something positive to look up to and to counteract the constant negative stories that the mainstream media puts out. My early childhood experiences inspired me to take up this cause.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your work as an Upstander?

In Summer of 2022, I created a mural of rapper/celebrity Kanye West in the Fulton Market area of Chicago. The mural was very popular, I would get photo tags most every day, from people experiencing and enjoying the mural. A few months after I did the mural, Kanye West began making hurtful comments, antisemitic, deeply disturbing comments, in the media. At first, I ignored it because I felt the Jewish people were resilient enough to take some back and forth and because in my opinion, Kanye West was having some kind of public meltdown. However, the comments continued and became even more hateful. After Mr. West made a statement saying that Adolph Hitler was A GREAT Man or something like that, I completely disavowed myself of him, in my mind. The problem was now, I have this 14’ tall mural of a hateful Man in downtown Chicago, what to do? I saw an artist I follow had erased, painted over a mural he did of Kanye West and began to think of doing the same. Around that time, providence struck and I received a call from Rabbi Avrohom Kagan. We met, took a liking to each other immediately and began to think of how we could work together on this problem. We decided removing the mural would make us miss an important learning and healing opportunity. He gave me an inspirational quote from Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Laidi, “A little light dispels a lot of darkness”, which I plastered over the face and mouth of the Kanye West mural, something I found very satisfying. The story of the Street Artist and the Rabbi went somewhat viral and the story was covered by the Washington Post and in several Israeli newspaper.

Could you share an inspiring story that demonstrates the impact your efforts have had on an individual or community?

In 2013, I created my first public Art initiative to combat negative perceptions of south side Chicagoans and highlight the area’s accomplishments, called the Bronzeville Legends Initiative.”

Bronzeville Legends, launched in 2014, is a curated multi-site placemaking campaign that uses large murals of the South Side community’s past residents to celebrate Bronzeville’s rich heritage.

The murals became very popular in the community, instilling pride and attracting visitors to the area. This year, 2023, I won the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation/ Landmarks Illinois Preservation Award in the category of Cultural Heritage Preservation.

In your opinion, why do you think there has been such a surge of antisemitism, racism, bigotry, & hate, recently?

There has always been an undercurrent of antisemitism, racism, bigotry, & hate in America. I think however, it was brought to the surface in a major way when Donald Trump. In an effort to pander to disaffected White US voters, began to rail against those he called “Mexicans” and “South Americans” coming over the US border in huge, uncontrolled hordes, which fanned White fears and reopened old societal wounds.

This occurred in an atmosphere which included the George Floyd killing and protests the coronavirus, which exacerbated the problem.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?


  1. Tone down the divisive politics and focus on issues that bring us together, rather than divide us.
  2. Allocate real resources to people and communities in need. After the end of the government stimulus, people are suffering an in need of real, substantive assistance.
  3. Open a dialogue between those on all sides of the major issues plaguing us today, include all voices, make sure everyone is heard. Let’s talk these issues out publicly, take advantage of the opportunity.

What are your “5 Things Everyone Can Do To Be An Upstander”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Attend workshops and protests that focus on race related issues.
  2. Study, shore up your personal knowledge of the issues. Check for your own biases and assumptions.
  3. Support the work and Art of people of color and those of Jewish descent.
  4. Become involved in organizations that support racial justice causes.
  5. Use your particular talents and skills to add to the conversation in positive ways, counteract the negative.

How do you handle the emotional toll that comes with being an Upstander?

I have a strong relationship with my partner, though one with a lot of freedom. I exercise strenuously and several days per week. This helps me deal with the stress. I limit my exposure to negative news.

If you were in charge of the major social media companies, what would you do to address the hate on the platforms? Could you share specific strategies or policies that you believe would be effective in addressing hate on social media platforms?

I want to avoid censorship, and I want all voices to be heard. That said, inflammatory rhetoric, hateful rhetoric, hateful teachings, I believe we must at the very least, explain the context in which they are being said and, in some cases, remove them from the platforms.

There used to be a government body that was charged with keeping grown up material away of the eyes and ears of children. I think we need a Board, composed of reps from the social media companies, the government and the people, that can study these problems and make recommendations.

How would you answer someone who says: “Hate speech is permitted under the US Constitution. Why are you so worried about permitted, and legal speech?”

Free speech is protected under the constitution, dangerous inflammatory speech is not however. You cannot yell, “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. That is against the law. Some of the hate speech coming out now falls into the inflammatory and dangerous category, is the equivalent of yelling “Fire” in the public square of debate.

Are you optimistic that we can solve this problem in the United States? Can you please explain what you mean?

The Internet has connected all of our communications and sped them up. As a result, our voices are amplified and the pendulum of public sentiment swings back and forth more quickly. Also, spending so much time communicating through texts and in other virtual ways has robbed us of our ability to relate and work issues out face-to-face. To counter the effects of the Internet and virtual communication, we need to add basic communication and social and emotional intelligence training in our schools.

Starting with these basics, agreeing to disagree but to return civilized discussion and debate to our society will calm things down and I think we are in for an easier going period after this. We will also have to exercise forgiveness and the principle of moving on.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an Upstander but doesn’t know where to start?

Start with the person in the mirror. Humble yourself, take some bias training, learn humility and begin to unravel your own biases and programming. From there, move on to your area. Improve the environment around you, call out these issues when you encounter them, speak up. Use your talents and skills to address the issues. Be part of the solution, not the problem.

In what ways can education be leveraged to combat antisemitism, racism, bigotry, and hate?

Remove the issue of antisemitism and racism from strictly the local conversation and courts. Make it a Global issue and take it to the World Court, to the United Nations, treat it as the Human Rights issue that it is. As such, develop classes, courses, curriculum, education programs that address these issues in that framework.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is from an unknown source but it is, “You don’t get what you want in Life, you get what you ARE.” Your assumptions, your biases, your upbringing, the things you were taught, the decisions you make, these ultimately determine the outcome of your life. Who ARE you? What do you stand for?

This has been the ultimate guide for my Life. When faced with any perplexing issue that keeps repeating, even things that seem to be completely unrelated to ne, I always turn to the person in the mirror, and work on self.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

If I could speak with anyone in the world about this it would be George Soros, because his Open Society Foundations work fits hand in glove with our objectives to fight antisemitism, racism, bigotry and hate through Public Art.

I would speak to him about the power of Public Art in this global fight against racist tyranny.

How can our readers further follow your work online?


Twitter: @leagueofextra

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your important work!

Upstanders: How Artist Chris Devins Is Standing Up Against Antisemitism, Racism, Bigotry, and Hate was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.