• Sanctuary Spaces


Situated at the present historical moment of resurgent white nationalism and xenophobia, Sanctuary Spaces: Reworlding Humanism, a Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar, undertakes comparative inquiry of imaginations and practices of sanctuary and refuge. Thinking across Europe and the United States, the seminar foregrounds the colonial relationalities and histories of dispossession that constitute the grounds of migration and asylum in the liberal democracies of the West. Seeking to accompany movements that challenge detention and deportation, Sanctuary Spaces supports scholarship, art, and pedagogy that enact different humanisms and other worlds of political being. Organized around three themes, Abolition on Stolen LandThe End of Humanitarianism, and Freedom and Fugitivity, the year-long endeavor convenes public programs, virtual residencies, and conceptual conversations to generate frames and actions that unravel the logics of liberalism and its entanglements with imperialism. Learn more about Sanctuary Spaces: Reworlding Humanism.


Sanctuary Spaces: Reworlding Humanism seeks to create a field of historical, comparative, and artistic inquiry through different modes of scholarship and public dialogue.

From Ethnography to Ethno-Graphic: Representing Work of the Police (audio only)

Convened & recorded on January 29, 2021

Abolitionist Praxis: Bringing Our Imagination to Life (video & audio)

Convened & recorded on December 1, 2020

Abolition on Stolen Land (video & audio)

Convened & recorded on October 9, 2020

Sanctuary & Solidarity: Resisting the U.S. War on Refugees and Migrants (video & audio)

Convened & recorded on August 28, 2020


Virtual Residency

The Sawyer Seminar will be host to artists and activists who explore sanctuary, refuge, and histories of resistance.

Public Events

The Sawyer Seminar facilitates and programs provocative conversations featuring voices from around the globe.

Sanctuary Shorts

The Sawyer Seminar will center Postcolonial Studies, Indigenous Studies, the Black Radical Tradition, Critical Refugee Studies, and Border Studies through a creative lens.


With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Institute had to reimagine the Sanctuary Spaces endeavors that included in-person events and conversations, and translate them into virtual formats that still effectively provoke conceptual conversations to generate frames and actions that unravel the logics of liberalism and its entanglements with imperialism. One such format is the Virtual Residency, where we hope to create a terrain of exploration and scholarship that is shared by artists, university-based scholars, and movement-based scholars alike from which to learn. The Institute will host a Virtual Residency each quarter of the 2020-21 academic year.

Winter 2021 Virtual Residency: Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT)

  • Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) is a collective of artivists, performance artists, critical theorists, poets, and coders who engage in disturbances between digital and non-digital spaces. EDT 1.0, whose members included Ricardo Dominguez, Carmin Karasic, Brett Stalbaum, and Stefan Wray, developed the first virtual-sit-in technology in 1998 in solidarity with the Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico. EDT 2.0, whose members include micha cárdenas, Amy Sara Carroll, Ricardo Dominguez, Elle Mehrmand, and Brett Stalbaum, was re/established in 2007. EDT 2.0 created the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT), a GPS (Geo-Poetic System) cellphone safety net for wanderers on the Mexico–U.S. border.The Transborder Immigrant Tool has been presented at a number of U.S. and international venues, including ZKM, Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany (2013); Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands (2013); Toronto Free Gallery, Canada (2011); California Biennial, Orange County Museum of Art (2010), Art in the Age of Anxiety, Sharjah Art Foundation (2020), and La vida nueva, Whitney ISP (2020).EDT 2.0 received the Transnational Communities Award, an award funded by Cultural Contact, Endowment for Culture Mexico–U.S. (2008). Additional funding for the project has been provided by CALIT2 (California Information Technology 2) and the Center for the Humanities at the University of California, San Diego.
  • WATCH >> “trans/BORDER/ing: The Aesthetics of Disturbance and Undocumentary Flight>> Recorded on February 19, 2021

Fall 2020 Virtual Residency: (F)EMPOWER

  • (F)EMPOWER is a collective of queer feminist cultural workers who understand that we are not free while anyone is unfree. We believe in a feminism that is beyond bars, borders and binaries and are committed to decarceration and abolition. We believe in living. Our abolitionist praxis began with consciousness raising efforts among queer women in Miami, in a collective study space called Liberation Book Club. In this space, we collectively learned and discussed the ways in which Black and poor people are stolen from our communities by the state. Following the Black Radical tradition, we embodied and practiced abolition and solidarity, by participating in the National Bailout’s annual Black Mamas Bailout initiative, pooling our resources to bring two queer Black mamas home in time for Mother’s day and confronting the predatory system of money bail in Miami. Once the COVID crisis broke out, exacerbating deathly conditions inside jail cages, we reactivated our bail fund as a means to provide lifelines for our people. From March ‘til August we bailed out over 30 people in Miami-Dade county and provided them with aftercare for over 90 days. Through banner drops, digital art campaigns, creative actions and performances, we used our creative gifts and talents to create a culture shift in Miami – away from the individualist, patriarchal violence of the state and towards anti-capitalist, abolitionist collectivist and feminist futures. Now, we are engaged in creating community safety away from policing by participating in Miami’s Healing and Justice Center, a coalitional effort led by racial justice organization, the Dream Defenders. We are providing fellowships to formerly incarcerated people, creating spaces for them to heal with the land and participate in creative storytelling. Assata Shakur taught us that we have a duty to love and protect our people, we are committed to doing just that.
  • WATCH >>Abolitionist Praxis: Bringing Our Imagination to Life>> Recorded on December 1, 2020

Fall 2020 Virtual Residence Profiles

Niki Franco

Abolitionist Community Organizer

Niki Franco is an abolitionist community organizer, writer, and facilitator of spaces for collective study. Seeking to disrupt the institutionalized bureaucratic frameworks of academia and transactional ways in which relationships exist under capitalism, her work experiments with truth-telling, radical history and thought, and revolutionary imagination.  She also curates educational and cultural programming that navigates the current urgency on global solidarity, environmental and ancestral preservation, and strategies on building emotional and intellectual capacities to dismantle systems of oppression that inform and deform our current lives. She is the host of “Getting to the Root of It with Venus Roots,” a podcast that leans into conversations with artists, theorists, and organizers.

She is currently based in Miami, Florida where she serves as the Political Education Director for (F)EMPOWER MIA and Civic Engagement Organizer for Power U Center for Social Change.

Helen Peña

Storyteller Cultural Organizer

Helen Peña is a Black feminist storyteller and cultural organizer from Miami, Florida. She uses photography, graphic design and zine-making to interrogate the effects of colonization towards the Black female body. Her artwork explores race, gender, sexuality, spirituality, and memory. In times of social uprising and struggles for justice, she believes the role of the artist is to be grounded in community, telling stories of solidarity among all oppressed peoples and radically imagining life-affirming futures.

In 2017, Helen co-founded (F)EMPOWER. Throughout her years leading the collective, she has curated and produced several art shows, steered digital campaigns, led public art interventions, facilitated political education bootcamps, workshops, and panels, co-founded a community garden, a community bail fund, a Black queer diasporic party, and more.

For 2 years, Helen worked in digital communications for racial and economic justice organization, the Dream Defenders. While there, she used art to amplify political organizing, by using photo, video and graphic design to breathe life to political campaigns, transforming their social media and digital presence.

Currently, she is producing her first short film, Celeste, a documentary and impressionist film about sex workers in Miami and co-creating Third World Feminist School, a political education space connecting feminist organizers in Miami to decolonial struggles of the caribbean, Latin-America, and the global south.