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New Video Project ‘Empowered’ Tells the Stories of Chicagoans Living with Energy Insecurity

The project is a collaboration between nonprofit Elevate and artist Tonika Lewis Johnson to uplift stories of Chicago homeowners who have experienced the challenge of unaffordable energy costs. 

CHICAGO – When facing energy challenges, people empower themselves daily by finding creative strategies to take control of their energy use. Still, millions of Americans struggle to meet their basic energy needs every year. A new project from Elevate and artist Tonika Lewis Johnson (known for her groundbreaking Folded Map and Inequity for Sale projects) uplifts the stories of Chicagoans experiencing energy insecurity.  

Empowered shares a series of animated video interviews of Chicagoans from across the city telling the story of their experience with the challenges of unaffordable energy costs. The project moves beyond the numbers and dollar signs of ‘affordability’ and uplifts the lived experiences of real people. 

Experiencing energy insecurity often means more than just being unable to pay your bills – it can mean feeling uncomfortable in your home, sacrificing food or medications to pay for utilities, and living with the chronic stress of a possible shut-off. These implications of unaffordable energy bills can quickly threaten someone’s housing security, or ability to stay in their home.  

“Thousands of people in Chicago struggle to pay their utility bills. Many of them also have homes that don’t qualify for energy efficiency programs due to barriers rooted in systemic segregation and racism. All of them are our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends,” said Tonika Lewis Johnson. “These are their stories”  

In addition to uplifting people’s lived experiences, Empowered acts as a road map for change. The Empowered website outlines guidelines for policymakers to incorporate equity in their energy and housing policy, as well as steps that individuals can take to get engaged with political change.  

“Many people, when faced with unaffordable energy costs, find ways to keep costs low – they don’t turn up the heat to a comfortable temperature, or they cut down on another bill like groceries,” said Elevate CEO Anne Evens. “People should not have to sacrifice their quality of life or risk their housing security to access the basics of powering their home. By sharing these stories, we ask utilities, cities, and policymakers to think about the real people affected by energy and housing policies and start putting equity first.” 

Listen to the stories and learn more on the project website at 

About Elevate

Elevate is a nonprofit organization that works nationally and is headquartered in Chicago. Elevate designs and implements programs to ensure that everyone has clean and affordable heat, power, and water in their homes and communities – no matter who they are or where they live. 

About Tonika Lewis Johnson

Tonika Lewis Johnson is a photographer, social justice artist and life-long resident of Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Englewood. She is also co-founder of the Englewood Arts Collective and Resident Association of Greater Englewood, which seek to reframe the narrative of South Side communities, and mobilize people and resources for positive change. Tonika’s art often explores urban segregation, documenting the nuance and richness of the black community to counter media depictions of Chicago’s violence. As a trained photojournalist and former teaching artist, Tonika’s artistic legacy has gained citywide recognition in the last five years. She launched her Folded Map project in 2018, which visually investigates disparities among “map twins” – Chicago residents who live on opposite ends of the same streets across the city’s racial and economic divides – and brings them together to have a conversation. Since then, Tonika has transformed Folded Map into an advocacy and policy-influencing tool that invites audiences to open a dialogue about how we are all socially impacted by racial and institutional conditions that segregate Chicago. Her more recent project, Inequity for Sale, highlights the living history of Greater Englewood homes sold on Land Sale Contracts in the 50s and 60s. Learn more at

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