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On-Site Staff / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management

Processing Social Issues Through Art-Making

Processing Social Issues Through Art-Making

This piece originally appeared on the Breakfast Club Blog on January 23, 2015.

The news is often overwhelming with images of violence, objectification, and families left stunned and mourning over great loss.

The need for social justice is not new. But to high school students who are just coming to understand the repetitive nature of the news…and just how nasty things in this world can be…it is new.

It seems that at this tender age, high school students are beginning to identify what they formerly understood as singular incidents, that they may have even personally experienced, as either “just the way things are” or results of systematic injustice and oppression. This is a more than overwhelming choice to make.

In these moments, when life has shifted, young people are looking to the adults in their lives.

They are looking to see if we have stopped to acknowledge the widespread pain in the news or if we have just continued on with our daily schedules. We, as the adults in young people’s lives, are charged with guiding them through making sense of their world. One utterly necessary thing we must do to fulfill this commission, is to help them process their personal experiences in relation to current and ongoing social justice issues.

I have an eclectic mix of young people in my high school dance class, each student with a unique story, each from a different neighborhood. And within the group several countries, cultures, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, genders, race, and economic backgrounds are represented. In the last few months the heaviness of heart in relation to the news has been palpable in the dance studio.

Students were arriving to dance class after school exhausted in a new way, eyes often puffy from tears, determined to stay committed to wearing black in solidarity, but frustrated at peers who did not support them or are openly opposing that anything is wrong in the world.

My gut told me to kick off our winter term of classes with a thematic investigation.

My heart was heavy from the news, and I was certain that theirs were too. On the opening day I gathered them close together, they pulled out notebooks and journals and something to write with. I asked them to write about a social issue that weighs heavy on their heart. Every student immediately began to write. They did not take their pens and pencils off their papers for the next hour. I had never seen all of them so deeply immersed in what they were writing all at one time for so long. My intuition was right. They needed to talk about the weight they felt.

I asked them to share in summary what they had written:

An African American young woman shared a story about having a sleepover with Caucasian friends, and as she wrapped her hair to go to sleep, one of the other girls told her that she looked like “The Help”.

A Caucasian Muslim young woman shared the pain her family has experienced over religious prosecution, hate, and the painful empathy that overwhelms her about the occupancy of Palestine.

A South African young woman shared her frustration over corrupt governments and the persistent and ongoing abuse of power and colonization. A Caucasian young man shared the helplessness he felt that he someday would have job opportunities and be paid more for the same job than the very young women he was sitting with in the room.

An African American woman shared how she was not sure what to say to her younger brother as they watched the events in Ferguson unfold, she did not know how to help make sense of it for him.

A Caucasian young woman shared the overwhelming astonishment at the discovery that her Dad is racist. She never knew it, and then Ferguson happened. His response to the scenes on the news crushed her. She is at a loss for what to do, and wonders if she is still allowed to love her Dad. A young woman who survived sexual assault shared the anger that rises in her over rape culture, gender-based violence, and the differences in the treatment of the genders.

An Asian American young woman tearfully shared the discrimination her family has endured because she has two mothers, neither of which look like her. An African American young woman shared her deep pain and personal experience over racial inequality and violence. She had led a die-in and through the experience learned that one of her close friends, who is Caucasian, did not have her back. She is enduring severe racially charged slander every day at school.

As the adults in their lives, let us lead the young people whom we have the profound privilege of knowing through the process of making sense of their world.

Art-making lends itself to this process.

The creators experience efficacy and influence as they form their work to speak their voice. The art piece, no matter whether it is a dance, a song, a culinary masterpiece, or a mural, acts as a container to hold what hurts. And the process of making art is, in and of itself, healing. Consider also, if the creative process is collaborative it requires hearing each other, seeing each other, and being open to different vantage points. Empathy.


One Approach to Thematic Investigation:

1. Safety.
Dim lighting. This takes the pressure off students and relaxes the environment. Sit comfortably. Allow students to sprawl out on the floor, in chairs, in their own corner, away from the group, with the group, or with a friend close by. Allow quiet conversation, so long as young people are on topic and not distracting others who need quiet. Do not forget that some young people process their thoughts interpersonally. Observe when to call the time. Let them write until they do not need to write anymore. It may be that the writing process requires one or two sessions.

2. Choice.
Give choice to sharing. Do not call on students. Clearly explain at the start of sharing that it is their choice when and if they share. This communicates that you believe that they know what they need. And wait. Get comfortable with silence. They will talk. Relax and trust them. Or, if no one shares, re-evaluate what was needed. Perhaps they needed self-reflection and time alone. But, wait. Give them the opportunity. And longer than you think you should.

3. Consistency.
Respond in the same exact way to each student who shares, with a genuine “thank you.” In this moment of sharing, do not allow students to respond to each other. This time is about stating one’s experience and feeling, not about arguing the fundamentals of an issue.

4. Gathering.
Take notes as they share. Jot down reoccurring themes. For instance, my students kept returning to the concept of humanity and the lack of acknowledging others as fully human. They used a variation of words to describe this, but this was at the core of each student’s sharing. I repeated it back to them after all had shared to be sure I had truly heard their voices and intent.

5. Create.
After repeating it back to them, get their input. Begin to work out the message in reference to an art-making concept. And then create together, collaboratively. Then work it out some more. Then create some more. Then work it out some more. Then create some more. And so on. Young people will show you where they are in the process. Some might be mourning the world as it is, others will be imagining the world as it could be, and still others might need to use creating as an escape to remember the goodness of life. Engage in the process with young people, but most certainly do not take over the process, allow the art-making to fill the void that is needed now in order that it might usher them into making sense of this world.

Whether it is a mural, a dance piece, a song, a sculpture, a weaving, a culinary delight or any other thing you can think up to create with your young people…create. Make something. Let what you create together become a safe place to make sense of the world. Include your own voice in the mix, but be sure you do not take over; let the voice of the art piece truly be the collective voice. Creating reinforces the truth that we each have influence and efficacy, even in the face of systematic injustice and oppression. We are not stones swept away at sea. We are strongly rooted trees growing and thriving in the face of injustice.

For breakfast, I had Greek yogurt and granola.

Author Profile: @juliacrawford

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