The announcement of the non-indictment of the police officer involved in Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island seemed to be a tipping point for many people in New York City. The daily injustices suddenly felt too overwhelming. Sifting through the outpouring of emotion contained in the news reports and social media flurries, it was clear that we needed somewhere to funnel the mix of outrage and heartbreak. The answer, at least for a number of arts educators, was obvious: pour the energy into creating art with young people.
In the Art Education program at City College of New York, where I work with a community of current and future arts educators, we talk often about how power, privilege, identity, and activism are core to our work as arts educators. These conversations are built into the coursework and our own teaching. And yet, something about the depth of despair following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice, (I could list so many more here), warranted even more focus. We needed immediate solutions to bring topics of racial injustice, police violence, and the protests in Ferguson (and beyond) into our art classrooms. We needed relevant lesson plans, art-making activities, and suggested artists. And, perhaps more than anything else, we needed to feel connected to other arts educators who believe that art can–and should–be a tool for social change.
The Teaching Art Today: #BlackLivesMatter Teach In event started out as a lesson plan/activity brainstorming workshop for current CCNY students and alumni. But emails move fast. Within a few days, the RSVP’s were streaming in from teaching artists and museum educators across NYC who were eager to connect with others engaged in racial justice. We had planned for 20; almost 70 arts educators packed the room. We ran out of chairs before the pizza even arrived.
After viewing artwork by Damon Davis, Adrian Piper, Hank Willis Thomas, Melanie Cervantes, Shirin-Banou Barghi, Dread Scott, a short video by Molly Crabapple, and a short collaborative reflection activity, we divided the room into contexts for teaching–elementary students, high school students, museums, out-of-school spaces, and higher ed. I encouraged each group to consider strategies the might empower our students to observe their own experiences, critically analyze the factors and underlying systems of injustice, and to take action through their artwork. Each group shared arts-based strategies and activities that we might use in our teaching immediately, some are included here:
- I believe/I grieve
- I see myself as…/Other people see me as….
- My greatest fear/hope…
- I am a future…
- Create a self-portrait that depicts how you see yourself and how you think others’ see you
- Ask elementary and high school students the following:
- What is protest? What is violence? What is peace?
- How do we stand up for what we believe in?
- Who makes art about these subjects?
- What is your response/reaction to x event?
- What is identity? Who defines who we are?
- Discuss artwork by Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Adrian Piper, street artists, local artists
- Compare artwork from today with Civil Rights era artwork
- Ask why? and Who decides and benefits?
- Replace the language in common ads; compare how the meaning changes
- Create visual maps to connect the various factors influencing an issue
- Create an art installation on the school’s metal detectors
- Design permission slips to change the world
- Perform youth responses to questions above
- Create posters to share publicly
- Design wearable labels based on prompts above
- Create political cartoons
- Designate a space for collaborative wall art
In debriefing the ideas, there was much head-nodding, note-taking, email-swapping, and the occasional cheer. Several people asked when we were meeting next (answer: January 26th). Everyone left recommitted to our hard work.
This event is why many of us became arts educators: to figure out ways to dismantle an unjust world and recreate it. Through the arts, many of us find that we can participate in something creative in the midst of destruction; that we can offer something binding to a world that can all too often seem to be coming unraveled.
Reflecting on the Teaching Art Teach In, I am reminded of a few important takeaways:
1. There is a need for events–big or small–that bring arts educators together to swap ideas about how to teach art about racial justice. Wherever and whenever you can, grab a colleague (or 70) and help each other teach about racial inequality now.
2. Arts spaces are among the very few places where educators can easily address complexity, multiple viewpoints, layered perspectives, cultural expression, and activism because these concepts are already in the DNA of artistic production. Plus, we don’t yet have to deal with standardized test prep, so really, we have no excuse not to deal with what’s most relevant to our students.
3. We need to teach young people how to peel apart the incredibly layered factors that contribute to systems of injustice. It’s not just about what happened, but why and who benefits?
Clearly, there’s much more to be said.
If you’re in NYC, come join us for round two of the Teaching Art Today: #BlackLivesMatter Teach In (Jan. 26th @ 6:00pm). And, in the meantime, check out the resources gathered by The Laundromat Project, Art21, SOMArts, and Art Museum Teaching.