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Equity and Social Justice Art Education

As I sit at my desk inside my classroom on this cold, gloomy Saturday, I cannot stop reflecting and rethinking everything I have learned about my teaching practices and education. In fact, the two articles I was assigned to read and carefully discuss for this week only served to reinforce the need for more self-reflection on my part. The first article I read was Rethinking Our Classrooms by Bigelow, Harvey, Karp & Miller. The authors begin by stating that,"schools and classrooms should be laboratories for a more just society than the one we live in."(pg. X) As a society, we continue to struggle with long standing issues such as racism, social, economic, medical and educational inequalities. What kind of realistic change can we bring about in a system that does not necessarily allow nor support transformation? In Rethinking Our Classrooms, I immediately connected with the idea of being visionary and practical. "We need to be inspired by each other's vision of schooling;practical because for too long teachers have been preached at by theoreticians, well removed from classrooms."(pg. X) As a 14 year Chicago Public School art teacher, it has been frustrating at times to figure out creative ways to connect with students and art teachers from other schools within our district.  My idea is to create a non-profit arts organization that will help build arts communities that brings students, parents and teachers together to make art that is intentional, participatory and critically addresses social concerns relevant to them. In doing so, students would become activists or "truth-tellers and change makers." (pg. XI)
In the article An Inevitable Question: Exploring the Defining Features of Social Justice Art Education, author Marit Dewhurst explains the complexities of trying to define the meaning of social justice art education. After observing 14 teenagers in a free after school activist art class, Dewhurst identified 3 pedagogical activities. They are connecting, questioning, and translating. (pg. 2) Both of these articles make reference to Paolo Friere by noting that art making practice and educational opportunties should be connected to a student's life experiences. In doing so, students may draw deeper levels of meaning if connections are made. Questioning is very important in the process of making social justice art. "Through both posing and pursuing questions, activists artists are simultaneously learning and teaching about social issues in ways evocative of critical pedagogy's collaborative problem-posing education (Friere, 1970) (pg. 4) The point that I find most challenging both as an artist and teacher has to do with "translating." Trying to find a "proper" balance between how you want to get your message across and the aesthetic qualities of your work is not easy. Finding the right tools to convey your message successfully may take plenty of trial and error. Teaching students the importance of critical questions, understanding the value from critiques and continuing the discussion via a public audience are also important according to Drewhurst.

1.) Have you made artwork that could be considered "activist" or social justice art? Was it made in a classroom or on your own?

2.) As an elementary or high school student, can you recall an experience or moment where you felt you were encouraged to question or "talk back" to the world? Did your teacher facilitate that experience or did you take it upon yourself to do so?

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Comment by Daniella Martinez on October 7, 2014 at 5:00pm
Activist art, hmm…. One class in high school that really opened my eyes to social justice was a required part of the theology curriculum for junior year. Up until then, we had to take the basic Christianity class and morals class. For junior year we had Social Justice. It was with Mr. D. He introduced many projects and had us do lots of writing, researching, and the last project was our own presentation of 80 minutes to our classmates. We were to engage the class, our peers for 80 minutes! That is very intimidating, and we did it in groups of two. My topic was human trafficking. I learned a lot that semester, things and images I still remember clearly today. That project had us encompass a wide range of activities, from power point, visuals, statistics, drama, film and dialogue. I think it was a form of social justice by informing my peers of something they maybe had not thought much about. Also, I like to think I use my knowledge in defending others when I can, and passing knowledge about subjects that are often unspoken on.

That same teacher had us write letters on behalf of Amnesty International for a case on two brothers being held unjustly in Afghanistan. It was a formal letter writing training almost, and I think it has helped me later in life by giving me the experience. In my daily life I try to defend those who are being talked about, or put down even when that “other” isn’t around.

To respond to Yingyue: In a highly oppressed society the oppression does keep most people quiet. You must be smart, and the first ones are always in the mot danger of risking being taken by the government and possibly, never returning (depending on the level of corruption). I would only join a force if I knew there was a chance to defeat the other side. Is that wrong of me? I saw Anthony Bourdains show on the Republic of Myanmar, it wasn’t until 1990 that they held their first elections! One man in the coffee shop expressed how delighted he was to finally be able to speak freely in a coffee shop, even in your own home, openly about politics, and news without the fear of getting taken in the middle of the night. He was even a tiny bit unable to believe that life was no longer under harsh censorship. He smiled happily.
Comment by Seunghye Paik on October 7, 2014 at 12:41am

2.) As an elementary or high school student, can you recall an experience or moment where you felt you were encouraged to question or "talk back" to the world? Did your teacher facilitate that experience or did you take it upon yourself to do so?


I’m not so sure if my story is directly related to your question, but I do remember an incident where I felt very encouraged to tell the world what is so personal and important to me, and that by doing so, I was able to comment on larger ideas related to the broader, socio-cultural issues. It was in my junior year English writing class, and the assignment was writing poetry with the topic of our own interest, dream and inspirations. As an international student who had just learned to speak and write in English, I was really struggling with the assignment. After days of struggling from choosing the topic to actually writing poetry with my limited English ability, I just began to write the poem in my mother tongue, Korean, about my struggle of writing poetry in my second language. I wrote it in about 30 minutes, with no hesitation at all. And then I literally translated the poem word by word to English, so that the order of the words would stay as they were in Korean; because Korean sentences have different order of words - for example, I love you in Korean order would be I you love - the resulting poem was consist of series of broken English that sounded somewhat exotic and definitely strange. I handed it in, highly speculative of how the teacher would respond. However, her reaction was way beyond my expectations; she loved it. She loved it to the extent that she made me read the poem in front of the class, and really encouraged me to submit it to some all-state literary competition; she told me she was so touched and inspired by my honesty, my real voice in the work, and that by being true and brave to myself, I had created a work of art that has a meaning that is way beyond a personal struggle. She told me that the poem represents my own cultural identity and that what makes it so powerful is this topic that was ‘real’ and ‘personal’ to me, coming from my own, everyday life.


And this incident sort of brings me back to this quote from our Dewhurst reading, in which the author states, “that perhaps the “social justice-ness” is not tied to specific subject matter. If critical pedagogy is about learning to critically examine the world around us…why not engage in such a critical examination of technology, science, or for that matter, fashion?” Here Dewhurst emphasizes that a critical pedagogy doesn’t necessarily involve topics directly related to social justice issues such as racism, prejudice and discrimination; but that if the students can learn to “engage in critical reflection and attentive exploration of the ways injustice plays out in the world and in relation to the artist’s own life,” that is where social justice art education and critical pedagogy are conducted. And that all of this process has to be initiated and led by students themselves, autonomically.  

Comment by Lissette Martinez on October 7, 2014 at 12:24am

In Introduction: Creating Classrooms for Equity and Social Justice and An Inevitable Question: Exploring the Defining Features of Social Justice Art Education, the authors offer strategies to include social justice in the classrooms. I thought the passage, "a social justice curriculum must strive to include the lives of all those in our society, especially the marginalized and dominated" (P. X) from Introduction, was interesting because it begs the question of whether or not that is achievable. I remember in class, Lavie mentioned relativity in the case of these alternative methods of education. We have also discussed trying to find a balance between a teacher's complete control of a classroom and a student-driven curriculum. Even though in Introduction, they advocate an immeasurable way of grading, the regular school system still needs a way to evaluate a student's education in order to ensure students achieve a base in order to navigate in the world.

To answer Steve's question, I don't think I had ever been encouraged to question anything throughout my early and high school education, which I feel still resonates within me now. It wasn't until my last year in college that I felt like I had control over my education. I love the way Miranda connects this with music, as the great communicator, which I also agree with. Her question is also great, because I had been wondering the same thing. Maybe the only way to answer that, is to just do the work and hope it resonates with someone, so that it changes their life for the better. Look for the injustices that are close to you, and start with that.

Yu's question was also insightful, because, while maybe not highly oppressive, some of us do come from highly traditional cultures where questioning the system only causes you and your family more grief. Where can we find the support to continue, or even start, when oppression comes from both sides?

I feel that as we are doing these exercises, and reflecting on our own "identities, experiences, and interests" (P.11), we are allowing social justice in the classroom naturally.

Comment by Shannon Marie Barnes on October 6, 2014 at 11:02pm

Like some of you, I cannot relate to these readings from a perspective of teaching within a classroom. While I have been a student in this scenario, I find it hard to react in any other way than merely agreeing with the inspiring words of Steve, and the writers, and in my imaginary dream as classroom educator, I see myself implementing (or at least attempting) these critical topics through art-making. Because, despite the fact these topics in Rethinking Our Classrooms (culturally sensitive, hopeful, visionary, critical, experiential, etc.) seem so simple, they are actually quite powerful and often hard to address. Nevertheless, I am confident the belief of social justice runs deep in my blood, and I dream of change like many. This was not a result of my own classroom art education, or even my school for that matter. There were no teachers in my past facilitating us to "question the world," it was just disgustingly "safe" within the presupposed boundaries.

So in this, I realize the importance of organizations like the one Steve (will!) create! Where rapid changes will hit walls within institutions, possibly taking lifetimes to redefine, there can be places in communities embracing social justice, where it can root and hopefully, eventually, spread to a formal classroom and become the norm. I wonder if there are other, more immediate, ways of bringing social justice into a classroom...? Or for that matter, ways in which teachers can connect and share creative experiences within the classroom...?

Comment by Miranda Winters on October 6, 2014 at 2:18pm

It seems to me that these readings both pushed the idea of an endless circle of learning that follows us throughout a lifetime. The cycle runs on self analysis and should result in the educator getting to "live part of their dreams within their educational space" (Freire by way of Equity and Social Justice). Another message that I found particularly interesting was the need to admit where you lack knowledge and experience in order to improve your abilities in those areas. This should be a requirement for anyone attempting to lead critical education sessions. With that in mind, I'd like to thank Steve for writing with a classroom perspective as it's unfamiliar ground to me but made the readings more relatable.

1.) In response to the 'social justice art making' question Steve posed my mind goes immediately to music. I've always found music to be a powerful tool for all sorts of communication as it's a language anyone can speak if they're interested enough to learn it. Typically I have a few musical projects happening at once, some more experimental than revolutionary, but my work with the Arts of Life Band has always been something I've felt was having a positive impact. I've included a link to a video of us workshopping a song that we wrote in partnership with a studio in Portland. The assignment was interesting as it required us to compose and complete a song over emails, Skype calls, videos and telephones. This sort of education needs to be more common and accessible in Chicago. 
2.) In Providence, RI, where I'm from originally a majority of my art training and experience had to happen outside of school. Across the United States schools lack the funding for arts related programming and materials so unfortunately I don't think my situation was much different than most. Luckily my high school was located in the the center of a college town so with resources like Brown University and RISD surrounding us the available after-school/weekend programming was outstanding. Directly across the street from my public high school was facility called New Urban Arts that provided slam poetry and writing, photography and screen printing, drawing and painting, welding and sculpture classes all for free or simply at the cost of materials. This was something I took advantage of and where I first felt the responsibility of producing work I thought was 'good'. Our instructors at New Urban Arts were generally students from colleges in the surrounding area and I think that in their newness to art education they carried an excited energy; they were ready to share knowledge and didn't mind getting dirty in the process. That's something I appreciate even now, more than 10 years later, and it makes me think:
If you want to be the sort of educator that resonates with someone for a life-time, what sort of 'classroom' should you teach in? Or should you be constantly moving (in the same way you're suppose to reevaluate yourself and your processes indefinitely) ?  
Comment by Sonja Falke on October 5, 2014 at 7:32pm

Hey Steve- nice to read you:-)

1.) Since the text of "An Inevitable Question" invited us to "...unpack the purposes,expectations and perspectives that compel us to mix art and social justice work."

Even if the outcome is hard to measure I  would like to think that I did social justice art with several groups of clients in the past. Some of those projects were not clearly controlled (page 10/11) by the students;or in my case, elderly, people with disabilities but in any case if you work with humans and you have a real interest on them there is a, how could I say? "natural" observing space for their concerns, their interests, passions, opinions and questions as they come up during the process of art making.

I just wonder if social justice art starts to fulfill its purpose after being seen and reflected my the outside of the certain group or if certain processes remain in the art-making group?

Guess both ways are educational in some ways although sometimes, considering the topic, it develops its full potential by being exhibited or shown- so its gets "out there" - don´t you think?

2.) In the age of 15, 9th grade, we started to work with a theater actor and started our own experimental self written play called "Where is Outworld?" The task was to write about our life in the future, how we see ourselves then, what would we enjoy doing  and what is our way of living? Everything had been possible back then, we had the opportunity to rearrange the world. Some of us wrote about art, the wild, nature, music and some wanted to become famous- models, entertainer, in the spot light all day. I remember that one of us wanted to become a well known break- dancer in the scene and my class teacher opened the space for a break dance lesson from my classmate, who usually had been pretty shy. And we started dancing with him, no matter how, we just did.After that our bound had been changed, we started to understand that everyone is a present, able to contribute something wonderful. We were able to discuss about life and goals and the piece ended up being really critical, self reflective and connected to society issues since there had been two worlds. Artsy world- "Outworld" and the famous high class "Zirkonia".

After the whole play was over we all were rethinking our future and aims. That project impressed me and formed part of my thinking.

Comment by Yingyue Yu on October 5, 2014 at 2:56pm

After I read those passages and Steves' response, especially thinking about his questions, I started rethinking my about education back in China, it is so true that throughout the nation both teachers and students lack critical thinking, or even some teachers and students have critical thinking, most of them will not express it due to the complicated social structure and high oppression from the government, (although compared to the historical time which we called cultural revelation, now a ’days the Chinese government has become more open minded). During my four years of studying Environment and Architecture Design, all the courses never closely related the current social issues and all the professors and students were only focused on the theoretic aesthetic problems like how to make drawing pretty, but we hardly had any creative work to reflect the real social problem, like the justice between different social classes, the equality of all kinds of rights between males and females, the justice between citizenship and authority. And it is so true that aesthetic will be so shallow if it is rooted without any critical thinking. Now I realize the reason why lots of my friends and I, experience lack of creation, apart from other reasons such as knowledge or cultural, one of the most crucial reasons is that we have not really been taught to have a critical thinking mind, in order to judge the society we live in.


“In classes, community centers, museums, and alternative learning sites across the country, large numbers of young people are creating works of art—from murals and plays, to photographs and poetry—that question, challenge, and at times, impact existing conditions of inequality and injustice”(P6) On the contrary, the sad reality is, that currently in China most of the teachers, students and artists will deny there are any critical opinions or any political thinking to reflect the social justice or any other topics behind their work, study or creation.


Both Creating Classrooms for Equity and Social Justice and An Inevitable Question: Exploring the Defining Features of Social Justice Art Education makes me realize that there is s long way for Chinese educators and students to have the courage to doubt, to think, to be critical, to be more evolved in social issues. And the most important thing is, there is a long way for the Chinese government and their education system to rethink the position and the responsibility, to embrace the differential mind of the individual, to be more confidential and trustworthy to their citizens and the younger generation.

My question is:
when we are in a high oppressed society, the oppression can come from both government and cultural,  would you still be very critical about social justice or just keep quiet to protect you and your family?

Comment by Justin Alexander Fell on October 5, 2014 at 9:01am

The article Creating Classrooms for Social Justice discusses insights on how to create real social justice in the classroom. Bigelow states a quote from Paolo Freire that says “teachers should try to live part of their dream within the educational space.” In my opinion, this refers to how educators must continue to experiment and take risks in the classroom and should never settle for mediocrity. Instead they should continue to push themselves and students to be critical, take initiative of the change they want in the classroom and their communities, while also being practical. Bigelow’s points are very relevant and are something in which we can all strive for while working with students and people in general. I really like Steve’s blog post because he has so much experience and insight as a teacher. Steve understands and articulates the realities and difficulties we will face in the classroom, while also giving us an optimistic and inspirational viewpoint. Thank you Steve!

 It seems that teachers have less and less power since educational reforms created by higher ups do not incorporate teachers, administrators and students into their planning. These reforms fail because they are unpractical and rarely go beyond the rhetorical level used by policy makers and theorists. Many of these points are elaborated in detail by David Labaree in his book Someone has to Fail: The Zero Sum Game in Public Education.

In the reading An Inevitable Question: Exploring and Defining Features of Social Justice Art Education, Marit Dewhurst  discusses the relationship between art education and social justice, while emphasizing the important methodologies and ethical principles needed for facilitating effective youth projects. “Connecting, questioning, student driven, and relevant reflection” (Dewhurst 11) are all qualities that define real social justice projects. I feel that students leading and taking ownership of projects is essential for the project to be sustainable.  

2.) As an elementary or high school student, can you recall an experience or moment where you felt you were encouraged to question or "talk back" to the world? Did your teacher facilitate that experience or did you take it upon yourself to do so?

During high school I acted in an annual play called “Writers Showcase.” This performance was student organized, written, directed, and acted. The show consisted of different short stories, poems and other random pieces written by students. Some of the pieces made social commentaries and some were ridiculous. Either way, I feel it is social justice related since it is lead by students, questions the norm, and gives students a creative voice.

What do you feel is the most difficult part of creating a social justice/ art education related project?

Should these projects be solution oriented and bring people together or should they be highly critical and focus on challenging people, groups, authority, etc? Or should they be both?

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