"Art is power." – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving
in dialogue with a world beyond itself.” bell hooks from Teaching to Transgress
Just a few months out of art school and a few days into a job as a youth organizer, I am sitting in a room full of 15-17 year olds from the inner city. I am asking the young people a lot of questions about their lives, their schools, and their perceptions of the world. The conversation is animated, the problems visceral, systemic. Poverty. Violence. Abuse. Racism. Low expectations. Failing schools. And, on and on.
I was beginning a process of creating a safe space for critical thinking and difficult discussions on important topics, ones that ultimately cut to the heart of how we see and know ourselves, our families, and our communities. I was not surprised by their answers. I had grown up in the same community – although in more privileged circumstances. Once they trusted I actually wanted to listen, they opened up, often with brutal honesty, targeted anger, and sometimes painfully silent internalized oppression.
I am certain it was not the same day and perhaps not even the same week or month, but at some point I was ready to move beyond all the problems to help them start envisioning a school they would want to attend, a community they would want to live in, and so forth, to move from discussing problems to creating solutions. Prompting them with a request for such a creative vision, however, I got crickets. Nothing.
Most of them had never thought of what they wanted, beyond fixing what they knew they didn’t want. Many of them didn’t feel safe with the vulnerability of dreaming or aspiring to something more. “What’s the point?” They didn’t trust that I, or their peers, or their families wouldn’t judge, make fun of, or even ostracize them for it. Most importantly, none of them had the words, the language, to describe the world in which they wanted to live, the world they might create.
So, I made them draw it – no words. They hemmed and hawed “I can’t draw” and “I’m a terrible artist.” They complained and joked nervously avoiding putting the first mark on a large, blank sheet of paper. I prodded them: “If you can’t see it, you can’t make it happen. If you don’t know what it “looks like” how will you know when you see it?” And, finally, it got really quiet, for a long time. Most of them ended up filling their paper with images and colors and symbols of their own vision and own aspirations.
And, when they could point to it on paper, they were able to share more readily with others. Once shared with others, their visions became more real, more actionable.
Language: “The true moment of transformation (occurs) when people have a language to describe their oppression as oppression.” (Ernest Morrell from Critical Literacy and Urban Youth: Pedagogies of Access, Dissent, and Liberation.) 131
Conversation: “The alternative future we speak of takes form when we realize that the only powerful place from which to take our identity may be the conversation that we are. We begin the process of restoration when we understand that our well-being is defined simply by the nature and structure and power of our conversation.” (Peter Block from Community: The Structure of Belonging)
While nothing created by these young people would be considered art by most of us, the process was. Art was the “way.” It was the way to begin a “dialogue with a world beyond” themselves.