The Vital Work of Art for Healing and Transformation

“How do we find the strength to continue?”

Bianca Haro of San Diego, CA posed the question during the Mestizo Arts and Activism Collective’s workshop on “creative resistance” to violence and brutality.  Throughout Free Minds Free People 2015, we saw and experienced how art is one way through the everyday and extreme madness, terrorization, cruelty, pain, grief, and silencing.  Art is one response to Tonesha Russell’s question, “How can one resist under the constraints of the noose?”

Through creative work, we can move from forced marginalization to re-centering ourselves, our community, our truths.  Alicia Garza explained during the Friday Evening Plenary that Black Lives Matter works to “center the margins in everything we do.”  It is one of their “principles of practice.”  And in their workshop, Enrique Aleman, Viri Najera, Sol Jimenez, Luis Novoa, Israel Corrales, and Jarred Martinez showed how that principle can come alive in the practice of graffiti art and poetry.  The workshop leaders asked us to think and write poetry about what justice means through feeling with all our senses.  They guided us in naming complex meanings of graffiti art that exist beyond and in the face of uninformed and malicious interpretations.  In their moving and instructive workshop “About Resilience: Reconceptualizing Health and Healing” on “black women developing work that centers the experiences of black and brown girls,”  Tonesha Russell, Jari Bradley, Cherise McBride, and Tiffani Johnson led us through a process of thinking critically about the power of writing and what it means “to write as an act of resistance.”

And through these workshops, we felt and heard about the process of creating art in the context of relentless and varying forms of violence.   Bianca Haro described seeing graffiti as “scars on the wounds of inequality.”   Tiffani Johnson spoke about the healing process of writing fiction.  Jari Bradley pointed to the possibility and necessity of being “embraced and heard” through one’s creative work and the responsibility teachers have in creating that interaction and spaces for those vital connections.

As these workshops rejuvenated and sharpened the meanings and possibilities of practice, we remembered and learned how art can be a process through which justice is envisioned, repressed truths are expressed, exclusions are refused, spaces are reclaimed, and healing happens.  And in that vein, here is the poem Barbara Cruz of Chicago, IL wrote during the Mestizo Arts and Activism Collective’s workshop.

Justice tastes like

Bittersweet copper blood

Filling your mouth,

The sweet venom of anger

Making it difficult not to scream.

Justice is the smell of change,

Of a new day,

Filling your nostrils

Your body

All the way up to your head

And your heart.

Justice looks like

Michael Brown

Jennicet Gutierrez

Dedé Mirabel

Moctesuma Esparza

People like

You or me,

Fighting against their disenfranchisement

Against the hate

But for the love.

Justice sounds like

The Million Man March

Like the Chicano Walkouts

Like the Chicago Teachers Strike

Like Ferguson

Like Ayotzinapa.

Justice feels like




(poem by Barbara Cruz of Chicago Public Schools’ Democracy Fellows program)

Truths and Ancestral Wisdom

“No one does inequality better” than the United States, he put it plainly in the Opening Keynote address.  Showing graphs, data, and comparisons, Jeff Duncan-Andrade reminded us of this truth that gives lie to the myth of progress.  This truth that buries its chronic pain into certain communities who are told to bear the injustices with “grit.”  This truth that keeps us un-free.

What can we do?  What must we do?  “We need to stop drinking from that fountain because it’s making us sick,” he said.  The fountain which is schooling, he described.  Schooling that is conflated with education.  Schooling that codes data in a way that promotes phony and delusory images and notions of progress.  Schooling that makes students into profit.  Schooling that promotes a one-size-fits-all model of equality that is premised on what fits the dominant and dominating culture of white heteropatriarchy.  Schooling that requires people to focus on “grit” to deal with the hierarchy-promoting system that continuously and consistently impoverishes and presses down on particular students and communities while inflating in others the power to dominate.

Instead of continuously getting sickened by schooling, we pursue education.  Countering the oppression schooling teaches us to accept, education offers gifts depending on what the students need, he reminded us.  Education gives hope that helps young people deal with toxic stress, hope that gives them a sense of control over their destiny.  Education gives young people the possibility of achieving their full potential with curriculum that is relevant and pathways that empower.  Education builds safe communities and loving relationships where people can open up with their hurt, where people can heal.  This education saves lives, he said.  And that truth about education is one that many in the audience probably know from firsthand experience both as educators and students, and one that probably motivates many to come to this conference.

And with all the academic research that Duncan-Andrade mentioned that illustrates the problems of schooling and the possibilities of education, he reminded us that this is all ancestral wisdom.  The lessons of our ancestors.  They are here, they are with us, they show us these truths that we know to be true.  And these truths free us.