Addressing racial injustice through art

Addressing racial injustice through art

Students have been away from the classroom since mid-March, but doesn’t it still seem crazy to be starting a new school year already? With the unrest in our country due to COVID-19 and social justice issues, it is indeed a challenging time for everyone. Like you and your family, we continue to make important decisions for the health and safety of our Cunningham family. As we faced these circumstances head on, our team rallied together and we are much stronger for it.

“These unprecedented times have brought out the best in all of us,” Ms. Evelyne said. “One would think it might cause confusion, chaos or lack of direction, but at Cunningham, this has not been the case.” 

Typically, Ms. Evelyne teaches art and psychology at Gerber, our residential education program, but during the pandemic, she provided direct care at our Girls Group Home as a relief worker. This allowed her to make stronger connections with the girls while providing therapeutic art activities.

“I was able to assist in their remote learning which was totally new to them,” Ms. Evelyne said. “Many of our Gerber teachers worked in the residential units during this time which helped with school work, but also sent the message to the kids that their teachers do really care about them.”

The use of artistic methods as therapeutic tools is a technique rooted in the idea that creative expression can foster healing and mental well-being. In one therapeutic art activity, youth “poured” a mix of acrylic paint, water and a pouring medium onto a canvas and tilted it in many directions until they got the desired effect, symbolizing that beautiful things can happen when you pour out your feelings. Another activity was creating self portraits with color schemes that portrayed their moods and emotions. Ms. Evelyne also took the opportunity to use art to have conversations about race, racism and racial injustice in our country.

“Inspired by the protests that took place in our community following the death of George Floyd, we talked about racism and then created a reaction piece,” Ms. Evelyne said. “They knew what was going on. I felt it was extremely important to have conversations with them about what was happening, their thoughts about it and their role in society as white females. And I wanted to address it with art.”

During remote summer school, our youth were learning about the Underground Railroad and the Civil War in other classes so in Ms. Evelyne’s class, they talked about that part of history and how racism still remains today but in different ways. They learned about how and why the group Black Lives Matter was formed. She showed them a Time magazine cover, created by the American painter Titus Kaphar, that shows a Black woman holding onto an empty space shaped like a child that powerfully expressed the fear Black mothers feel for their children’s lives. They also watched a TED Talk in which Kaphar talked about race in art history.

“I just feel like it’s my job as an art teacher,” Ms. Evelyne said. “If we’re talking about all different cultures and artists, to have these discussions is important. Especially as a white female, it’s important to do my part, to be an ally and not expect people to fight their own battles. It’s our responsibility to do everything we can to end racial injustice.”

Whether through in-person or remote learning, our youth will continue to develop because of teachers and staff who care deeply about their well-being, use their creativity to provide a solid education and address important issues and create safe spaces for them to talk freely and express themselves.