In December 1997, I traveled to a TASH conference in Boston. A group of friends and colleagues visited Herb Lovett, psychologist, author, teacher, and friend, and his long standing life partner, artist Michael Dowling, in their South Boston home. I had never met Michael before, but I was mesmerized by his telling of a new public art initiative he was undertaking with youth from the local high school, and surrounding area, called "No Man's Land".
The project was inspired when "a wave of teen suicides and drug overdoses seized the South Boston community. “In the first 8 months of 1997, 70 teen-agers, most of them male, were hospitalized for attempting or considering suicide."
On a vacant strip of land next to South Boston High School, Michael engaged the local high school students in building a cairn, "a heap of stones piled up as a memorial or as a landmark". On an uncared for strip of land, they just began creating a pile of rock, and remembering those who had been lost. They would gather, share stories, read poems, cry, re-member. But it was just a pile of rock...except that Michael's artist vision was much more than a pile of stone. Michael included the people, and all that they carried with them, as part of the making of art. Michael put the "social" in the art of social change.
That was more than 25 years ago...
In 2011, Judith Snow , author, visionary, and activist, "came out" in public as an artist, through her exhibit at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) of "Who's Drawing the Lines". Judith's story of her life exploration of art, in particular through painting, and her life as artist is so much more than the artifacts displayed in the exhibit. Throughout the time of the exhibit, Judith would hold residency, engaging in conversation with those who would visit, cultivating understanding, changing minds, and relationships.
In 2012 in Savannah, Beth Mount, working with the Telfair Museum, mounted a "Journey to the Beloved Community" exhibit bringing a selection of her story quilts into public view. Each of the quilts was created from engaging with people with intellectual disabilities, those who love them, and those who work to support them, in harvesting the images that reflect their hopes, dreams, visions, and stories. The quilts are beautiful artifacts of invisible stories. Each square and image holds the richness of someone's life, someone who who would not be seen, or whose story would not be known.
In the time leading up to Beth's Telfair exhibit, Tom Kohler, long time friend of Beth's and then coordinator of Chatham Savannah Citizen Advocacy, engaged a whole community of relationships, including artists, in making the invisible visible, and celebrating the relationships forged between people who had been marginalized and advocates who were introduced to each other through Citizen Advocacy. There was a photography exhibit reflecting these relationships, a community art gallery exhibit of works of art created by artists who got to know the people in these relationships, and there was a children's quilt making exhibition of their young mind's imaging of what the "Beloved Community" is and could be.
There were so many arts of social change engaged, in the making of the "Journey to the Beloved Community", and inviting a wider community to immerse themselves in what was once invisible.
Over the last decade, DeAmon Harges, with his neighbors in their Indianapolis neighborhood, rich in relationship and gifts, with limited economic wealth, and at risk of gentrification, have uncovered the capacity of artists in their midst, and the place of art in social change and transformation of how we see ourselves, and how relate with each other and those beyond our community.
In his TED Talk, "Making the invisible visible", DeAmon addresses neighborhoods rich in gifts, art, and the power to impact social change.
These are some of the people and experiences that have inspired me to imagine the justus cafe as a place to lift up the local experiences of the arts of social change; to inspire and unleash our imaginations so we might create a more just world. Seeing the world of social change and justice through the eyes and practice of artists can inspire us to be makers of change, in our own way, doing what we can with what we have.