Get ’em young:
Addressing social injustice through art

Photo Credit: Marit Dewhurst.

What if we did listen to what young artists were teaching us about art and justice? What would we learn about how they approach making art to change the world?*

At a time when schools are myopically focused on testing (which limits students’ capacity for creative analysis and nixes their guided introduction to what it means to be a citizen), social justice arts education offers expansive alternatives for critical thinking and civic education. Social justice arts education reminds us that education is supposed to be a practice in investigation and deconstruction, not memorization and hurdle-jumping. If education is honored as such, the odds skyrocket that all students, regardless of socioeconomic or cultural background, can have equal access to their full potential.

Stunned by the lack of research and documentation about the impact of social justice arts education, Marit Dewhurst, director of art education at The City College of New York, spent years tracking and analyzing sixteen of her students’ experiences in In the Making, a free studio arts program for teens at the Museum of Modern Art.

In the groundbreaking book Social Justice Art, Marit examines why art engages students in addressing social injustice within their communities (and themselves) and outlines core tenets and concrete lesson plans for “activist arts pedagogy.” Social Justice Art lovingly illuminates the common threads that run through art education, social justice, and youth development programming so that we can slowly discard the belief that these programs should/must run separately — or even at odds.

Traditional arts education programs often justify their worth by focusing on the usefulness of imagination or motor skill development. While it is important to teach students how to tell a story, develop visual literacy, or even how to express emotions, arts education has the capacity for even more. Marit raises the bar for arts education by describing how the young activist artists not only noticed relationships between their own experiences and the injustices they intended to impact — they also developed a sense of their personal responsibility to act.

Marit’s research found that there are three key overlapping ways that young artists can make aesthetically and conceptually effective activist art:

  1. Connecting: Young artists identify relationships, links, or patterns relevant to their social justice art projects.
  2. Questioning: Young artists inquire into the structure of the multiple social, political, cultural, and economic factors affecting injustice.
  3. Translating: Young artists repackage an idea and communicate it through a medium different from its original form.

In anecdote after anecdote, Marit effortlessly proves that the justice-seeking energy of young artists can be shaped for personal development and communal good. As the students connected, questioned, and translated the issues near to their hearts, they quickly unearthed the deeply-rooted unjust systems (e.g. capitalism) hidden underneath the symptoms (e.g. gentrification and homelessness). By giving young artists ample space and encouragement to explore where their instincts could take them, the instructors ensured that these students created authentic calls for action that were activist in both content and process.

As they raced against the clock to finish their projects, the participants asked each other for advice; weighed their decisions against their intentions; and tweaked, adjusted, and revised their projects in an effort to achieve their desired results. These moments of collaborative learning and teaching each other point to the educational value of translation within activist art-making. (emphasis added)*

To learn more about the importance of social justice arts education, see samples of the student artwork created during this process, or implement the specific lesson plans taught by Marit and her team, snag a copy of Social Justice Art! Interested in meeting Marit Dewhurst in person? She will be the keynote speaker at ARTerveners, a conference on social justice and art, on Saturday March 7! Grab your ticket here. Tune in to the next Sights on the City to hear Catherine chat with Chris Vitiello about ARTerveners.

* Quotes from Social Justice Art by Marit Dewhurst

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