Category: Essays

Justice in History

People who seek to learn history should know the truth, Students who are required to learn history should know the truth. Educators who have a passion to instruct, analyze, and facilitate history should speak the truth. In the west the narrative has been watered down, shaped in heroism, led by White Anglo Saxon Protestant men who escaped persecution of their homelands. In their circumventing of cultural cleansing, these men were perceived to have discovered a new world. From this point we have heard the white patriarchal experience hundreds of thousands of times over. Independance, westward expansion, abolition, industrialism, etc. Great wars, wars to end all wars, cold wars, wars on drugs, and wars on terrorism. Indeed there have been heroes, people who will continue to be idolized for their leadership, noble acts, and overall ingenuity. There are numerous reasons to take pride in being American, of course. American citizenship allows us to freely state our critical opinions of government, and not be placed in reeducation camps. Being an American “citizen” provides the platform to approach education with a very critical lens, especially when addressing United States history and civics.

Remember how great it felt to learn about the first Thanksgiving? Proud colonists trading their knowledge and food with indigenous peoples in the “new world.” Traditional education indoctrinates students in the roots of Thanksgiving at a very young age. Before we can even read we find it important to understand the first story of the new heroes. Turkeys are drawn on construction paper, cut out and pasted onto additional construction paper. Back in the day you could even cut out feathers, paste them to a headband and portray the “Indian” being saved from the great interior wilderness of your homeland. This story is a first step in a deep abyss. It prescribes the setting for a host of single-perspective events that some people never escape from. These lies create a host of problems in which the only victims are the students themselves. Generation after generation are perceiving war as a necessity of heroism, and injustice of many as a mandatory sacrifice.

Without some events indeed our world would be different, slavery for example. American chattel slavery created the most wealthy country on earth, no doubt. Not just southern planters were invested in the slave trade, cash crops and purchasing of large swaths of land. Wealthy northerners were sometimes directly involved; there was an immense profit to be made at various levels of this multidimensional institution. Importing humans as property, exporting of goods, innovation, and manufacturing were just a few of those components. Therefore, saviors of the black Africans were liberating slaves in theory, but withholding their freedom in reality. Northern entrepreneurs were equal to their southern counterparts in their determination to profit from the institution of slavery. In this young land of opportunity and free market economics, flesh was the sacrifice. Inhumanity was the backbone, and violence the legacy.

Indeed it hurts to learn that our forefathers, for some, were equally the masters of our ancestors. Great urban centers on beautiful waterways were once sacred tribal ceremonial grounds. Lands seized by people who conquer for freedom, wealth and protection of a certain few. The story of these victors and conquerors, in its most glorious and docile form, has filled our textbooks and become the mainstream narrative learned by students in history classes throughout the past century. Yet it is not the whole story; it lacks important details which are not yet lost to us as a society. We have the knowledge available in our collective memory to fill in the gaps and teach the whole story, the many truths that have so often been neglected. We are at a critical juncture at this moment: a crossroads where we can choose to embrace and teach our story from various perspectives or continue our past traditions of ignoring one side, whitewashing our textbooks, and teaching our students only the story of the victors, thereby perpetuating the cycle of misunderstanding which bolsters our deepest societal inequities.

This is why it is time to revise our history classes, textbooks and strategies for building upstanding citizens. No longer can educators perpetuate our original narrative as a means of assimilating some while undoubtedly disenfranchising others. In this search for justice in history, everyone is subjected to stories that are seemly impossible, overwhelming, and unfair. Hopefully by understanding these stories, students begin understanding the various conflicts that are present in contemporary society. Sexism, racism, xenophobia, consumerism and an overall imbalance of wealth in america and worldwide are just some of the problems perpetuated by our dominant perspective approach to teaching history.

Because it is difficult to capture and teach all stories, there is no timetable in which this goal might be attained, if ever. Nevertheless, it is essential that the instruction is implemented with fidelity, led without fear, and asserted with an objective cultural lens. Justice in history will not trickle down from our policy makers or the Department of Education, instead it will be led from the trenches of education. Educators must set the foundation in creating upstanders who refuse to let our history repeat itself, or mold the future. Moreover, it is never too early for our youth to learn the truth, an acknowledgement that there are two sides to every story. A good and a bad, merged into one narrative. It is time to merge the good and bad into one narrative, and to tell as many of the side stories as possible, before they are forever lost.

Since the truth has been proposed, what does this look like in the classroom in which I deliver instruction? My students are historically underserved, various institutions including education have left them overwhelmed and disenfranchised. Like many of today’s youth, their perspectives are often narrow, provided via internet and entertainment. However, this lack of experience is broadened in my classroom due to the fact that my students are brown and black. Furthermore, attending an underserved title I school means that we often don’t have opportunities to take our work into the field for real life experiences. Unfortunately a majority of our learning occurs in the classroom, and interacting with the greater world online. Therefore, it is my continuous goal to provide curriculum and instruction that examines US and global history using multiple perspectives. Again, informing students of the entire story, good and bad. Text, which allow me to facilitate culturally relevant and responsive instruction include, Howard Zinn’s Young People’s History of the United States. Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart’s Peoples Curriculum of the Earth, and when appropriate news specials from news outlets like Vice. Intertwined in this work is also my personal perspective.

As a black historian it is my job to retell the stories from our past, and I tend to do so with passion, I am one of the voices that for too long was ignored. I draw comparisons from the past to struggles and conflicts of the present. I provide students an academic voice that will hopefully be utilized in a powerful manner as they mature into contributing adults. I often tell students the most meaningful successful individuals are those who possess strong academic knowledge, and an ability to articulate themselves in a calm decisive manner. Is this always executed perfectly? I wish yes was the answer, but that would be another false claim, again perpetuating the belief that life is perfect, similar to the story we create of the American Dream. I am only sowing the seeds, it will take much more than me working with students over one or two years. Highschool instructors and administrators must be actively involved. University admissions officers, human resources and college professors alike will need to step up and provide a space that encourages moderate conversation. A space where people learn to understand each other’s knowledge, or lack thereof. White allies, black allies, hispanic, asian and native allies will all need to be present. Last but not least, society will need to put aside politics, heritage and other divisive tactics such as entertainment and media. It is society’s obligation to take on this task, reversing the harm created when our “forefathers” systematized our various institutions, based on where good was obligated to conquer evil.

Gerald D. Scrutchions is a middle school Social Studies teacher in Portland, OR. His goals are to instruct students to develop multiple perspectives when considering events of the past and present. Further, Gerald sits on the Portland Public Schools Environmental Climate Justice, which was the first of it’s kind in the United States. He is a strong advocate of teaching social and climate justice as well as reforming the use of textbooks in classrooms that fail to consider injustices of the past, or impacts of man made climate change of the present and future.


Life: Through the Eyes of a Hobo

There is such widespread prejudice towards the homeless, a widely accepted prejudice. They have become a new minority group hated by everyone. To become homeless is akin to becoming a leper. They are look at as mutants, outcasts and derelicts. A people to be ignored. For most of them homelessness was forced upon them with no other options. Once a person is introduced to such a level of abandonment and hopelessness, it affects them, on a deeply psychological level. Substance abuse is a logical step for someone who has lost everything they care about. Too afraid to die, they live in the moment wanting the pain and sorrow to end. They become stuck in the moment for fear of the future which is as terrifying as death.

At the rate America is producing homelessness, there just isn’t enough programs to reach all those that need them. Society doesn’t make it any easier, imposing so many restrictions and boundaries on the homeless communities. It seems like being homeless itself is a crime, which encourages the populace to look down on and even resent those who are thought of as not human. It seems to me that the prejudice against the homeless population is encouraged on most levels of society. You may think otherwise. But this is my opinion based off my own experience, spending the majority of my life as a vagabond. I just want people to be aware and recognize, that the homeless are still humans deserving human rights.

We as a species have become disconnected from our mother the earth (from which all life on this planet has sprung!). We well as each other. In city life we live in such close quarters but we don’t even know our neighbors. Our community has no community. We are afraid of the wilderness and its common knowledge that people think dirt is harmful. If concrete doesn’t give way to natural vegetation we won’t have a planet to live on. This conquer and subdue the land attitude need to be reconsidered. Because the conquered usually end up dead.

The Unsung Homeless

The Down Trodden,
Outcasts and misfits.
Sociaty’s cast aside,
Vagabonds.
Stepped on,
Stepped over,
Stepped away from,
Forgotten,
Unacknowledged
And left to die.
Scavengers,
Striving to live.
Fighting for life.
Oppressed,
Disrespected,
And disregarded.
Polluted
And poised.
Ravaged by addictions.
Coincidence?
Forced vagrancy,
Arrested for living.
Insanity.
No help for those that cannot help themselves.
The truly left behind.
The derelicts and garbage!
The UNSUNG HOMELESS!

Fighting Against Life

I’m living off the scraps of a dying people.
Who fancy themselves conquerors.
Conquerors of what they cannot say.
The evidence is clear in cities of decay.
Unknown to the populace,
Of each metropolis.
They are all rebels at war, with the natural world.
Behold the cancerous concrete,
Street by street,
Eating up what could live and breath.
Black and gray but never green.
Unable to live in harmony.
All because of a terrible belief,
That humanity should hold dominion.
The pinnacle of evolution,
And that their only solution.
No other species is allowed in.
Only as slaves never as friends.
No silly animals can be intelligent,
Only trained as entertainment.
The silent screams of the indigenous.
What would nature say? Would we listen?
We, trained to be afraid of the wilderness?
Lines drawn to separate sides, a battle neither can win.
I’m just a hobo on the outside looking in.


Learning to Participate

In August 2017, I founded the Center for Undisciplined Research, a nine-month art project situated within the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The Center was meant to be a place for interdisciplinary research related to students’ interests. In the beginning of the school year, the incoming class of first year students collectively selected four main research topics: social justice, sustainability, music, and local cultures. Originally, I envisioned a structure for the project based on a traditional university center where the emphasis is on providing students and faculty with opportunities to practice interdisciplinary research and public engagement. As the year progressed, I realized that we didn’t exactly research any particular topic as much as we experimented with various ways to do and present “learning”; we functioned more often as a community of learners rather than a group of students with a “teacher.” Through the process, the collective established a force outside of the academic classroom where people came together to learn and practice new things publicly—maybe we became our own kind of citizenry within the university. Through this work, I am interested in breaking down the distinction between curricular and extra-curricular time to focus on what it means to be a participant within a community.

Since January 2015, I’ve lived in two different university residence halls as an Artist in Residence, where I’ve been working with first year students to think about how art relates to civic engagement. The intensity of my live-work situations has emphasized the relationship I see between education and civics—living my entire life between the walls of academic institutions surrounded by systems like: student and faculty governments; sexist, racist, ableist, and classist policies and procedures; the notion and consequences of tenure; controlled “common spaces”; false public space; condescending colleagues; outrageous tuition and crippling debt; lack of opportunity and resources; freedom of speech; depoliticized classrooms; and other civic structures upholding the current state of “higher education.” I’ve come to see my art practice as a tool for considering how and in what ways a university does or does not support the development of “engaged citizens.”

In the Reggio Emilia approach to childhood education, teachers document each student’s experience and progression using photography, note-taking, drawing, video and sound. I’ve incorporated this practice and other aspects of the Reggio Emilia approach into my work at the college level. This approach, in combination with the work of theorists like bell hooks and Paulo Freire, have helped me manifest my belief that students must work in collaboration with the teacher to create an atmosphere conducive to critical thinking and learning. Additionally, I’ve been influenced by practitioners of the Socratic method, archives from places like the Highlander Folk School (now known as the Highlander Research and Education Center) and Black Mountain College, as well as aspects of my own public education including my time at New College of Florida, my experience in the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University, and most especially, my committed teachers who’ve demonstrated the interwoven relationship between school, art, and life.

For this piece, I’ve recounted eight specific moments throughout my own education which call attention to the relationship between education, art, and civic life. I think this set of descriptions function together to explain how I arrived at the decision to make space for the Center for Undisciplined Research—a self-governing body of dedicated individuals, organizations, and teams that came together to explore the gray spaces between curricular and extra-curricular activities within a university community. I’m thinking about these moments as key memories that inspired me to think more deeply about how sites for education function as spaces where people decide how they want to engage with other members of their society.

As you read through this essay, please consider the following quote from the exhibition catalogue written by Helen Molesworth, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957 because I think it sort of sets a framework for where my mind is:



“Paul Goodman contends that when institutions and social roles become more important than the people who constitute them, humanity is suppressed to befit the system. Individuals must, therefore, disrupt the system to regain their humanity.” 1

 

1

When my painting professor told me there were no interdisciplinary MFA programs. 2008.

Roz in her studio sophomore year of college, 2010.

I’m not sure if my painting professor actually said this or if this is just what I heard as an obstinate twenty year old, determined to forge my own path. Regardless, this moment sticks with me because almost immediately after hearing her, I found out there are lots of interdisciplinary MFA programs out there. This interaction taught me to question the status quo and to seek out the information that I want to be true. It propelled me away from majoring in art, and it encouraged me to see what other interests I could pursue. During this conversation, my painting professor suggested that I check out a book from the library about Mark Dion—from her perspective, he was one of the only artists working in a truly interdisciplinary way at the time.

I remember seeing an image of Mark’s piece “On Tropical Nature” (1991), and I immediately felt connected to the varied “languages” present in the work. Within the project, I saw symbols and strategies from all the fields I was thinking about at the time—environmental science, archaeology and anthropology, art, ecology, and sociology. About eight years later I learned about his project, “Urban Ecology Action Group” (1993) during which he assembled a team from a local high school in Chicago to create a center for studying the ecology of a Chicago park, and I felt similarly transformed. Reading about this piece gave me a kind of hope that I could make work that was in conversation with other disciplines while continuing to be an artist.

On Tropical Nature, 1991. Source: http://www.tanyabonakdargallery.com/artists/mark-dion/series-sculpture-and-installation/41

Urban Ecology Action Group, 1993. Source: https://never-the-same.org/interviews/mary-jane-jacob/

 

2

When I spent two weeks at Mildred’s Lane. 2015.

After knowing about Mark’s work for several years, I eventually had an opportunity to
visit one of the largest and most collaborative installation’s he’s been involved with—Mildred’s Lane—which he and J. Morgan Puett founded in 1996.

The main house at Mildred’s Lane, 2015. Photo courtesy of the author. From
the project’s website accessed on May 10, 2018: Mildred’s Lane is a 96-acre site deep in the
woods of rural northeastern Pennsylvania bordering Narrowsburg, New York. It is a working
living-researching experiment centered on domesticity. The entire site is an art complex(ity)
open to anyone interested in programs and events that creatively embrace every aspect of life
in the 21st century.

I went there to attend a two-week workshop about social practice and walking as art which was co-taught by Dillon De Give and Harrell Fletcher, and during the trip, I felt like I was living in an installation. Being there was magical and it felt partly like summer camp, partly like school, partly like a party from the late 1800s, and partly like a long sleep-over. I was overwhelmed by the various ways I learned while I was there. Reading, walking, socializing, cooking, cleaning, organizing, talking, acting, public speaking, listening, swimming, and sitting quietly as learning. This was one of the first times I thought critically about how experiential education can unfold. The place and the pedagogy both feel inspired by Black Mountain College (as are many of the institutional educational experiences I’ve had).

Below is a description of Black Mountain College that feels especially relevant to my time at Mildred’s Lane:

“The mutability between art and entertainment, between work and play, was essential, not only because the mission of progressive education was to train democratic citizens capable of ‘the pursuit of happiness’ but also because it allowed for shifting positions between artist and audience. This fluidity suggested that making art was not an isolated activity, nor was membership in an audience a permanent condition. Rather the move between the two positions (actor and audience) was constitutive of the social fabric in which members have equal and rotating obligations to one another.” 2

Photo students at Black Mountain College. Source: https:/
www.thenation.com/article/the-weirdness-and-joy-of-black-mountain-college/

Being there also showed me how empowering it can be to work together with a team of people as part of something that is called an art project—something which is truly interdisciplinary. This was the first time I got to participate in a project that considered so many other disciplines as integral to its being. And it was really inspiring to be surrounded by fascinating artists from various countries and states within the US.

I’m thinking now about how this place contributed to my understanding of civic engagement, and I remember a really important moment when I was looking for a rolling pin. I was in the kitchen baking something with two other fellows, Pallavi Sen and Adele Ball. I looked around a little bit for a rolling pin, and as I was looking, Morgan walked in the room. I asked her where the rolling pin is stored. She asked if I had already looked for it myself, and then I said, “Yes, a little bit.” She responded, “If you had really looked, you would have found it. I suggest you look some more until you find it, and if you REALLY can’t find it, then I’ll be happy to show you were it is.” She left the room. I was startled by her assertiveness, and deflated by my own meekness. Eventually I found the rolling pin. This conversation made me feel a kind of urgency I hadn’t experienced before. I felt compelled to put my best effort into tasks before relying on someone else’s resources (in this case, Morgan’s time). This was an empowering moment because I realized I could probably teach myself almost anything I wanted to know if I was willing to put in the effort. And I felt reassured that if I did seriously need help, I had a community that would support me.

J. Morgan Puett explaining “Workstyles”, 2015. Photo courtesy of the author. 

 

3

Swimming in a pool with snakes. 2009.

Tropical Ecology course at New College of Florida, 2009.
Photos courtesy of the author.

Tropical Ecology with Meg Lowman was one of the most influential courses I took during my undergraduate career at New College of Florida. It was an advanced level seminar in environmental studies, and I was a first-year student obsessed with sea turtles, pop-culture, and painting. I spent part of the summer before helping to collect data about Green Sea Turtle’s nesting habits in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, so based on that experience, I felt that I had satisfied some kind of requirement that gave me permission to skip any prerequisites for the class. I asked the instructor to join the class, explaining my reasons, and she agreed to have me. Everyone else was a junior or senior with a lot of knowledge about the environment and ecology in the region and beyond. For some reason, my out-of-placeness in this scenario didn’t bother me, and I joined the class with joy and appreciation.

After a semester of exciting experiments and experiences with the local environment, our professor invited us over to her house in the suburbs of Sarasota, Florida to have an end of year party. She invited a leading invasive species specialist, Skip Snow 3, to join our class for the event. He brought several animals with him to demonstrate some of the ways that exotic pets invade and destroy the local ecosystem after they are abandoned by their owners. As part of the demonstration, giant pythons were released into the fenced-in backyard pool area, and we were invited to swim with them. There was also a cake with snakes painted in frosting. I remember feeling totally amazed by Skip and his snakes. The experience was unlike anything I had ever done before—it was basically a pool party with invasive species masquerading as a college class. A lot of the folks who were in that class went on to become experts in various ecological topics, and even though I didn’t do that, the course taught me how to value experience as education.

 

4

Interviewing a stranger about their clothes. 2014.

When I applied to graduate school, one of the application requirements was to make a video of yourself asking a stranger about their clothes. As a lover of strangers and fashion, I had talked to plenty of strangers about their clothes in the past, but I had never documented any of those conversations through video. For the application, I decided to visit City Liquidators, self-described as “ample headquarters featuring an extensive selection of discount furniture plus home decor,” 4 in southeast Portland because I had been there a few times to buy props for work 5 and I was impressed by the sheer amount of objects filling the shelves. Without a doubt, I would meet someone interesting. I ended up talking to the owner’s wife who suggested that I talk to her husband because he had a reputation as a connoisseur of crazy socks. I spent an hour or so with the couple and their dogs in the back office. It was a really pleasant experience that was much more in-depth than any other conversation I had previously with a stranger about their clothes—a situation that would not have happened otherwise.

Screenshot from a video interview with Walt of City Liquidators, 2014.
Image courtesy of the author.

The process of actually doing something I might only have thought about doing if it weren’t for the assignment empowered me to dream bigger about what kinds of things I could do. It also helped me formalize the social, curious part of myself into something that I could utilize in my art practice. I started to see how my engagement with people might be interesting as part of my exploration of art. Since making that video, the process of claiming my curiosity and civic engagement as part of my work has emphasized the difference between doing something and thinking about doing something, as a motivating force.

 

5

Anna Craycroft’s Lecture at PNCA. 2015.

I was just starting my second year of graduate school, and I had only begun to scratch the surface of the question, “Why are you making this [artwork, book, essay, etc.]?” Anna Craycroft’s lecture at PNCA in October 2015 helped me see how an artist can create cohesive and concise projects while simultaneously being influenced by a variety of topics, experiences, and thoughts.

During this talk, she described some of her projects, but mainly, she explored out-loud and with images the lines of inquiry surrounding the artwork. 

One of the main things she discussed was the Reggio Emilia approach as it relates to a few of her projects. 6 This discussion got me thinking about how I learn, why I document my life so meticulously, and what it would mean to use the Reggio Emilia approach with adults.

Core aspects of Reggio Emilia :
 

– Children are capable of constructing their own learning
– Children form an understanding of themselves and their place in the world through their interactions with others (social collaboration)
– The environment is the third teacher
– The adult is a mentor and guide (so none of the projects are planned in advanced, but rather they emerge based on the child’s interests)
– An emphasis on documenting children’s thoughts
– The idea that there are one hundred languages of children

When I started thinking about the fundamental principles of the Reggio Emilia approach in connection to adult education, I saw clearly the links between education and participation in society. By replacing “child” or “children” with “person” or “people,” this list of principles functions as a nice blueprint for how to make a thoughtful, empowering, and generative civic space for adults.

Principles of Reggio Emilia approach modified by the author, 2018.

 

6

When one of my students gave a class presentation about how inadequately my co-teacher and I were conducting the course. 2016.

The first time I taught a college course, I was a co-instructor with another teacher, and we were both very dedicated to establishing a horizontal learning environment where students felt responsible for contributing to the experience of being in the class. We hoped to make our classroom a space for exchange that could happen in any direction between everyone involved. In many ways, we were working directly in contrast with a more traditional type of classroom—we were working against a style of education that Paulo Freire refers to as the “banking concept of education.” 8

One day in the beginning of the semester, there was an event during which one student expressed that my co-teacher and I were not meeting their expectations of what should happen in the class. This student seemed to believe that we should be pouring meaningful, important, and otherwise inaccessible knowledge into their brain. The student expressed a desire to be a passive consumer, dependent on an economic exchange involving money and expertise.

I like to imagine water pouring in from all different sources, seeping into the cracks and crevices, absorbing into my permeable body—but not filling me up like an empty vessel. Image: Water Pouring into Swimming Pool, Santa Monica, 1964 by David Hockney. Source: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hockney-water-pouring-into-swimming-pool-santa-monica-p11378

This experience was a great reminder that some people disagree with how I want to teach, and it encouraged me to solidify my approach and vision so that I could defend my choices thoroughly in the future. Despite the difficulty of the situation, I became even more certain that I was on the right path, and I realized how much work it takes to shift a paradigm and to change expectations in the classroom. It also made me reflect on my relationship with government and local politics—if I could think of ways to effectively shift a paradigm within the classroom, I wondered if it would be possible to effectively communicate ideas with folks who disagreed with me in a more public sphere like the Neighborhood Association or City Hall.

 

7

Having smoothies with bell hooks. 2012.

Four Winds Cafe at New College of Florida. Source: https://www.thoughtco.com/new-college-of-florida-photo-tour-788513

Throughout college, I worked at the Four Winds Cafe as a barista. This cafe, situated on campus, started as an economics student’s thesis project in 1996 and has continued as a student-owned and operated vegetarian restaurant and coffee shop since then. I was always inspired by the fact that a student created the cafe as a way to experiment with running a business, and I was even more excited to be at an institution where that type of project was not only allowed, but encouraged. In our life as cafe employees in the 2000s, we used it to experiment with cooking, and to host art shows, performances, lectures, special dinners, and other events. It felt like the cafe had its own civic life within the university, totally driven by students (even the director was required to be a recent graduate from New College).

The author during work at the Four Winds Cafe, 2010. Photo courtesy of the author.

Towards the end of my time at the university, bell hooks was embedded there as a visiting scholar, and she frequented the cafe. One day when I was working she asked me for a smoothie recommendation—I suggested the Bee’s Knees (almond milk, frozen blueberries, frozen bananas, honey, cinnamon, and vanilla protein powder). She tried it, and from that moment on, I felt connected to her. We often sat on the couches after my shift, just talking about life and love. We also served together on a committee of students and faculty that was organized to discuss and strategize ways to cope with the fact that there was a well-known white supremacist enrolled at New College at the time.

During this period, I fell in love with someone who was living in Oregon. I had one semester left in college, but I had all my credits and if I defended my thesis early, I could graduate early, and leave to live with my brand new lover in Oregon. Most people I talked to expressed concern about this idea—the idea of moving across the country to be with a person I only just met. But I knew how I felt, and I told bell about this situation. She encouraged me to follow my heart, so I did—almost immediately.

My casual experiences chatting with bell hooks showed me how influential and encouraging an academic person could be in an extracurricular way. At the time, I was an anthropology major with very little experience reading or thinking about theory, and I had never encountered bell’s work in a classroom setting. However, spending time with her made it so I could absorb some of her theoretical underpinnings into my moral fabric; our conversations made it possible for me to think about things in new ways without reading her texts. One day after knowing her for awhile, I saw her give a lecture, and I had a revelation about all the things I’d learned through talking to her. Her academic explanations gave context to my conversations with her.

Drawing by the author during one of bell hooks’ lectures at New College of Florida. Image courtesy of the author.

A few years later I started reading her books, and her texts got me thinking critically about how I facilitate learning environments—inside and outside of classroom settings. Making a productive space for education requires thinking and talking about how people engage with each other and how they make themselves accountable to the other folks in the room and beyond.

hooks has a lot of amazing things to say about the state of higher education:

“If we examine critically the traditional role of the university in the pursuit of truth and the sharing of knowledge and information, it is painfully clear that biases that uphold and maintain white supremacy, imperialism, sexism, and racism have distorted education so that it is no longer about the practice of freedom. The call for a recognition of cultural diversity, a rethinking of ways of knowing, a deconstruction of old epistemologies, and the concomitant demand that here be a transformation in our classrooms, in how we teach and what we teach, has been a necessary revolution—one that seeks to restore life to a corrupt and dying academy.” 9

Without bell hooks’ work (this particular excerpt is from 1993!), I might be afraid to acknowledge that my classrooms and the choices that I make within them are political, but because I can rely on her work and her spirit as the background for what I’m doing, I’m not scared to consciously make political decisions according to my own beliefs. Choosing to not talk about politics and social problems within a classroom context is just as political of a statement as discussing openly, so I think it’s important to be aware of what choices I’m making.

 

8

When Harrell asked, “How do you want to spend your time as an artist?” 2016.

Roses at Washington Park in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of the author.

Towards the end of graduate school, our professor Harrell Fletcher asked the group the question—“How do you want to spend your time as an artist?” Maybe he didn’t include “as an artist” in his original question, but that’s always how I’ve remembered it. This inquiry cracked open a lot of assumptions I had about what I might do as an artist. Suddenly I was free to spend my time anyway that I wanted, and I wasn’t bound to other methods, models, and approaches demonstrated by artists who came before me. At the same time, I could bind myself to ways of living that non-artists had established and followed for themselves. Everything felt so open, and I realized again how important it is to choose wisely and intentionally.

Right now, as an artist, I want to make time to think about how different and unique each one of these roses is. I took this photo at the Washington Park Rose Garden in Portland Oregon a few years ago, and I’m amazed looking at it now because I realize that while every flower in this picture is a rose, each one is completely different from the next. There must be hundreds of totally unique flowers here, and I want to carve out time to observe them all for their special qualities. But I’m not interested in doing this alone. I want my art practice to be a space for being together with other people, to view, to analyze, to describe the roses together—togetherness with a sense of urgency and responsibility.

I guess I hope that the civic spaces I encounter and participate in can function in an almost identical way to how I want my art practice to be. I’ve learned to inhabit shared space with a strong sense of curiosity, compassion, appreciation, and awareness—but I wasn’t born this way, I had to learn how to participate.

Footnotes:

1. Molesworth, Helen. Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957. Page 281. Yale University Press. 2015. “Leap Before You Look is a singular exploration of this legendary school and of the work of the artists who spent time there. Scholars from a variety of fields contribute original essays about diverse aspects of the College—spanning everything from its farm program to the influence of Bauhaus principles—and about the people and ideas that gave it such a lasting impact. In addition, catalogue entries highlight selected works, including writings, musical compositions, visual arts, and crafts. The book’s fresh approach and rich illustration program convey the atmosphere of creativity and experimentation that was unique to Black Mountain College, and that served as an inspiration to so many. This timely volume will be essential reading for anyone interested in the College and its enduring legacy.” This description comes from the Yale University Press website.

2.   Molesworth, Helen. Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957. Page 46-47. Yale University Press. 2015.

3.  Read this article to learn more about Skip Snow’s work: Revkin, Andrew C. A Movable Beast: Asian Pythons Thrive in Florida. New York Times. 2007.

4. Learn more about City Liquidators by visiting their website.

5. At the time I was working for a video production company as a producer.

6. Learn more about Anna Craycroft’s approach in this interview about her project C’mon Language with Sarah Murkett for MutualArt.com and the Huffington Post. 

7. See the “main principles” of the Reggio Emilia approach here.

8. Freire, Paulo. “Chapter 2: Philosophy of Education.” Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1968.
“In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry. The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence. The students, alienated like the slave in the Hegelian dialectic, accept their ignorance as justifying the teachers existence—but unlike the slave, they never discover that they educate the teacher.”

9. hooks, bell. “A Revolution of Values: The Promise of Multicultural Change.” Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Page 30. Routledge. 1993.

Roz Crews is currently the artist in residence at the Working Library, a program of c3:initiative in Portland, Oregon where she is creating a temporary event space called the Conceptual Drawing Studio. During the 2017-2018 school year, she was the artist in residence at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where she founded and directed the Center for Undisciplined Research, a nine-month public artwork and student-focused research collective sited on campus as a tool for people to critically examine what and how they want to learn. She makes collaborative and participatory projects which manifest in a variety of forms including videos, installations, publications, performances, ephemeral structures, and workshops. She wants to know where learning happens, and she uses her art practice as a platform to fnd out more about how art schools prepare artists (and more generally, how schools function to “train” citizens), ways to disrupt systems, and how people participate in society. She was the Artist in Residence at Portland State University’s Housing and Residence Life Department (2014-2017), a curatorial assistant at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (2015-2017), and she is a co-curator of the King School Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual International Art Fair as part of Converge 45 in Portland, Oregon (2017). She holds an MFA from Portland State University’s Art & Social Practice program, and a BA in Public Archaeology from New College of Florida.


Who’s Got the Power

In 2015, I spent the day as the honorary mayor of Rochester, Minnesota. Ephemera and a video of my day shadowing Mayor Ardell Brede around the city were exhibited later that year in the Rochester Art Center. We started in his office, attended a baseball game, and visited the world renowned Mayo Clinic shaking hands and taking selfies along the way. Rochester’s city government functions as a Council–manager government, in which the mayor is largely a ceremonial title. Phoenix, Arizona is the largest city in the United States to retain council–manager government. Although, Brede’s actual power was limited, his influence was incredibly substantial. His face was plastered all over the baseball stadium and in the game’s program. Kids waved from across the street. Executives from clinic stopped to chat him up.  A figurehead for the government. Seemingly, the only power he had was reversing my parking ticket I got at the Rochester City Hall. There’s a fine line between influence and actual power.

Honorary Rochester Mayor Chris Cloud and Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede pause for a moment in Downtown Rochester, MN.

A selfie with Rochester Mayor Brede .

Installation view of “Chris Cloud: Mayor for a Day” exhibition at the Rochester Art Center

Honorary Mayor Cloud shakes the hand of Slider, mascot for the Rochester Honkers.

Citizen of Rochester, MN

Rochester, MN

Citizen of Rochester, MN

Citizen of Rochester, MN

Cloud taking a selfie in the “Chris Cloud: Mayor for a Day” exhibition at the Rochester Art Center

Mayor Brede is spotted in the Rochester Honkers program.

Mayor Brede expunge’s Cloud’s parking ticket.

Chris Cloud is an artist, curator, and cultural developer. When Cloud isn’t cultivating projects and businesses, he is the Marketing Creative Director at Meow Wolf, an arts and entertainment group in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Erase, No Place For Us

 

I am Prisoner 10-33-39-21, this number stitched to the fabric of my skin. I am not a citizen. I am prisoner 10-33-39-21 since 1993 this SID number has worked on my identity as a human being like sandpaper, eroding my value. I am Inmate Hall, I am Armed Robber, I am Adult in Custody, I am Condemned I am criminal and I remain Prisoner 10-33-39-21. In Stalin’s Russia often when he would have someone murdered he would not only kill the individual but also attempt to erase him from existence. Stalin would have the victim’s name and every image eradicated from records and photos, all over Russia there were group photographs missing those who Stalin had ordered erased. This is not unlike what it feels like to be a prisoner in the United States, erased and no place. Our Citizenship is revoked; we cannot vote and are reduced to a subject. Even upon release there will always be jobs or fields of employment we are locked out of.

When Punishment was removed from the public realm i.e. torture, it was the architects of prisons most ingenious plan to eliminate us from the public’s eye. Instead of being laid open on the public stage to see your insides, rather you are eradicated to a life of civil death by a thousand apathetic cuts and the prison remains the state’s ultimate symbol of power and seemingly forever part of our landscape. Prison and its everyday happening are out of sight. The public knows all they think they need to know we committed a crime and we are where we belong, locked away from society, and upon release we are in many ways still serving a sentence. What does it mean to be a citizen? The dictionary describes a citizen as a person who is legally recognized, as being a member of a country and civics is the rights and duties of such citizenship. It is demanded of felons that we practice the duties of citizenship yet we are denied its full rights. In Oregon we may vote upon release, but that right is still denied most men convicted of a felony in many states, especially southern states. This is the result of criminalizing whole groups of people of color and or poor.

When one looks at elections in a state such as Florida, for example, where every vote counts, those felons stripped of citizenship could make the difference in policy for years to come and that is something those in power fear. As Paul Rogat Loeb points out in The Impossible Will Take a Little While, “A century ago, in the process of establishing racial segregation, Confederate states barred ex-felons from voting. These Laws remain in force throughout most of the South, and because of the drug war, have swept up huge numbers of people prohibiting 650,000 from registering in Florida alone.” When will our sentence truly be served?

What happens to those who have no outside support who suffer civil death and find no place? Where do they wind up? Currently, I may be Prisoner 10-33-39-21 and perhaps all you see is the quantitative data that says “armed robber” or “Career Criminal, incarcerated for the last 20 years.” Yes I am Prisoner 10-33-39-21, but I am also a Son, I am a brother, I am a friend, and I am a member of a community. My prison number won’t tell you I have a college education or that I spend over two years as a hospice volunteer learning lessons from the departing or that I have a capacity to be kind, compassionate and that this prisoner loves. Where will I wind up? Yes I am Prisoner 10-33-39-21 and WE are Prisoner Nation; and one day soon we will be your neighbors.

 

Benjamin Hall was born in Portland, Oregon in 1974. He has been incarcerated for 20 years. In prison he has become a passionate writer of narrative poetry. He is interested in restorative justice and social geography. In collaboration with Kelly Paths he started a restorative justice program in the Oregon State Penitentiary that is still up and running that is still up and running. He also worked as a hospice volunteer.

His writing has been published in the Anthology “Ebb and Flow” by the writing group “Pen thought” and in the criminal justice social magazine “context”. He is currently working on his bachelor in humanities through University of Oregon.


“When I die burn durians for me to eat – just place them in my coffin”

On art and senior female culture.

 

Last year, I was brainstorming the creation of a publication on senior female culture I wanted to title The Grandma Reporter. My classmate suggested writing a manifesto. Here is an early draft still in the works:

“The Grandma Reporter is a publication committed to the subculture of senior females and their rich worlds existing across the earth, where elderly women have lived forever. We aspire to be accessible to young and old but especially to elderly women. We hope to energetically connect our readers, contributors and interviewees in a senior female culture movement. We believe in: proudly declaring your age and keeping it a mystery; dressing up, down and from the heart; talking about death and thinking about past and future lives; walking sticks, wheelchairs and flying in your dreams; wrinkles, bulges, spider veins and bunions; ‘old’, ‘elderly’, ‘senior’, ‘nag’, ‘ageless’, ‘prune’, ‘sage’; discussing disease, incontinence and great television shows; sharing stories of crime, adventure and nonconforming genders; considering the struggles of growing old in a young, technology-focused world; food, genes and other things passed through generations; uncovering long loves, heartbreaks and sex that evolves with age; swimming as a magical way to keep fit in spite of on-land mobility challenges.”

I ended up making a test issue within a frenzied week and a half, in part for the final assignment of the History of Art and Social Practice class taught by Ariana Jacob. I described it as “a publication on senior female culture (including the occasional senior male), exploring topics ranging from fashion, recipes, crime, love and adventure to bunions, caregiving, gender, aging bodies, ageism and death.” My hopes are to find new ways to express the experience of aging in its full spectrum. The name was inspired by The Asian Reporter, a Pacific Northwest news source. The font had to be big enough for seniors. I thought about the term ‘grandma’ and whether it might be alienating to certain sectors of elderly females. In the end, after soliciting advice from various groups of people (and receiving suggestions like ‘silver fox’), I decided to go with it and hope the word could gain currency as broadly referring to elderly females.

Courtesy of the artist.

The theme of the test issue was style, which felt like a fun, accessible topic of potential depth to start with. I decided to interview female seniors on their favorite outfit and their thoughts on self-presentation as they age. After that, I would pair each senior with a youth, who would recreate the outfit and ponder the same topic. The Hollywood Senior Center in Portland kindly agreed to put out a call for a group session. Eight seniors who were active members of their community showed up, one enthusiastic male included. Per instructions, most came in their favorite outfit. As each of them mused about their clothing and style through the ages, I sensed a bubbling curiosity amongst them and by the end, a couple new friendships were made. The session felt like a kind of “forum” (as described by one of them) holding a fun investigation on a topic we momentarily found to be of great interest, and that wasn’t usually discussed. It was, eventually, a counsel on identity in old age, and I was the fortunate collector of bouquets like using coke cans to curl hair and a self-confidence that comes with maturing age.

I then went back and intuitively matched each senior to a younger person I knew. I sent them an image and some quotes from their partner, and set out to meet each of them, mostly in their personal spaces where the outfit could be experimented with. Our conversations afforded moments of intimacy in which, for me at least, there was the invisible, comforting presence of their older style accomplice. Though both sets never met, the younger participants were evidently inspired by if not curious about their partner. Our conversations made me see, in spite or because of the unbridgeable gulf in experience between the generations, a kind of longing to reach across the ages. Pondering aging when you are five or twenty-four ended up being a curious, somewhat profound exercise. I was taken by an eight year old boy who recently decided his new mission was to be “funky and classy”, “because it makes me feel better”, and my friend who said, “I think about everything that I’ve done up to now, it makes me feel like I deserve to be 24”. From the start, I had intended the audience of this publication and my projects on aging to include young people; this experience made that desire clearer.

Courtesy of the artist.

With the same group of seniors, I conducted a discussion on what they would like to see in, and contribute to, such a publication. The wide range of responses included getting ready for death, how to keep your driver’s license, hoarding, dating, confronting ageism, protecting your bones, relationships with younger family members and having a hobby. These responses are presented in the test issue. Later this year, I may collaborate with these seniors on the next issue.

The first issue also included articles that reflected on the theme differently in terms of content and relationship/interaction with elderly females (personal essays, interviews). My hope is for future issues to include a range of articles centered around an organisation (for example, a senior center), country or topic. I also plan to invite artists to contribute to the publication, discussing or presenting artworks related to senior females.

Me with two of the younger participants, Hadar Kedem (L) and Gavriel Kedem (R). They made their mother read and reread their interviews in the publication to them.

Production costs were kept as low as color printing could reasonably go. I did it on Portland State University’s printers and would like to take a more sustainable approach for future issues. I sorted and stapled the issues together on my kitchen table. A few dozen were given to the Hollywood Senior Center for the participating seniors as well as others to enjoy. It is available as a PDF online (with a donation encouraged) and being stocked at an independent Singapore bookstore, with plans to do the same in Portland. Other possible avenues include senior centers and hip cafes that young people frequent.

I am slowly figuring out who this publication can reach and where. I imagine the networks of readers it might create in different pockets around the world, building a small movement in senior female culture. I am also thinking about the curiosity a Singaporean female elder might feel when reading about her Portland contemporary, maybe learning about lifestyles so wondrously different and others so universal. And perhaps I could organize a meetup for this issue’s young and older pairs to get together in more of their favorite outfits. The possibilities are endless, and I feel more and more like a self-appointed advocate for the elderly or someone whose serious hobby is ‘older people’.

File_001

Courtesy of the artist.

Senior female culture was validated for me through the lived experience of growing up close to my grandmothers. I have lived all my life with Mama (my paternal grandma), and Ah Ma (my maternal grandma) has always been close by. At some point in teenagehood, I started reveling in Mama’s everyday – from her schedule and the things she says, to her fats and fashion sense. I would share quotes and photos on social media, and started wondering if ‘the creative ways people live’ could be the beginnings of something that might be regarded as art, an idea I am sure most of my family members find bewildering.

When Ah Kong (my maternal grandpa) teased Ah Ma about being obsessed with durians, the potent Asian king of fruits, she said, “When I die burn durians for me to eat – just place them in my coffin.” Many Chinese believe that praying to your ancestors with meals they like or burning hell money (stacks of textured gold-leafed paper) will ensure them a happy, comfortable life in the underworld.

When Ah Ma says something like this, I start thinking about how that remark could, beyond her wildest imaginations, be transformed into something like an art installation. This might have the potential to “bring a new social imaginary into being”, in the words of Jonas Staal describing art’s contribution – except that where his commitment lies in alternative parliaments involving refugees and serious debate, mine lies in the geriatric, involving underwear choices, wrinkled body landscapes and bunions – an alternative political space of its own. Jonas’ words seem absurd in my context, where my hoped-for impact is miniscule in comparison to Staal’s. But to me this speaks to what art can do in small and possibly magical ways.

File_000(2)

Sleepover with Ah Ma and Ah Kong for the first time as part of my residency with them

I am currently back in Singapore for the winter term and on a loose, self-initiated residency with my grandparents as site. I missed them so much in Portland that I decided to commemorate them and our relationship before it was too late. Some of the projects I’m working on are: an EP of Mama’s Hokkien (a Mandarin dialect) conversations; something on bunions; a talkshow with my grandmas on what they think of me; a short film on my grandfather’s eccentric inventions and habits. Progress has been erratic but I’m enjoying spending time with my grandparents, though their agreement to this is more of a whatever-she-wants-to-do approach. The nature of collaboration is food for thought when there are calls for deeper participation; there are just so many ways of working and being together. I am also thinking about the presentation of these experiments and would like to include my grandparents’ neighbours and friends in the audience, preferably in a personal or community space.

mama

Mama

Coming from such an intuitive place, these artistic impulses are hard to articulate, but here’s a shot: I am transmuting my grandparents’ everyday lives, hoping to develop new ways of making art that take the sacred and banal everyday as material. In some private way not immediately apparent to even myself, I am hoping this will do something for my impossible wish that they may never pass on. More broadly, creating projects on senior female culture stems from my deep belief in the rich worlds that elderly females hold within them: fascinating, complex dimensions that go hidden today and which are at once warm, humorous, rigid, open, wise, eccentric and absurd. These worlds are inspiring material for relational art-making in thinking about form, aesthetics and audience. The geriatric has plenty of surprises in store for art.

To keep in touch, visit thegrandmareporter.com and saltythunder.net


The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207
Email

Links
Program
Instagram
Facebook
Twitter