Sofa Issues


Image from Lou Blumberg’s interview with Simeen Anjum: A woman at the PSU protest encampment writing a placard with a piece of coal. The placard says “Inquilab Zindabad” in Hindi (Simeen’s first language), a popular protest slogan that translates to “Long Live the Revolution.” (May 2024)

The world always seems to be in a hurry, but this period feels particularly intense. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, another conflict erupted on our planet. After 75 years of Israeli occupation of Palestine, the kidnapping of Israelis by Hamas led Israel to wage a genocidal bombing campaign in Gaza. Many innocent Palestinians have lost their lives in these attacks, and the violence continues. Demonstrations opposing Israel’s actions against Palestine have broken out across American universities, including a significant protest at Portland State University where students and community members collectively grieved and were violently dispersed by Portland Police. The library has been damaged by some protestors and remains closed; it will stay closed until the fall semester. There’s little I can say, but even in sorrow, we are alive. I hope you find moments of peace.

-Midori Yamanaka

Letter from the Editors

As the year draws to a close for us at the Art + Social Practice program, thoughts on time and its passage weave its way into our current interests, as expressed by the interviews in this issue. 

For the graduating third year students, the end of their time as students brings about an interest in exploring time on a more personal, even familial, scale. Olivia DelGandio interviews their mom, Lauren DelGandio. Luz Blumenfeld interviews Hollis Blue Hawkins Wood, a 5 year-old currently growing up in the house Luz also spent significant time in throughout their childhood and life. And Gilian Rappaport meets with Midnite Seed Abioto and LaQuida Landford to learn about their work curating an exhibition of artists exploring the complex relationships that change over time between BIPOC communities and plants.

Looking back through time proves to be a generative exploration. Midori Yamanaka discusses with Amanda Larriva The Timeline, an important art installation which shares historical moments of interest in the history of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Northeast Portland. Nina Vichayapai’s conversations with Monyee Chau explores the many ways ancestral and familial history influences their work. Meanwhile, Manfred Parrales sits down with Israa Al-Hasani to speak of the mental health impact of an immigrant’s experience of living simultaneously in the past and present. 

And of course, with summer break nearing, time for friends is critical in restoring ourselves. Clara Harlow and Katie Shook discuss the importance of carving out time and space for play, rest, and connection within the capitalist grind. For friends and fellow classmates Simeen Anjum and Lou Blumberg, their interviews with one another provided a chance to deepen their friendship while also reflecting on what helps them get through difficult times as activists. 

We hope you enjoy reading our reflections and find some time to clock out this season. 


Your SoFA Journal Editors:

Nina Vichayapai, Lou Blumberg, and Clara Harlow

Microscopic Puddles and New Pen Pals

“I already made like, I don’t know, a million pieces of art.”

Hollis Blue Hawkins Wood

I recently became pen pals with my friend’s five year old. My friend, Shelley, her partner, Josh,  and their kid, Hollis, all live in the same house I lived in at two different times in my life. I lived there from infancy to age three, and again as an adult from ages 24-30. The house sits kitty-corner from a school and a church, whose bells ring every hour on the hour. It is walking distance to the city park my mom used to take me on stroller walks to when I was little. Now, Hollis also visits that park with their family. 

I visited Shelley and Hollis over my winter break and when I went by their house to say goodbye, Hollis was so excited about the letter they had written to me, they actually showed it to me right then and there and read it aloud instead of mailing it to me. 

*A note about gender and pronouns: Shelley has raised her child in a way that Hollis feels free to determine their own gender and change their pronouns whenever they feel like it. In this introduction, I refer to Hollis with they/them pronouns (although, in the interview, Hollis tells me they are currently using she/her pronouns).

Hollis’s first letter to me. It reads: “Luz, I love and miss you so so so so so so much and thank you so so much for the idea of sending each other cards! I hope we can experience a sleepover and I, myself actually use actual scissors! Real scissors! –Hollis” 2024. Photo courtesy Luz Blumenfeld.

When I returned to Portland, I wrote Hollis a letter back about the crows here. At the time of this interview, I was still awaiting her next letter. 

I wanted to interview Hollis because I love hearing how she navigates life as a five year old and what is important to her.

This interview took place over Zoom in January of 2024.

Luz Blumenfeld: What have you got there?

Hollis Blue Hawkins Wood: An orange, and a pear.

Luz: Does your shirt say “hummingbird” on it?

Hollis: Yeah.

Luz: I saw a hummingbird today.

Hollis: Really? I think my shirt is spelled backwards a little.

Luz: I can see it the right way on my side. I can read it.

Hollis: Yeah. This is from my old school.

Luz: Is that the school where your mom works?

Hollis: Yeah, I used to go there. And [my friend] Amiri goes to the school I used to go to.

So Luz, wanna come over or sleep over today or maybe tomorrow?

Luz: I wish I could come for a sleepover today or tomorrow, but I’m all the way in Oregon.

Hollis: Oh yeah, I forgot that you’re there. Right now, I’m wearing some new boots that just came today.

Luz: Can you show me? Oh, wow. Look at those rain boots. Have you splashed in a puddle with them yet?

Hollis: No, well, these are new. 

Shelley: They’re like, super new. 

Hollis shows me their new boots on Zoom. 2024. Photo courtesy Luz Blumenfeld.

Hollis: Can you see how shiny they were, how clean they were? Maybe that could answer your question.

Luz: What question?

Hollis: The one– Have I splashed in puddles with them yet?

Luz: Oh, so not yet.

Hollis: Yeah, that’s right.

Luz: Yeah, you’ll have to look for a big one.

Hollis: Yeah. I have lots of big puddles at my school so I don’t need to worry about that. I splash in every single puddle. In microscopic puddles, gigantic puddles–

Luz: There are microscopic puddles?

Hollis: Yeah, microscopic ones.

Luz: How can you see them?

Hollis: I just splash in them– I splash in microscopic puddles every rainy day. (laughs)

Luz: I don’t think I would be able to see a microscopic puddle… Unless I had a microscope. 

Hollis: Aah! Pear emergency! 

Luz: Pear emergency? (laughs)

Shelley: Want me to put them up so you can have them tomorrow?

Hollis: Yeah. Bye-bye. (laughs) I just said goodbye to them. About the questions, are we ever gonna do that? 

Luz: (laughs) We can do questions, yeah. I was gonna ask you first, what are your words lately? What are your pronouns lately?

Hollis: She and her.

Luz: Okay, thank you. I just want to make sure I have that right because there will be a little section of the interview that introduces you, and I want to put that in there. 

Hollis: Wow. What’s the second question?

Luz: Well, when we finish the interview, I’m gonna put it in a book and then we’re gonna publish that book.

Hollis: A book?! (gasps)

Shelley: Do you want to show Luz your book?

Hollis: Oh, yeah, I’d love to show you.  

Luz: I’d love to see it.

Hollis: I made a picture book.

Luz: Wow!

Shelley: There was a publishing party at school. 

Hollis: Let me show you inside. 

Luz: Yes, please.

Shelley: Maybe pick a couple of pages. 

Hollis: I’m gonna pick all the pages!

Luz: Can you hold it up to the camera? 

Hollis: Yeah, see the words?

Luz: I do see the words! I see “daddy,” and “mama.” And it looks like a sand castle. Is that a sand castle?

Hollis: Yeah.

Luz: Is that a picture of the beach?

Hollis: Yeah.

Hollis shows me their beach drawing over Zoom. January 2024. Image courtesy of Luz Blumenfeld.

Luz: What’s the green part?

Hollis: The green part is the tent.

Luz: Oh, the tent! Cool.

Hollis: Are you wondering what this is?

Luz: Um, that person? 

Hollis: Yeah, that’s me. 

Luz: You’re really tall in that picture.

Hollis: I bet you can’t even see the eyes. The eyes look a little strange. It’s like you can only see one eye. Did you notice this part at the top where I wrote my name?

Luz: Yeah, it looks really purple. It’s almost like camouflage. It’s hard to see but I think I can see it. What’s going on in this next picture?

Hollis: (laughs) Well, I’m relaxing outside. This is my house and this is a tree. This is a tree trunk, and this is me relaxing outside like, 🎵la la la la la la 🎵(laughs) 

Luz: (laughs)

Hollis: And this is my house and I’m walking over by my house to say, “hi mom, how you doin’?”

Luz: Is that the house where you are now? It looks like that house. 

Hollis: Yeah, it is.

Hollis and Shelley hold up Hollis’s drawing over Zoom. 2024. Photo courtesy Luz Blumenfeld.

Luz: Did you know that I used to live in that house when I was a baby?

Hollis: Whoa.

Luz: I know you knew I used to live there before I moved to Portland, when I was already grown up. But did you know I used to live there when I was little? They brought me home from the hospital to that house, and then we lived there until I was three.

Hollis: This is the first house you ever got?

Luz: Yeah, actually, I have a picture of my dad holding a very tiny newborn baby-me in the kitchen. And it looks different from the way the kitchen looks now because we renovated it at some point. We kind of redid the kitchen before you guys moved in. But this picture is taken about where the fridge is right now. If you look where the fridge is in your house, can you see that at all?

Hollis: I can’t see the fridge.

Luz: No, you won’t be able to see the fridge in the picture. I mean, the spot where he’s standing is basically where the fridge is in your kitchen right now. 

Hollis: Oh, I see. 

A picture of a photograph from my dad’s memorial. In the photograph, my dad is holding a newborn baby-me in the old kitchen of his house. Oakland, CA, 1992. Photo courtesy Luz Blumenfeld.

Luz: Right there. Maybe I can send the picture to your mama’s phone and then she can show it to you. 

Hollis: I’d love to!

Luz: I think that picture is when I just came home from the hospital, so I was really tiny. 

Hollis: Yeah, like maybe this tiny (holding up her fingers).

Luz: (laughs) I mean, maybe I was microscopic at some point, but by the time I was born, I was not microscopic anymore.

Hollis: (laughs)

Luz: I remember when you were in your mommy’s belly and your mommy had something on her phone that told us what size you were at certain months. And at one point it said that you were the size of an avocado.

Shelley: Do you want to show them another drawing from your book?

Hollis holds up their drawing of a holiday house with a beam of sunlight to show me over Zoom. 2024. Photo courtesy Luz Blumenfeld.

Luz: Ooh, this one looks like a Halloween house to me, maybe a haunted house. What’s up there?

Hollis: This is actually a bathroom.

Luz: A haunted bathroom?

Hollis: And then there’s the smoke coming out of the chimney, and there’s Santa in his sleigh.

Luz: Oh, so it’s more of a holiday house and a holiday bathroom.

Hollis: Yeah. And then you see this yellow? That’s the sunlight. 

Luz: That’s beautiful. That’s so cool. I love the way you drew this out. 

Shelley: That’s the last page. Maybe we can make some copies of it and send a copy to Luz.

Hollis: I made that in, like, 2023 but it’s 2024, so it’s old. 

Luz: You could make another one.

Hollis: Yeah, I want to make copies of it. And I’m gonna send it to you. I’m gonna send one to everyone on this continent, even people I don’t even know. 

Luz: Wow, they’re going to be so excited to get that as a surprise. I would be really excited. Even if I didn’t know you and I got that in the mail, I would be excited. I was just gonna ask, if you wrote a book, what would it be about?

Hollis: My favorite Pokémons.

Luz: You want to make a book about Pokémon?

Hollis: Yeah, I’m doing that. I already made the book cover. I want to show you something.

Shelley holds Hollis’s Pikachu book cover drawing up to the camera on Zoom. 2024. Photo courtesy Luz Blumenfeld.

Luz: Okay. Is this for the cover? Whoa, you already made it.

Hollis: I tried to make a Pikachu.

Luz: It looks just like Pikachu! I love it.

Shelley: It’s so good, Bubs. This is my first time seeing this actually. Wow, I could tell right away that it was Pikachu. 

Luz: That’s great. What will be on the inside of your Pikachu book?

Hollis: Well, a lot of things about Pikachu.

Luz: Is that what you want me to put in my book? You want people to know all about Pikachu? 

Hollis: Yeah. 

Luz: What do you want them to know?

Hollis: That Pikachu is a mouse Pokémon, but it can generate electricity and– Luz, do you see those red parts in the cheeks? That’s where the Pikachu stores electricity. 

Luz: Really? I didn’t know that.

Hollis: They can do a move called Thunderbolt. It’s an electric move that Pikachu does when angry and when it’s in a Pokémon battle. That’s only one of the moves.

Luz: What do you think you want to do when you get older?

Hollis: I want to be an artist!

Luz: Yeah? That’s awesome.

Hollis: I already made like, I don’t know, a million pieces of art.

Luz: You’ve made so many pieces of art and you keep making more.

Hollis: Yeah, I feel like my whole house, or my whole room, is covered with art and toys. (laughs)

Luz: What’s your favorite toy right now?

Hollis: Toys with wheels. I have many toys with wheels. Oh, I forgot to show you something. Be right back!

Luz: Ooh, what is it?

Hollis: It’s a clay pot I made.

Luz: You made a clay pot?

Hollis: And there’s money inside. Let me show you.

Shelley: What does it say? Tell them what it says.

Hollis: It says, “We Accept Tips.”

Luz: (laughs) It’s a tip jar?

Hollis: Yeah, look at the money inside of it. Let me show you some dollars. They’re real dollars. 

This is just an ordinary, boring box. But inside–

Luz: Whoa, look at that.

Hollis: –I have one dollar. 

Hollis shows me the clay pot they made over Zoom. 2024. Photo courtesy Luz Blumenfeld.

Luz Blumenfeld:  One question I had was, what’s something that you learned recently that you’re excited about?

Hollis: About Martin Luther King Jr and his birthday. 

Luz: That’s cool. What did you learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?

Hollis: Well, that he did good things in the world, and fighted against– What was that word, Mama? 

Shelley: What word?

Hollis: That Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting against. Segregation.

Shelley: Okay, yeah, that one.

Hollis: Yeah. He fighted against segregation. And segregation means people get treated badly because of their skin color and how they talk. But Martin Luther King Jr. stopped that.

Shelley: He changed a lot of people’s minds. That’s definitely true.

Hollis: Yeah, but he got arrested a lot, which I don’t think should be good. Some white people didn’t believe him because he was Black.

Shelley: Okay. (laughs) So, yes, there were people who were unkind in those times. And Martin Luther King Jr. wanted kindness for everyone. He wanted people to have what they need. A lot of people really believed in the things that he was saying. And some people who didn’t believe in it before even changed their minds–

Hollis: Woah.

Shelley: –Because he was such a good speaker. And so we celebrate him because a lot of people really liked his ideas. People changed their minds about things because of hearing him speak.

Luz: And his ideas are still important today. 

Shelley: Yeah, they are.

Hollis: Yeah. That’s why we still celebrate his birthday, even though he died. 

Luz: Yeah, definitely. Thank you for sharing that. Do you have any questions for me?

Hollis: Oh, yeah. Some questions like, what’s your favorite color?

Luz: Blue. What’s your favorite color?

Hollis: Purple. And yellow. Yellow cause Pikachu– almost its whole body is yellow. 

Luz: Do you have any other questions for me?

Hollis: Did you hear my fart sound? 

Luz: No, no I didn’t.

Hollis: These are some more questions. Um, do you have a toilet?

Shelley: Okay, no more potty humor.

Luz: Okay, I can answer that question. Yes, my house does have a toilet. Most houses do.

Hollis: (giggling) Is your toilet in the bathroom or in your room?

Luz: It’s in the bathroom. 

Hollis: Do you have a TV in your room?

Luz: Nope. No TV in my room. Do you have a TV in your room? 

Hollis: No cause I’m only five. No one lets me have a TV. But I do have it in my living room.

Luz: I think there’s a TV in our living room too.

Hollis: Um, sorry Luz, but we have to go soon. We have to stop this conversation soon. Because the computer has a low battery. 

Luz: Well, I’ll let you go soon because I think it’s almost your bedtime also.

Shelley: Can you say thanks? Thanks for talking, thanks for calling–

Hollis: Thanks for talking, thanks for calling me. And I have one more question for you. Do you have chickens? (laughs)

Luz: Do I have chickens? Like pet chickens?

Hollis: Yeah, And if you do have them, do they lay eggs?

Luz: I don’t have them, but I think if I did, they would.

Hollis: Do roosters lay eggs?

Luz: I don’t think so.

Hollis: I knew that. 

Luz: Do you have chickens?

Hollis: We were thinking about it.

Luz: You’re thinking about getting chickens?

Hollis: Yeah. My mom said maybe we can get them tomorrow.

Luz: Tomorrow?

Shelley: I don’t think so. (laughs)

Luz: Thank you for talking to me, Hollis. 

Shelley: We’re gonna say good night now, okay,?

Hollis: You’re welcome to have a sleepover anytime you want.

Luz: Thank you so much. I am so happy to have that invitation–

Hollis: Or a movie night together.

Luz: Will you keep writing me letters? Will we keep being pen pals?

Hollis: Yeah. 

Luz: Cool, can I put one of your letters in my book?

Hollis: Yeah.

Luz: Thank you. All right, Hollis. I’m gonna let you go to sleep.

Hollis: Okay, I’m gonna miss you though. 

Luz: I’ll miss you too. But I will talk to you again soon. If you want, we can hang out on the computer, or we can hang out on the phone another time.

Hollis: And write messages.

Luz: Yeah, and we can write letters to each other.

Hollis: (making chicken clucking sounds)

Luz: Good night little chicken.

Shelley: Bye, love you.

Luz: Bye, I love you too!

Hollis: That left me cracking up.

Hollis Blue Hawkins Wood (they/them) is a 5 year old kindergartener living in Oakland, California. They are a budding artist in many mediums; from handmade (and teacher stapled) picture books to clay pottery and original songs on the ukulele. Hollis loves the earth and often volunteers to pick up trash at their local park. They love playing with trains, and reading and snuggling with their pets (Okra the dog and Huey the cat). Hollis was the recipient of the Student of the Month award in January of 2024 for cultural and ethical leadership in their school community.

Shelley Hawkins (she/her) is a mom, teacher and 4th generation Oakland resident. Shelley has a background in permaculture design, urban food systems and food justice. As a teacher to Black and Brown kindergarten and first grade students, she brings these skills into the classroom to promote empowerment and push back against the status quo. Shelley lives with her partner, her beautiful child and raucous pets in Oakland’s Dimond district. 

Luz Blumenfeld (they/them) is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and educator with a background in Early Childhood Education. Third generation from Oakland, California, they currently live and work in Portland, Oregon. They hold a BA from California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, California and are graduating in June this year with an MFA in Art and Social Practice from Portland State University. Luz published a book of poems entitled More and More Often in 2023. They taught an undergraduate class called Practice Practice, which focused on exploring methodologies of an art practice. In April, Luz curated a show about ephemera at AB Gallery in Portland, Oregon. Their work explores themes of play, site, care, and memory through research as lived experience and materials such as sound, sculpture, and publications.


“We are not a physical place, we are a movement.” 

Vaughn Kimmons, photo by Intisar Abioto, Feast of the Tide: a performance art short film screening, AfroVillage At Lloyd Center Mall, November 2023

Midnite Abioto offered me something to eat when I first entered the AfroVillage, but I knew very little about her then. From an invitation in an Instagram story, all I knew was a rough assembling of information: Vaughn Kimmons (of Portland-based music project Brown Calculus), short film, performance, and Lloyd Center Mall. After my grandmother and mother died of lung cancer, I’ve been interested in the tobacco plant and all the healing that it can offer beyond the disease with which it has become so identified. Thinking of a sacred ritual that a beloved Kiowa elder shared with me in the wake of grief, I often wonder What miraculous healings can take place spontaneously through our collective prayers? I had to know the stories of the women who made this powerful exhibition happen, who brought all these people together and fed everyone warm food and art as the days got darker. I felt very lucky when I ran into the painter Kyra Watkins: she introduced me to Midnite, curator of AfroVillage’s exhibition Healing Our Roots, who then connected me with AfroVillage’s Lead Visionary and Executive Director LaQuida Landford. 

Gilian Rappaport: What is your vision for Healing Our Roots

Midnite Seed Abioto: Healing Our Roots: Our Relationship to Tobacco, Hemp, Sugarcane, and Cotton is a multimedia exhibition in which we explore tobacco, hemp, sugarcane and cotton within our community. These crops formed the basis of the trade of brutal enslavement, trafficking, colonialization, and genocide. In this exhibit, we center the history of our communities within ecology from a full cultural spectrum. The artists were not chosen simply because they have specific plant representations in their art, instead, they were chosen because they present a broader perspective of the culture as a whole centered on ecology. The media historically leaves out BIPOC communities in the deeper conversations around ecology and environmental justice. We push back against that narrative for ourselves and the world as we explore our birth, our life, and our death in the relationship among all living organisms and the physical environment. This exhibit explores deeply our relationship with tobacco, hemp, cotton, and sugarcane beyond the ideologies of pain, suffering, and disease. 

YAWA, photo by Intisar Abioto, Feast of the Tide: a performance art short film screening, AfroVillage At Lloyd Center Mall, November 2023

Gilian Rappaport: What programming is upcoming? 

Midnite Seed Abioto: AfroVillage has convened an extraordinary group of artists, healers, herbalists, thinkers, musicians, and Afro-futurists to exhibit their arts and articulate their evolving thoughts throughout November and December. In December, our workshops will expand the relationship and reframe the narrative around tobacco, hemp, cotton, and sugarcane beyond that of death, mass incarceration, disease, and despair to explore the power and efficacy of true liberation through the lens of diasporic culture with reference to community, history, the spiritual world and the natural law which emanates from this evolution. Our programming will include deeply nourishing conversations, sound baths, plant meditation, movement, and music which centers us in the ecology of Afro-futurism. The diverse group of artists whose works will be on display includes Adriene Cruz, Bobby Fouther, Kathy Pennington, Latoya Lovely, Chris McMurry, Carolyn Anderson, Cole Reed, Chris Morillo, Nia Musiba, Kyra Watkins, Cole Reed, Alice Price, Medina Abioto, Intisar Abioto, Yawa Abioto, Sahara Defrees, Bridgette Hickey, Kalimah Abioto and our youngest artist, Ceriya Stewart, and myself.  

The event that you attended on Saturday, “Feast of the Tide,” was a performance art short film screening production by Vaughn Kemmons. They connected the work of their grandmother paving the pathway for women in the ministry—at a time when women were not allowed to stand in the pulpit—and the defining works of bell hooks. They also included several artists from the community as performers. It was a grand and glorious opportunity for AfroVillage PDX to give a sneak preview of the Healing Our Roots exhibit and engage the community. My family is a group of artists. I have five daughters and all of them are artists. One of my daughters, YAWA, performed on Saturday. My daughter Intisar Abioto curated Black Artists of Oregon, currently on view at the Portland Art Museum (through March 17, 2024). 

AfroVillage at Lloyd Center is a short-term pop-up, open through December 31st on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Current information is at @AfroVillagePDX and

Jacque Hammond, photo by Intisar Abioto, Feast of the Tide: a performance art short film screening, AfroVillage At Lloyd Center Mall, November 2023

Gilian Rappaport: Where is the funding coming from for this project? 

Laquida Landford: AfroVillage is funded by the Oregon Health Authority, from a commercial tobacco tax from the state which the fund is re-distributing back into the community. It’s operating as a smaller organizing group to provide mutual aid to the community. The project is also funded by RACC.

Healing Our Roots exhibition (detail), photo by Intisar Abioto, AfroVillage At Lloyd Center Mall, November 2023

Gilian Rappaport: What is the mission of AfroVillage? 

LaQuida Landford: We are not a physical place, we are a movement. We empower futures for black and brown and unrecognized communities. I’ve always been curious about how black and brown folks can have safe spaces, especially within pervasive gentrification.

Community and art installation, photo by Intisar Abioto, Feast of the Tide: a performance art short film screening, AfroVillage At Lloyd Center Mall, November 2023

Gilian Rappaport: What is your relationship with the Lloyd Center Mall? How did the AfroVillage end up there, and why does it feel like a good place for this work? 

LaQuida Landford: I worked in the mall in 2000. A lot closed, businesses didn’t succeed. Amy, the current acting manager, leased us the space amid a lot of changes happening in the next 12-18 months. It’s important that we have visibility in the next era of Lloyd Center to help mend the pervasive history of displacement and gentrification in Oregon, and especially in Northeast Portland. In the past, people who didn’t have larger businesses could not lease space to do something at Lloyd Center. I appreciate the opportunity to be part of reimagining the space. I would like that this exhibit and us holding space will allow us to be part of those conversations. 

Map of AfroVillage at Lloyd Center Mall (lot 982)

Midnite Seed Abioto is an emerging multimedia artist who spent 40 years practicing law in the Mississippi Delta. She sees her work as magically transformative with an arch towards justice and liberation. She has exhibited at Building 5 (Portland, OR) and the Reser Center for the Arts (Beaverton, OR), and performed at the ASHÉ Cultural Center (New Orleans, LA). Her curatorial process is centered on addressing environmental injustice through a cultural and spiritual lens. 

LaQuida – “Q” – Landford is Lead Visionary for the AfroVillage Movement. She is a community health worker, community activist and organizer, and a community navigator with roots in Los Angeles and Belize. She serves on the Climate Friendly and Equitable Communities Rules Advisory Committee for the state of Oregon. She is the founder of the “Green In The Hood PDX“, an initiative based on flipping the historical stereotypes about BlPOC communities. LaQuida’s work focuses on housing, food and environmental injustice, policy advocacy and restorative healing.

Gilian Rappaport is an artist, naturalist, and designer working in social and visual forms. Their interdisciplinary practice is place-based and often in ecological contexts. | art projects: | design projects: | @gilnotjill    

The Mother-Daughter Connection

“It all comes back to the human condition, you know, searching for home, searching for belonging.”

Lauren DelGandio

When I was thinking about what I wanted my final SoFA interview to be, I decided to take time to reflect on how my work and ideas have taken shape over the years. I thought back to where my work started and immediately thought about my family. Often, my work is literally about my family and when it’s not, it revolves around the values growing up in my family left me with; connection, vulnerability, and support. So for this last interview, I decided to talk to my mother about my relationship with her, the relationships we have with our family, and how it all finds its way into my creative practice. 

Olivia DelGandio: If you could do life all over again, what would you change? 

Lauren DelGandio: I would have stayed in school and gotten a Masters and Ph.D. in sociology. I would love to research and teach. Every sociology class that I took lit me up, I couldn’t wait to read more. But I don’t think I saw staying in school really as an option, financially. And it seemed like a pipe dream.

Olivia: What was Meme’s (my grandmother’s) part in that? 

Lauren: It’s interesting because she says she always told me I could be anything but I recently said to her, “I know you said it but I didn’t believe you.”

Olivia: Why do you think you didn’t believe her?

Lauren: My self-esteem was incredibly low. I felt unimportant. Invisible. Meme and I were talking about this recently and I said I always let you find your way and Meme said that she told me the same things. I said to her, “but the difference is that Olivia believes me when I tell her she can do anything.”

Olivia: It’s interesting how those things are passed down and how they change and shift the way because I did believe you. I do believe you. 

Lauren: Words are one thing, right? But action and example are a completely separate thing and that wasn’t there. My father did not show me that he loved me. And I knew that Meme loved me but I felt like my voice was not important because of the situations and the life we were put into. So the words were, “you’re incredible, you’re talented, you’re smart” but the environment did not show me that. 

Olivia: Totally. I mean, it’s so interesting to think about how, like, we were both told the same things, but because our growing up experiences were so different, the result was so different. How did this all translate into you and Dad’s relationship?

Lauren: I mean, getting together at 16, I wasn’t even a person yet. I’ve told you I thought he was so hot and so desirable. If you ask me, like, you know, on a scale of 1 to 10 where we each were, I’d say he was a 27 and I was maybe a 5. I remember thinking, why would he want me? And I see it so clearly now, I was just reliving this dance of, if I’m good enough, my father will love me, if I’m good enough, this man will love me enough to marry me. I was always trying to prove something. So I accepted being treated very poorly because I didn’t see any value in myself. 

Olivia: You would never know that he used to treat you poorly by looking at how he is now. What changed?

Lauren: Well, we didn’t see each other or talk for almost two years when I was around 19. That was the beginning for me, I couldn’t believe I had accepted what I accepted. And for dad, he says he always knew he wanted more for himself than the hand he was dealt. Obviously a lot of how he treated me came from how he was raised. He says he knew that I would get him to grow and that we could grow together. And in that time we were apart, he realized he wanted to make that growth happen with me. 

Olivia: How do you think all of these relationships fit into how you mother me? 

Lauren: That’s really interesting. First of all, I think that I made a really conscious decision probably before I even knew it, to not be like my mother. And, you know, there are so many ways that I’m very much like my mother, but I made the decision to not parent like my mother, 

Olivia: In what way? 

Lauren: In terms of my relationship with my mother, the mother daughter connection and struggle for individuation, I still sometimes question if I’ve  individuated completely. There was just so much codependency. 

Olivia: I question that too. 

Lauren: I look at our family tree, our family connections, I think about my own friendships or lack of friendships and I realize that family filled so much of my life. I often wonder and question, you know, did I not maintain strong friendships because my family took up too much space? Every weekend was going to Miami to spend time with not just my mother but this whole extended family. It was such a special thing but I also wonder if it was a deterrent. And I think the whole dynamic also makes it so hard to explain to other people. It’s impossible to explain what losing these people and these connections meant for us because our family relationships were so different from most families. 

Olivia: Totally agree. I remember being 18 when Poppop (my great grandfather) died and I was absolutely devastated. People didn’t understand how I could feel so strongly about someone most people don’t even get the chance to meet, let alone have and see so often for my entire childhood. 

Lauren: Right. I can’t say that I regret the emphasis we had on family because the ties, the relationships, the memories, I wouldn’t trade them for the world. But there have been times I’ve wondered, how come I don’t have any close friends? What is it about me? And it’s sort of like I don’t need friends, I talk to my mother every single day but is that how it should be?

Olivia: It’s such an interesting question. Now that we live so far away from each other, I’ve thought a lot about our relationship and how we are so connected. I talk to you way more than any of my friends talk to their mothers, I probably talk to my grandmother more than my friends talk to their mothers. And if a whole day goes by without at least a text from you I’m like hm, I should check in with my mom. I’ve definitely had moments where I have to remind myself that it’s normal to not talk to your mother for a day. 

Lauren: Exactly. And I always want you to have your life separate from me, it’s an interesting thing to have to learn. 

Olivia: And I am so much like you in so many ways and I wonder how much of me is just you? Who am I without my mother?

Lauren: Well I think there’s a distinction between who am I without my mother and who am I without my mother’s approval/opinion? And I think it is an ongoing process probably for the rest of our lives. For me, just the fact that you live 2500 miles away means I’ve succeeded in letting you know that you can go out and live your life without me. It’s cliche but I’ve always wanted to give you roots to come home to and wings so you can fly away. And I don’t know that Meme ever meant the same for me. 

Olivia: I could see that. 

Lauren: It’s interesting because you have to look at who raised you, who raised me, and who raised Meme in order to understand it all. Meme always says that GG (her mother) was not affectionate and I think she wanted to be different from that. And me – I grew up watching Meme stay with a husband that treated her and us so wrong. She had to have such low self esteem to accept that for so long, which brings it back to my self esteem growing up. I didn’t know I could want more for myself. 

Me with my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, 2013, courtesy of Lauren DelGandio. 

Olivia: So she didn’t want to be like her mother and you didn’t want to be like your mother but, the thing is, I want to be like my mother. 

Lauren: That’s an honor. That’s a true honor. 

Olivia: I mean, we talk about how you and dad decided to break the mold and I think it’s proof that it worked because I want to be like my parents. It’s interesting to think about all of this in relation to the work that I make and want to make and how so much of it comes down to connection and conversation and family. 

Lauren: That’s interesting, it all comes back to the human condition, you know, searching for home, searching for belonging. And I think a lot of what you explore is the idea of belonging. Belonging physically as compared to belonging as a feeling, right? You know, what does belonging mean in a modern and post-modern, apocalyptic world?

Olivia: And when I think about it, home and belonging, I think of sleepovers at Meme’s house and all our weekends there together and walks on the beach with you and Meme and you and Dad, you know, the home that you made for me and my brothers. It all comes back to this connection and what that feels like. Like waking up at a sleepover at Meme’s and she’s in the bed next to me. No matter how old I got, she left Bompa (my grandfather) to come and sleep with me. Not because I needed her to anymore, but because it was this special thing, right? 

The beach where my mother and great-grandparents lived during my childhood. We’d often walk this path together, Bal Harbor, FL, 2019, photo taken by Olivia DelGandio

Lauren: Exactly. This sense of connection, it’s everything to us and it’s also what’s made death so much harder in this family. 

Olivia: It’s all coming full circle. It’s also making me think about how we started this conversation with you saying you’d be a professor if you could do it differently. I’m thinking about how I’m going to be teaching my own class soon. What does that feel like for you?

Lauren: I feel thrilled. I’ve told you a zillion times, I’m so proud of you. I love you but I also just like you so much and you’ve really created this life that you truly dreamed of. You chose it. This is all I wanted for you. 

Olivia: I really feel like this was only possible because you told me it was. And because of the true belonging you and Dad raised me within.

Lauren: Yes and I’m so proud of me and Dad. We’re a miracle from where we both came from to have created this. It makes me think of GG and Poppop (my great-grandparents) sitting at the head of the table on Thanksgiving and Poppop saying, “Ida, look at what we started,” while our whole family is running around them. That’s how I feel when I look at you and your brothers. 

Liv DelGandio (she/they) is a socially engaged artist focused on asking intimate questions and normalizing answers in the form of ongoing conversations. She explores grief, memory, and queerness and looks for ways of memorializing moments and relationships. Through her work, she hopes to make the world a more tender place and does so by creating books, installations, and textiles that capture personal narratives. Research is a large part of this work and her current research interests include untold queer histories, family lineage, and the intersection between fashion and identity. Her medium is often changing and responding to a specific place and context that she’s in.

Lauren DelGandio (she/her) is a feeler and a thinker. She’s spent a lifetime working in the nonprofit world and is currently creating community in Orlando, FL. She loves mango ginger tea, a good book, and the family she’s created with her husband. (she/her) is a feeler and a thinker. She’s spent a lifetime working in the nonprofit world and is currently creating community in Orlando, FL. She loves mango ginger tea, a good book, and the family she’s created with her husband. 

Lessons of survival, resistance and resilience from Baghdad 

“ It took 12 years to be able to go back and grieve, to grieve what I had left behind. I didn’t grieve before, didn’t grieve the years, the loss of culture, the loss of homeland, the loss of friends. Yeah, there was a lot of grief that I had to go through, and I’m still grieving. It doesn’t stop, but it helps me make sense of my experience.”

Israa Al-Hasani

Israa’s journey is a remarkable story of survival and resilience, spanning from Baghdad, Iraq to Portland, OR. Our paths crossed through her work as a clinical social worker at Portland State University, where she supports students and immigrant communities, particularly BIPOC, in dealing with complex trauma, anxiety, depression, identity questioning, exile, and feelings of non-belonging.

In this interview, conducted in a blend of Arabic, Spanish, and English, we delve into a conversation of resistance, learning, and resilience. Join us as we explore Israa’s inspiring journey, her unwavering commitment to her community, and her unique approach to mental health care.

Manfred Parrales: Please introduce yourself.

Israa Al-Hasani: My name is Israa Hassani. I am an Iraqi American immigrant. I came to the United States in 1996. I have one biological son and two stepsons. I am also a licensed clinical social worker. I studied at PSU for my undergraduate degree in psychology, and I earned my master’s degree in social work from PSU as well. Before coming to the United States, I studied accounting for four years in Iraq. I identify as an Arab Muslim queer woman.

Israa Al-Hasani.Photo courtesy by Israa.

Manfred: You have a story of immigration that is both similar to and different from that of many people who come to the United States to pursue their degrees. How was the decision to leave Iraq and move to America at that moment?

Israa: When I came to the United States, it wasn’t for education; I came on a marriage visa. My education came later in my life. I moved to Oregon, and I’ve been here since 1996. Well, you know, my circumstances were quite unique. I left Iraq for humanitarian and political reasons. After the Kuwait invasion, Iraq was under sanctions and an economic embargo for 13 years, which was really difficult for the population. There was no hope, and everyone wanted to leave Iraq. For me, leaving was an escape from Iraq. I also lived under a dictatorship, which brought a lot of trauma. So, my departure was more about survival than seeking a better life. When I came here, it wasn’t a happy occasion; it was more about having survived.

Manfred Parrales: Your story in the United States is one of survival and resilience, which is how our paths have crossed, when I looked for counseling and I was referred to you. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when you first arrived in the U.S., and how did you cope with the cultural and emotional adjustments during that time?

Israa Hassani: When you are an immigrant you have certain ideas or preconceived ideas about your new life. Because we come to this country with high standards from our countries, I felt I needed to learn the language and understand the culture. That was a lot of hard work. In the process, I felt like I lost my original culture. When I had my child, I felt I needed to know this culture more to support and raise him in the right way, which is part of why I went to school.

When I look back, it was so lonely. I remember there were days when I was alone in the apartment, sitting on the floor and crying because I didn’t have the language. But then, survival mode kicked in, and I blocked out a lot of these feelings. I remember this particular instance because something happened at the time that was so intense, and I was alone.

Even though my ex was with me—we came on a marriage visa—he was very engaged in life here and wasn’t available for me. We didn’t know each other well, and we realized we were not compatible. I don’t want to go into too many details, but it was very lonely. I think I blocked those feelings away because I thought I couldn’t afford to feel.

I needed to keep going to build a life for myself. Then I got pregnant and had to take care of my son. It was a very surreal experience. When I look back on it, I think it was just survival.

Manfred Parrales: When you left Iraq due to the political and economic situation following the Kuwait invasion, it must have been traumatic and abrupt. You had major factors to contend with: being a woman, immigrant, Arabic, with all these challenges against you in a country like the United States. Can you pinpoint the moment when you realized you needed help or to take action, perhaps by returning to school to study psychology to understand what was happening and to help others?

Israa: The turning point came when my son turned 12. He started getting into a lot of trouble, and his teenage years were extremely difficult. There were issues and many other challenges. It was then that I realized I needed to understand what was happening, especially for my son’s sake. It must have been incredibly tough for him, being a kid new to a country like the United States, compounded by the situation in Iraq.

Israa with her children and stepchildren. Photo courtesy by Israa.

Manfred Parrales: Absolutely, that sounds incredibly challenging. Was there also a sense of shame or pressure that many immigrants experience?

Israa Hassani:there was definitely a layer of shame. In our immigrant community, there’s often a comparison between children, and my stepsons were seen as very successful, attending top schools. There’s a lot of pressure for children to excel academically. Additionally, as someone from a different culture, I felt the weight of expectations from the community and the education system here. I had to navigate all of these challenges, deciding which battles to pick and which to ignore. I separated myself from my old culture because I felt I needed to fully assimilate into American culture to understand and support my son better. Looking back, I realize I put too much pressure on myself and feel guilt for not doing enough. It was a difficult time filled with guilt, shame, and fear for my son’s future.

Manfred: And grief, loneliness and sadness come to the surface before we decide to look for help

Israa: I started to realize, “Oh, I have to go to therapy. I have to,” you know, and that’s when things… It took, what, 12 years? It took 12 years to be able to go back and grieve, to grieve what I had left behind. I didn’t grieve before, didn’t grieve the years, the loss of culture, the loss of homeland, the loss of friends. Yeah, there was a lot of grief that I had to go through, and I’m still grieving. It doesn’t stop, but it helps me make sense of my experience.

Manfred: Yeah, absolutely. And then you said something that was very important to me: I need to be “American enough” to help and understand my kid. And you came to Portland, Oregon, a very specific place in the United States. It’s diverse, but Portland has its own culture. How was the process of finding yourself in this new community in relation to your Arabic culture in Iraq?

Israa: It’s like, for example, if you were talking to someone from Latin America, you’d understand the sense of community. My cultural shock here in Portland… I started to notice the differences between Iraq and Oregon. My admiration goes out to people like you or international students that I work with because I know first hand about this situation. I came when I was 24, very young. My experience was like that of a 16-year-old. I was very protected back home, not even taking public transportation to school, always being driven. It’s not protection; it’s a control issue. So, I came here at 24 on paper, but really, my head was 16. I didn’t have much experience. Then there was the shame of my background. Even though I studied about Iraq’s rich history, it was very different from reality. There was a lot of internalized shame about my culture.

So when I escaped to come to the U.S., there was this shame of the culture I came from, and the expectation to fit in, to be “American enough.” I didn’t understand the difference until I finished my master’s. In my program, I was intentional in making relationships with people of color, not with white people. That’s when I started to understand what was happening to me. I knew America was an imperialist and colonialist country since I was in Iraq, but part of me didn’t want to accept it as home. But then, in my social work program, I realized, “Oh my God, I’m experiencing this in my body, the coloniasm, the trauma.” That’s when I understood my positionality in this state, about 12 years ago. I’ve been living here for 28 years.

Manfred: So, now you’ve completed degrees in  psychology and social work and you started working with particular communities you feel identified with, which is amazing. I think what you’re doing now with international students, immigrants, and queer communities is incredible. It’s basically what you’ve been doing, and it’s how I met you.

Israa: When I studied social work, I was fortunate enough to meet people who were very progressive in understanding the harm social work has done to minority communities, such as Black and Indigenous communities. Connecting what I learned in Iraq about the United States and its policies with what I learned here opened my eyes to these facts.

Understanding this, I realized that my knowledge was needed for these communities, as I had focused on learning non-Western approaches. At the time, “decolonizing” was not a widely known term, but I was fortunate to have professors who supported me in this focus.

Recognizing the trauma these communities have endured and the lack of fit with Western psychological practices, I decided to pursue alternative healing practices alongside my studies. Many people in our communities don’t seek Western mental health services due to cultural mismatch, leading to issues within families and involvement with child protection services.

So, I decided to provide healing services tailored to our communities’ needs. Speaking Arabic fluently, along with English, and understanding both cultures, I saw myself as a bridge between two worlds. This understanding led me to my first mental health job.

Manfred: The opportunity to bring this to life came in your first job? 

Israa: And then there’s the breaking point where everything started to come to life. After my master’s, I worked at OHSU and a smaller program called the Intercultural Psychiatric Program. This program was founded in the 70s after the Vietnam War, and it serves refugees, war survivors, and torture survivors. We served a diverse range of populations including Vietnamese, Laotians, Russians, Bosnians, Arabic speakers, Somalis, and Spanish speakers. It was funded by a grant from the UN to support clients who are torture survivors.

I worked there as a peer support specialist, which is more of a cultural role. It’s not exactly counseling, but it involves sharing common experiences with clients and clinicians. I have a shared experience with Arabic-speaking clients regarding culture, immigration, torture, and resettlement. Research shows that when you pair two people with common experiences, and one has a background in mental health, it’s appealing to both.

In that program, there were the doctors, who were mainly white, and then there were the clients. We, the counselors, were in between, acting as a bridge. Our role was to help the doctors understand the client’s background and experiences regarding mental health, and also explain to the clients how Western psychiatry works. We helped both parties come to a plan they could both work on.

For example, if a client didn’t want to take medication, my role was to explain to the psychiatrist why this was the case. If the client wouldn’t take medication, it was better to acknowledge and respect their decision, and find a plan that worked for them. This was the perfect place for me because I learned so much about different cultures and mental health, and I was able to fill some of the gaps in the market.

Manfred: That made me think about two ideas. You and I have been discussing expectation versus reality, and I think people in this program, well, they were escaping from awful circumstances from all over the world and came to the States. Now their expectations crash with the cultural shock of people. We experienced that. So, what is this thing about cultural shock? How do you see that daily in your practice with your clients and international students? How do you deal with that?

Israa: It’s totally different, you know, because the people I saw in that program at OHSU were rooted out of where they were. It wasn’t a choice like an international student. An international student chooses to leave their country and study abroad. So cultural shock applies more to international students and immigrants rather than refugees because the trauma for refugees is on so many levels. We call it complex trauma because there are many traumas layered on top of each other. The trauma of war or torture, the trauma of being unsafe in their homeland, and the trauma of resettlement. For international students, there’s more open room to understand that they’re going through cultural shock. They understand it’s not the end of their life. They may not want to be here, but if they go back home, nobody will kill them. There’s still hope. So there’s more understanding and presence in their experience. They realize, “This is a culture shock, but people like it.” For refugees and even immigrants like me, who was an immigrant, but was it really my choice? It was sort of a choice on the surface, but I had to escape, you know? So, I was in survival mode. I didn’t have a choice.

Manfred: Right, I see.

Israa: There’s no going back. I’ve had people who couldn’t make it in this country and decided to go back even though they knew they might be killed. They thought, “If we’re here, we’ll kill ourselves alone. If we go back home, at least we’ll be with our family.” So, the cultural shock becomes insignificant in the refugee experience because there are so many levels of oppression and survival.

Manfred Parrales: So, I see that under these circumstances, you’ve realized that Portland, Oregon, and the United States don’t bring enough tools to understand and help these international communities, both students and refugees.

Israa: Yes, everywhere in the United States, there’s an expectation for everyone to come and be productive, whether in school, factory, or business. The whole system and society are built on productivity, which comes from capitalism. So, there’s more of a focus on productivity rather than understanding and supporting the human behind the productivity. I’ve seen the difference between the social services system in Sweden and the United States, and that’s when I understood that the United States doesn’t see the human in us; it sees the human that can produce.

Manfred: So, in all these years of experience and observation as a social worker and psychologist, is there something that has been on your mind that has changed your perspective? Something that made you realize that you were making a change in people’s lives? 

Israa: I think there’s always growth, and with growth, things start to become clearer and more in-depth. One thing that’s been a common thread in my discussions with clients, interns, and counselors is how to resist a healing model that hasn’t been healing. What’s the alternative, and how do we build a community that supports each other to practice that alternative with joy? Joy and rest are active resistance to imperialism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all the “isms.” So, how do we heal using the wisdom of our ancestors in a place that erases our history?

Israa with a نارگیله (nargile). Photo courtesy of Israa.

Manfred: Absolutely. Your emphasis on connecting individuals with their roots and cultural heritage is particularly impactful. It’s a reminder that our identities and experiences shape who we are and that there is strength in embracing our backgrounds.

Israa: Yes, exactly. By tracing back to one’s roots, individuals can often find a sense of belonging and pride in their heritage. This connection can serve as a source of empowerment, helping individuals navigate through difficult times with resilience and determination.

Manfred: Your work with students of color and immigrants highlights the importance of creating spaces where individuals feel valued and supported. It’s crucial to challenge systemic barriers and advocate for inclusivity in all aspects of society.

Israa: I would like to share with you some works that have inspired me a lot throughout my life. An image for the Freedom Monument and the surrounding community gathering space around it. The artist who designed the monument is Jawad Saleem. Also the song I love called Anthem by Leanord Cohen, I believe you will appreciate it. Leanord Cohen was a poet who wrote about the human experience and the conflicting wants and needs we have as human beings and this song continues to resonate with me. Finally, highlight the work of Saleem Haddad, a queer Palestinian/Lebanese/German/Iraqi author who writes about the difference in the experience of queer people in the Arab world. He is, by the way, a nephew to Jawad Saleem the artist above.

Hope this helps and you can enjoy the rest.

Freedom Monument (or Nasb al-Hurriyah) (Arabic: نصب الحرية), located in al-Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) in the center of Baghdad.

Israa Al-Hasani (she, hers) is a licensed clinical social worker who identifies as a Person of the Global Majority. She is originally from Iraq and speaks Arabic and English. She earned her undergrad in Psychology and Masters in Social Work from PSU. Before earning her master’s degree, Israa worked as a culturally specific Peer support specialist in OHSU serving refugees and immigrants who are war and torture survivors. She continued to do so in OHSU after earning her masters. Later, she moved to work as clinical supervisor in a residential setting in Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare. Her passion for serving People of the Global majority including but not limited to Refuges, Immigrants, Black, and Indigenous folks brought her back to serve these communities in Lutheran Community Services NW before moving and coming to work in SHAC.

Israa is passionate about working with people who identifies having complex trauma, anxiety, depression, identity questioning, exile and none belonging. She has training in anti-oppressive intercultural feminist psychotherapy which originated from her work within Black, Indigenous, transnational, anti-colonial, feminist paradigms. In her free time Israa likes to travel, attends theater and live music.

Manfred Parrales (His/Him)is a dynamic young Latino artist whose work spans from designer and art historian, to social practice and community building. With a multifaceted educational background, extensive professional experience, and a profound passion for art history, video languages and community engagement, Parrales views art as a collaborative endeavor, transcending individual expression. 

His journey in the arts began with bachelor’s degrees in Art History and studies in Design and visual communication in Costa Rica, and currently pursuing a master’s degree in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. His career has taken him across Latin America and the United States, where he’s gained invaluable experience in museums, education, technology, and various artistic disciplines.

Bridging Time and Perspectives: The Transformative Role of The Timeline at KSMoCA

“To me, history is a lens through which we can view and interpret past events to enhance our understanding of the present and to forge a path towards a more equitable future. It’s about recognizing the multitude of perspectives that make up the tapestry of America’s past, not just the predominant white narrative that has been long emphasized.”

Amanda Larriva

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA) is a contemporary art museum and social practice art project located within the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, a Pre K – 5th grade public school in  Northeast Portland, OR. It was founded in 2014 by Portland State University professors Lisa Jarrett and Harrell Fletcher.

Laura Glazer, program manager at KSMoCA, explaining PSU students about Timeline at the entrance of KSMoCA in Fall 2023, photo taken by Midori Yamanaka, courtesy of KSMoCA.

One of the standout features at the entrance of KSMoCA is The Timeline, a dynamic exhibit that greets visitors and community members with the rich history of the school community. This piece, part of the permanent collection at KSMoCA, was collaboratively created by Ms. Amanda Larriva, a dedicated kindergarten teacher, along with students and other community members. Ms. Larriva, with her profound understanding of educational dynamics and historical narratives, emphasizes the significance of this installation. She believes that grasping the continuum of past events is crucial not only for understanding human interactions, but also for recognizing our collective potential to shape a better world.

Dr MLK Jr School was the first school in the nation to change its name in honor of Dr. King. This timeline tells the history of the student-led name change initiative and major events in the history of the school.

Midori Yamanaka: Could you tell us about your role in creating The Timeline at KSMoCA and who you collaborated with on this project?

Ms. Amanda Larriva: The Timeline was a collective effort. Alongside Melody, who was a teacher here at the time, and Nancy, our school secretary, we spearheaded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. This project began serendipitously when we discovered an old photograph from the time our school was renamed, which inspired us. Armed with a large box filled with numerous historical materials, we saw an opportunity to narrate our school’s legacy through The Timeline. It was a meticulous process of selecting events that reflected the diverse history and the evolving identity of our community.

Ms. Amanda Larriva kindly accepted my interview offer and talked about her passion with a smile, photo taken by Midori Yamanaka.

Midori: What does history mean to you, and why is it particularly attractive?

Ms. Larriva: To me, history is a lens through which we can view and interpret past events to enhance our understanding of the present and to forge a path towards a more equitable future. It’s about acknowledging the multitude of perspectives that make up the tapestry of America’s past, not just the predominant white narrative that has been long emphasized. In my classroom, we delve into various historical narratives, which helps my students appreciate the complexities of history and its role in shaping societal norms and values. We discuss the importance of diverse viewpoints, such as those from Black, Asian, and Indigenous communities, to enrich our understanding and appreciation of history.

Midori: It’s impressive that even kindergarteners are able to engage with these complex concepts. How do they react to such discussions?

Ms. Larriva: It’s truly inspiring. We often talk about similarities and differences, especially regarding people’s backgrounds and cultures. This opens a space for the children to comfortably discuss and embrace diversity. They learn to appreciate and vocalize their thoughts on race and culture in a supportive environment, which is crucial for building empathy and understanding from a young age.

Students working on their art piece collaborated with a guest artist, Mr Richard Brown, in Fall 2023, photo taken by Midori Yamanaka, courtesy of KSMoCA.

Midori: What are some key strategies for discussing history with young children?

Ms. Larriva: The approach varies significantly with age. For younger children, history might appear more abstract, yet they are incredibly receptive to stories and are keen observers of their surroundings. We encourage them to ask questions and express wonder about what they see. This method helps them make connections and begin to understand the broader narratives. As students progress to higher grades, they engage more concretely with timelines and the chronological order of historical events, which helps them gain a clearer understanding of how past events influence the present.

Midori: How do you decide what events or stories to include on The Timeline?

Ms. Larriva: There have been many significant events in our community over the past few years. For instance, in 2022, the school was on the verge of being shut down, which prompted community protests. Last fall, we experienced our first-ever district-wide teachers’ strike, followed by a school closure, among other events. Selecting which events to include requires a thoughtful process that considers which narratives will most effectively convey the lessons we aim to teach. We prioritize stories that are not only engaging but also prompt deeper inquiries into historical events. Interactive elements are crucial in this process, as they allow students to engage more thoroughly with the material through multimedia presentations or hands-on activities.

Midori: Is there another way to encourage students to engage with history?

Ms. Larriva: Absolutely! One effective strategy is ensuring that educators are equipped with the necessary tools and ideas to integrate the timeline into their teaching effectively. Regular updates and active participation from community members who have witnessed historical events provide authenticity and enrich the learning experience.

Midori: What are the challenges and rewards of updating The Timeline?

Ms. Larriva: The challenge lies in ensuring that The Timeline remains relevant and reflective of our community’s history and diversity. The reward is seeing how this tool helps foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of history among students and community members alike. We envision a collaborative process, perhaps involving regular meetings to review and catalog significant events with contributions from those who have firsthand knowledge.

A PSU student as a mentor, and a Dr MLK student as a mentee during mentorship program in Fall 2023, photo taken by Midori Yamanaka, courtesy of KSMoCA.

Many of the permanent collections at KSMoCA are collaborative works between nationally recognized artists and students of Dr. MLK School. Recently, three artists have been invited to KSMoCA every year. They collaborate with the children to create art and hold exhibitions. Through this process, the children get real exposure to art and artists, and over time the collection continues to grow. The students attending this school are truly living within the history of art that emerges from their community. Additionally, a mentorship program links PSU college students with elementary school students in one-to-one partnerships, fostering relationships and mutual learning through collaboration.

KSMoCA serves as a crossroads where the elementary school, the university (PSU), and the community intersect through the medium of art. This Timeline adds a new dimension of ‘time’ to this intersection, enriching and enhancing its appeal. Moreover, the activities of KSMoCA itself continue to become part of this new Timeline.

Ms Larriva, the interviewee on the left and Midori, the interviewer on the right in Ms. Larriva’s classroom in March 2024, photo taken by Midori Yamanaka.

Amanda Larriva :  (she/her) is a kindergarten teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in NE Portland. She has spent eight years at Dr. MLK School and has consistently worked in Title one schools, which are designated for improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged. Inspired by a historical photo of students celebrating the school’s renaming, Larriva, along with Nancy Rios-Araujo, the school secretary, and Melody, a teacher at the time, orchestrated the 50th-anniversary celebration of the school’s name change. This event led to the creation of the Timeline, now a permanent exhibit at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA) in 2018.

Midori Yamanaka (she/her) is an artist and educator based in Portland, Oregon, with roots in a unique Japanese town by the Okhotsk Sea. Her early life, devoid of local art museums but rich in cultural uniqueness, sparked a deep interest in community and creativity. A graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, Midori has pursued a career marked by socially engaged projects and cultural exchange, leading her into the field of Art and Social Practice. Now advancing her studies at Portland State University, her work bridges cultural gaps and fosters community engagement, reflecting her ongoing exploration of art’s role in societal connection.

A Place to Be Human: A Conversation on Play and its Environments

There’s research that says when people experience something that strikes them with a sense of awe, they are more compassionate with others afterwards and feel more connected and less isolated….We have to make places and time when we can have that sensation.” 

Katie Shook

Large-scale block set designed in collaboration with Katie Shook and Sophie Smallhorn. Image courtesy of Katie Shook. 

Artist Katie Shook and I are two people who are serious about play – theorizing about play, facilitating play, and building tools and environments for play. But what happens when you’re in the business of play? As both of our art practices are centered around making accessible, community play offerings in the world, Katie and I are familiar with the tension and duality of trying to make a living through public art projects that can be pricey to manifest and challenging to find funding for in a country that values profit over community dreams and desires. 

During my time working in a Montessori school, I also noticed an overlap between work and play. In the Montessori vocabulary, the lessons themselves are even called “works.” These “works” are where children learn chores like flower arranging, washing tables, and sewing in addition to more traditional lessons of reading, math, and geography. I was surprised to find these were often the tasks the children enjoyed the most. Observing their enthusiastic sweeping, I would wonder when that work crosses over to something dreadful and obligatory rather than empowering and delightful? When you’re a kid, is play your work or does work get folded into all things play when your survival isn’t dependent on it? As an adult is it ever possible to access this contextual learning and wonder in our daily life?

As an artist offering a range of play spaces situated within local parks, public schools, and now the mall, Katie operates within many fascinating play intersections. I met with her to explore this tension of work, play, and practice, along with other dualities like pop-up versus industrial play structures, the commercial nature of the mall and the artist neighborhood developing within Portland Oregon’s Lloyd Center Mall.

Katie Shook at her Mudland Moon Garden playspace in Lloyd Center Mall, Portland, Oregon, 2024. Photo courtesy of Clara Harlow. 

Clara Harlow: I’m curious about your own play history. Where did you have your best play experiences as a kid and with who?

Katie Shook: I went to Montessori school, so I think a lot of my experiences are formed in that environment. I remember the pouring activities where you get a pitcher and a bowl and practice pouring water. I also really loved playing in the mud and making mud pies outside. I remember doing that a lot, digging in dirt and mixing mud and putting it in pie pans and setting it out. My dad was really into organic gardening and compost and stuff, so I’d spent a lot of time playing with him in the dirt and with plants and we had chickens. They were kind of hippies, like homesteaders. My mom would make cheese and yogurt and we had chickens and ducks. 

Clara: Did you help out with some of those tasks around the house? 

Katie: Yeah, definitely. We started washing the dishes after dinner and even cooking really young. By grade school we were supposed to cook a meal once a week. I don’t know how that informs play, but we definitely were helpers around the house.

My favorite Montessori toy, the Long Red Rods, where children build and navigate through different spatial constraints. Photo courtesy of Battery Park Montessori. 

Clara: Yeah, that definitely feels Montessori-adjacent to me. Teaching kids that they actually do have agency over care of self and care of community. That these things aren’t just passively done for you or to you, but you get to be a part of it. 

Katie: And you’re capable of pitching in, like you can sweep and wipe a table.

Clara: Yeah, I used to co-teach an after school program at a Montessori and I feel like the kids would take a lot of pride in the work that they would do too and that was cool to see. So I’m wondering how you got into the work of making play spaces for children?

Katie: Well I was making art, theater, and performance for grown ups in college and in grad school, but I have always worked with children, babysitting and at schools and stuff. I guess it was once I had a child, because I finished grad school at age 30 and had a kid a year later, that it just felt natural to be exploring open, creative kinds of art environments for kids and at the same time practicing my own art.

The Notting Hill Adventure Playground is one of the first junk play sites that popped up in English cities after World War II when many children constructed their own play spaces in bomb sites. Photo courtesy of The Guardian. 

Katie: I was really into the adventure play movement, my dad had a book about it and would talk about it growing up. There’s an organization in the US called Pop-Up Adventure Play where you can do training to be a playworker in the vernacular of adventure play. In England and Northern Europe there are PhD programs where you can study play theory and become an expert in play theory and play work. In the US we have folks who’ve trained over there and then do this kind of certification for people. So I was studying that and then I helped start a non-profit in Portland called Portland Free Play where we would do pop-up play with scrap materials at parks through the Parks and Rec program. And we started a few programs at public schools to bring scrap materials and train the staff at the school to bring the materials out during recess for kids to use.

Adventure Play Pop Up in Portland, Oregon. Image courtesy of Portland Free Play.

Katie: I started Mudland [Katie’s pop-up play environment project] around the same time with more of a focus on design materials and intentional themes that are a little bit more aesthetic and designed than the adventure play environments. 

Clara: Yeah I know we both have an appreciation for adventure playgrounds and non-directive design for kids where the objects and environments that the kids are utilizing don’t dictate only one way you’re supposed to engage with it, but allow for lots of different possibilities and agency within that. With that in mind, I’m curious what you think traditional American playgrounds are missing. How do you think they could be improved?

Katie: I think what a lot of people who work in early childhood education would say is loose parts, right? Like when you’re on a playground and there aren’t loose materials to interact with there’s less for kids to invent and have agency over. Even when there’s just bark chips or twigs or pebbles. And you collect those things and incorporate them into imaginative play. 

Clara: I love that because yesterday me and my collaborator, Luz Blumenfeld, were helping teach a class for undergraduate art students in the amphitheater of the Rose Test Garden where everyone made a score to sort of explore and measure the space. All of these 20 year-olds came up with the most amazing, playful scores once they were able to give themselves permission to go there. The scores were like: “Climb into trees with all your friends and don’t come down until everyone’s ready to come down together” and “make hopscotch with sticks and play”. It felt very much like that sort of activated non-directive playspace and it was really cool to see adults accessing that part of themselves in relationship to a new space. That’s something we’ve been thinking about with our workshop Preschool for Adults too.

Katie: Yeah that’s so cool, there’s so much play potential and materials outdoors.

The Imagination Playground designed by Cas Holman and the Rockwell Group. Photo courtesy of Imagination Playground. 

Clara: Do you have a favorite toy designer? 

Katie: I love Cas Holman. Do you know her? She did the Rigamajig and was part of the Big Blue Blocks. Have you ever seen those? They have them at a lot of children’s museums, those giant blue foam blocks.

Clara: Yeah, they’re like giant tinker toys! I remember watching the Netflix design profile on Cas and was like, “Oh, man, I wish I came up with all of these ideas!”

Katie: You can build big stuff and make ball runs. There’s a lot of cool stuff people made in the sixties and seventies too. And there are so many neat playscape designs and playground landscape designs that didn’t ever get built.

Isamu Noguchi’s Playscape in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Herman Miller.

Clara: Yeah, like Isamu Noguchi’s Play Mountain. I want to go to that one in Atlanta. 

Katie: There’s the playground in Atlanta and then there’s a big playground in Japan that he designed, that maybe was built after his death. I want to do more International Playground research. I have a friend who works in the film industry in L.A., and we were trying to put together a pitch about play around the world, a Netflix show or something where you can watch how kids play in different parts of the world.

Isamu Noguchi’s Kodomo No Kuni Playscape was built outside of Tokyo, Japan in 1965 for the Japanese Children’s Year. Photo courtesy of Herman Miller. 

Clara: That needs to be made because I need to watch that! So what materials are you drawn to in creating play spaces? 

Katie: Well, cardboard is big. I love painting cardboard and it’s cheap and lightweight, so it’s better than making pieces out of plywood, you know, so kids can move them around. I love the soft forms and upholstery projects, but they’re really expensive. It’s either time intensive or expensive to hire someone to produce them.

Clara: Yeah, the materials are very influenced by certain constraints and limits. Like when you’re thinking about scale and also the size of children. What can they carry? But also durability, safety, affordability, all of those things. You think about those things too when you’re making any kind of installation, but the stakes are a bit higher because you want to make sure the kids can really interact with them in a way that’s safe and fun for them, you know? 

Katie: Totally, yeah. You want it to be open-ended enough, and it’s kind of not possible to build like structural, sculptural elements because you need a lot of money for that and you’re constrained by the playground safety regulations. Technically there aren’t regulations or rules around indoor play spaces. When I’ve worked on those projects, we design according to playground safety code just to make it easier.

Clara: Yeah, it seems like it can’t hurt. 

Katie: Yeah, but then it’s hard to make this sculptural piece that kids can climb on or go in or through and you start needing to really check that it’s safe in every way. And you need an inspector and engineers and then it just gets way too expensive to invent a cool one-of-a-kind thing.

Clara: Mmm yeah I feel like we’re coming up against some of that in my first year cohort. We’re in this class right now where we’re creating an artist collective and we are doing a project together that has to do with making a space or furniture that encourages adult play but also rest. What is it like to rest with people together in public? It’s actually something that’s pretty rare. Like we actually don’t do it so often outside of a movie theater, beach, or park. We were thinking about the eclipse and were all very excited about this big collective pause where everyone stops what they’re doing and goes outside and looks up together, just experiencing awe and slowing down together. 

So right now we’re trying to create some objects that encourage that kind of collective wonder for adults and figuring out how to make armature, but also make it mobile and things like that has been an interesting design dilemma. 

Katie: That’s awesome. I want to hear more about what you are landing on. That made me think of a couple things. One is design for public spaces and then the other is the studies relating to the kind of social emotional benefits of feeling awe – have you seen any of those? 

Clara: I don’t think so.

Katie: I looked up some of the studies about it recently and apparently being struck by a sense of awe is one of the things that resets your nervous system when you’re overwhelmed or in fight or flight. Some different things that cause that for people are looking out over a view or landscape or watching a bee gathering nectar. There’s research that says when people experience something that strikes them with a sense of awe, they are more compassionate with others afterwards and feel more connected and less isolated. They feel more feelings of love for others, so it’s a cool reason to do that, right? We have to make places and time when we can have that sensation. 

Clara: Yeah that’s so beautiful. I feel very invested in how we can create more opportunities for that in our daily lives.

Katie: Yeah. I mean, I think about that in doctor’s offices too, like if you have pictures of trees or a waterfall or something, it soothes people. It’s that sensibility. But another thing I was going to say too, is that I’m really fascinated by the design of public space and how the architects and developers in charge of it design them to either be together in rest or not. Like so many places don’t put out benches because they don’t want houseless people sleeping or sitting or lingering and then that limits us from being together in public spaces and chatting or resting there. 

Public contribution to British artist Stuart Semple’s Designs Against Humanity digital campaign against hostile architecture. Photo courtesy of Hostile Design. 

Clara: Yeah, exactly, the hostile architecture! It’s something that in New York I’m noticing all the time with all of the pigeons spikes even on a random little pipe or something that you could sit on and smoke a cigarette. There’s always something there to prohibit that public pause. And it’s sad because there are just like so many people who are really needing to occupy public space in a big way to rest and eat and live their lives because we’re all stacked on top of each other in the city and we all need those third places. A place to be around beauty and a place to peoplewatch or have a good think. 

Katie: And just be a human and not only a consumer or worker all the time.

Clara: Yes exactly. I was curious about your play space being situated in the commercial space of the mall and if anything has surprised you about this site? I know in the past you’ve had pop-ups outdoors in different parks in Portland and New York, and in an apartment building lobby. How does the mall inform the playspace and how has that been different from other projects you’ve done? 

Katie: Yeah, that’s a good question. There are a lot of people who see us because we’re in the mall, like families who are going through the mall anyways and then are like, “Oh, it’s a playing space!” So we get spotted because of the location versus other times where we’ve invited people to us. I just love the way the Lloyd Center right now is so open and flexible and not corporate. It just feels like this really grassroots, hand-painted, weird art installation and there aren’t corporate rules about how it has to look and function. And all the spaces around us are doing the same, it’s fun to be part of that. 

Clara Harlow’s Mall Mania puzzle page from Kye Grant’s Planet Lloyd publication made in collaboration with the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA Program and the Lloyd Center Mall community in the fall of 2023. Photo courtesy of Kye Grant. 

Clara: Have you made any good neighbor buddies? 

Katie: Yeah, all my neighbor buddies are very friendly and helpful and we’re getting to be more collaborative. The toy store across the hall, Tada!, is run by a man named Ali and he has brought over toys to give to me as a gift to use in the space. And then my neighbor right next door is Jason, who started the Pinball Museum. He’s really awesome. We’ve talked about collaborating on a new offering of family-friendly group events so if they want to bring kids, a group could come and have open play in our space and bring food. And then a smaller group can go over and have a roller skating class across the hall at Chickpea’s space, and some of them can go next door and play pinball, and there’s Bricdiculous a few doors down doing  reused Legos. 

Clara: I love that. It’s so cool to hear this because it really feels like the mall is kind of returning to a real local neighborhood space. You know, it really feels community-oriented.

Katie: Yeah, there’s another game place down the hall that has Pokémon Cards and group game activities and the guy who runs that brings his son over to play. He also loans me chairs and tables to use for our workshops.

Clara: That’s incredible. It sounds like such a utopia for children and adults. Hit up your rollerskating, go see some art, go play Pokemon.

A new era of Lloyd Center Mall is marked by local, independent shops and pop-up art projects. Image courtesy of Cabel Sasser. 

Katie: I know it’s really fun and people come through all the time who haven’t been here in a really long time. People are like, “It’s so sad here. It’s a dead mall. There’s nothing going on. What a shame.” And I’ll be like, “Look around because there’s actually a lot going on, like all the big box stores left and now there’s all these awesome art projects!” I learned recently it’s a third occupied, so there’s like about 300 spaces and about 100 that have organizations in them, just a lot of them aren’t open full time. 

Clara: Man, It’s just calling for a neighborhood block party! We gotta get everyone together who runs these local spaces for a potluck to meet each other and hang. 

Rolling backdrop puppet show at Mudland Moon Garden. Photo courtesy of Clara Harlow. 

Katie: My background is in puppet theater and I’ve been really wanting to make a puppet show in our space, you know, like a weird alien plant with moon people and creatures because our space is called the Moon Garden. When I was at CalArts in L.A. for grad school, I helped with a project called The Sunset Chronicles, and it was a group of people who make puppet shows based on buildings and real people that lived on Sunset Boulevard on the eastside of L.A. There were different episodes that had several characters in their stories. And the puppeteers wore blue aprons with palm trees on them, so they became the background, like the sky. And there were all these models of buildings that are real buildings along Sunset, and they would slide along and then the building would open up and you’d see the person inside who lived there.

Clara: That is amazing. 

Katie: There was one puppet based on a Silver Lake walker who was a retired doctor who would walk around in shorts, no shirt, super tan, always walking around Silver Lake. I think his wife had died and he just walked all the time and would be reading the newspaper, but everyone knew him and he was in the puppetshow. And he died like not long after they were doing the show with him in it. I was talking to Michelle [Illuminato] about how I want to do a series of puppet shows based on the people who run shops at the Lloyd Center. Like there’s a coffee shop that’s across from us Keia and Martyn’s. And I heard that the couple who started that coffee shop met in high school working at a mall store together at the Lloyd Center!

Clara: And like, what’s better than that? 

Katie: It’d be so cool to interview them and have them share their story. 

Clara: That’s fabulous, you gotta get that puppet show out to the world! Let me know how I can help. 

Katie Shook (she/her) is the director of Mudland, a play design studio based in Portland. Known for creating outrageously fun pop-up play events and designing beautiful playrooms, Mudland focuses on using open-ended materials that allow children to guide their own explorations. Katie has 15+ years’ experience studying play theory, the role of play in early childhood development, and facilitating children’s events. She is a co-founder of the non-profit Portland Free Play. Katie holds an MFA in theater from Calarts and a BA in studio art from Whitman College.

Clara Harlow (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist, designer, and preschool teacher from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work operates as an invitation into themes of intimacy, play, and alternative ways of measuring time through experiential events and interactive objects. You can most likely find her at the local swimming pool or making pigs in a blanket for her next themed party.

Where Do We Go From Here?

 “I think that’s another lie that we’re told growing up is, that we have to wait for some Gandhi or some MLK to come and be the one to do the thing. When it’s, like, all of us have the power to do the thing.”

Lou Blumberg

Educational Sukkot event- photo by Chana Rose, 2019

With the ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people, we have all been grieveing. With protest encampments popping up across different universities in the United States and other countries, we see the biggest student movement emerging after the Vietnam Anti-War Movement of the 1970s. One such protest encampment started at our school, Portland State University, and it was met with violent police action resulting in injuries and arrests of students and community members. As the PSU community continues to protest against this blatant infringement on our right to free speech, we aim to discover and develop new methods to make our struggle more sustainable and effective.

Lou, my very beloved classmate, has been an active member of the Jewish Voice for Peace in New Orleans and has worked intensively to raise a voice against Israeli apartheid in Palestine. They have just moved to Portland. I spoke to Lou regarding the ongoing situation of the world; the protest encampment in our university, cops, suffering and possible ways of healing, the bliss of ignorance vs the fulfillment found in solidarity with the community. We also derive some comfort discussing my project ‘Songs For Dark Times Like These’ and Lou ends up singing a song for me that they wrote for our shared struggle for justice.

Simeen Anjum: Good morning Lou, how does it feel to be here today? (On a Friday morning in May we sat down for breakfast together on my terrace and began talking about Lou’s move to Portland and the ongoing student protest)

Lou: Well, I was shy when you first asked me if I wanted to be interviewed, but now that I’m here, it feels like we can just chat as friends. 

Simeen: Totally. So, I wanted to chat about your transition to Portland from New Orleans. and the changes you feel and what changes you see coming up in the future, especially given the social unrest in our world right now and the ongoing student movements in both New Orleans and here at Portland State University (PSU).

Lou:  It’s definitely been quite a change. I mean, the temperaments of both the places are really different, although I think there are some similarities. There’s definitely a DIY kind of ethos in both places.

The week I left New Orleans was the week that the local encampment on Tulane’s campus was raided, and it was such a moment of intense grief for so many of us who had been there. So it was really hard for me to leave. I cried when I went to the airport because I felt very sad to leave my community as they were grieving and trying to come back from that. 

Once I got here in Portland, the library encampment in our university had already been dismantled, with a noticeable change in the atmosphere, marked by the installation of a fence and the removal of graffiti.

Protest encampment at PSU Library, dismantled by Portland Police Bureau after multiple student and community member arrests. (May 2024)

Protest encampment at PSU Library, displaying graffiti done from inside the library’s glass windows. (May 2024)

Simeen: Yeah, it was also the week that the encampment here got dismantled and there were a lot of arrests and police brutality.  We were also grieving and trying to come to terms with it. Even though you weren’t physically present here, you must have received all the emails and alerts from the school administration, right? How did it feel for you? It seems like you were witnessing a similar situation in a different city, receiving these emails in real-time from the administration, knowing this is the place you were moving to. 

Lou: Absolutely. It was incredibly strange and confusing to receive those emails. I didn’t know where to get accurate information from within the encampment because I’m not on Instagram much. The only information I was getting was the university’s narrative, which painted the protestors as unlawful and dangerous. However, I saw stories from you and Luz showing it was a peaceful protest, similar to the one I experienced in New Orleans. Despite this, I found myself almost believing the university’s messaging, imagining the library was totally destroyed when, in reality, people were simply writing “Free Gaza” on the spines of old encyclopedias that no one reads anymore. It was really strange, and I didn’t know where to get my information, but I knew not to trust the authority and the narrative they were sending.

Simeen: Definitely, the messaging that we were receiving was very misleading. As someone who was there and was trying to follow up on everything that was going on, I also felt that the tone of the emails we were receiving was very intimidating. They repeatedly used words like, ‘if you go around the library, that is criminal trespassing.’ And I feel like, in that same email, they were mentioning that it’s your First Amendment right, that no matter who you are, you have the right to free speech. And at the same time, they’re telling me that if I go to that place, I will get arrested? That’s hypocrisy.

Lou: And I remember you saying that, in India, when the protests were happening at your university, at least the administration didn’t pretend to be supportive. But here in the States, they’re pretending to be supportive of free speech, yet they’re calling militarized police onto campus. There is so much hypocrisy. It’s so dissonant to see that. And I think in New Orleans, the administration there didn’t even pretend. They were completely like, ‘this is dangerous and terrible and unlawful.’ Even though I was at the encampment and there was music, there was so much free food, I got a massage. There was just so much community care happening and it was like a really beautiful space that people created.

Simeen: That’s true. That’s absolutely true. And, on a different note, as someone who has only been here in Portland for a few months, that whole week of being in solidarity with the people made me feel like I belonged here because there was just so much community care. People taking care of each other. I recently read about how “Healing happens in the community.”  Activism creates this sense of community that we need at this point in time.

A woman at the PSU protest encampment writing a placard with a piece of coal. The placard says “Inquilab Zindabad” in Hindi (Simeen’s first language), a popular protest slogan that translates to “Long Live the Revolution.” (May 2024)

Simeen holding her protest placard at her first U.S. protest, with the message ‘Free Palestine from the River to the Sea.’ (October 2023)

Lou speaking at an event called “Sazeracs against Surveillance” about the surveillance connections between New Orleans and Palestine (in 2019)

Seder in the streets with jvp nola. photo by Temple Blacksnake (April 2024)

Lou: Absolutely. That’s why I’m so interested in the dynamics of conflict. When conflict arises within the beautiful communities we create, it can feel really bad and demoralizing.  At least I had this sense over the last few months when conflict would come up in my community. I’d feel like, wow, we can’t even handle our own shit and we’re fighting these enormous systems that are propped up by so much money and power. It feels so important to create that community amongst each other, that healing community that actually feels good to be a part of, that can heal from and move through conflict together.

Simeen: It’s empowering. I find it incredibly empowering because at the protest, when we were standing in front of the cops, I realized that we’re all kids that I see every day at school, but I would normally not talk to them. We would just walk past each other. But there we were, standing together, so full of energy, so full of passion for something that we believe in. It creates a community, a solidarity and that’s just so powerful.

Protesters holding a sign that says ‘PSU Faculty Stands with Students and Palestine’ at a protest in PSU Park Blocks following violent police action and the arrest of protesting students and community members. (May 2024)

Lou: That’s really powerful.

Simeen: Does the administration really expect us to believe that the violence that was used on our students, people that we go to school with, was justified because they were unlawful? 

Lou: Yeah, I don’t buy it. Nobody’s buying it. Especially not the people who were there and saw the beautiful community that was created. 

Simeen: I also wanted to talk to you about how we keep going? With everything that’s going on, we do have to go on, so what strategies are you trying to adopt that I can also seek from you? What do we do now? 

Lou: That’s such a good question. So many people think really differently about it. I feel like I keep reminding myself that there’s no one right way. Like, there’s no one thing that everyone needs to do. There are so many different ways that we can work towards liberation and I really don’t want to hate anyone who chooses a way that I might not choose. 

I’m in a moment of really asking myself that question on a really personal level of where do I feel most energized? What do I do now? Where do I feel like I can sustainably and meaningfully put my energy in liberation work? Because I think for a long time, I got really burned out and that’s not sustainable.

Simeen: We should invent a liberation struggle that doesn’t burn us out.

Lou: Yes and I do think that’s possible. And I think part of it is loving community, not working alone and working in a group of people that is diffuse and has many, many leaders, so people can take a step back when they need to and it doesn’t mean the end.

Simeen: And there’s no shame in being scared.

Lou: Yes, definitely. I’ve been really liking this definition of a leader as someone who encourages others to take risks. And it’s not about being the loudest voice or the figurehead of a movement. I think that’s another lie that we’re told growing up is, that we have to wait for some Gandhi or some MLK to come and be the one to do the thing. When it’s, like, all of us have the power to do the right thing. 

Simeen: Yeah and also we don’t have to be perfect. I think for the longest time I thought that, you know, you have to be perfect, you have to be on top of everything. You have to know the history of the entire world to be able to speak up. 

Lou: That’s so true. I think we naturally just know when something is wrong and we should just say it. It’s really frustrating and saddening that a debate about killing children and destroying every single cultural institution in a region is a debate. Like, that is just wrong and that is not a war. And to keep calling it a war or a conflict is obscuring the very real wrongness that anyone can see if you really just sit with it for a second.

Simeen: People like to say it’s a complex issue.

Lou: Yeah. I don’t think it is so complex.

Simeen: Okay, so what’s the plan of action going forward?

Lou: Well, I saw on your Instagram that there’s something happening today at 7 pm. Are you gonna go?

Simeen: I’ll go. Yeah, we can go together. 

Lou: Okay. Other than that, take care of ourselves. I’m gonna spend a lot of time outside. I’m gonna go to the river. Practice being hopeful. Crying. Sing a song.

Can I sing you a song that I wrote?

Simeen: Yes, OMG!

Lou continues to sing a beautiful song as the both us sit together on my terrace basking in the warm sun that the city of Portland is seeing after many months of gray skies

So much heartbreak,

Break it open…

Let your love pour out of you…

We will build this world together,

We will build this world anew…

Lou singing at a rally. Photo by Abdul Aziz (October 2023)

Lou is an artist, educator, and facilitator with ties to Portland, New Orleans, and San Francisco. They think a lot about what it means to feel safe vs. what it means to be safe, what you can gain by being vulnerable, and how to live a good life. Hire them to mediate your next conflict.

Simeen Anjum (she/her) is a social practice artist and cultural activist from New Delhi, India. Locating herself in the disquiet of state suppression, surveillance, personal and collective trauma, she attempts to document,cherish and archive the smallest fragments of ordinary life. Through her work, she hopes to provide alternatives to established socio-political narratives. She works in direct interaction with her community and surroundings.

We take our time. We’ll get better

“There’s no utopia until the revolution arrives. Right? I cannot run from one place to another. The revolution has to come, and it has to come for all of us everywhere.”

Simeen Anjum

Simeen and I interviewed each other on a warm and sunny day in Portland, a week after I arrived from New Orleans, where I had been participating in school remotely, to complete my first year of the Social Practice program at Portland State University. Simeen has a quiet warmth that I was immediately drawn to when we met in the fall of September 2023, and we both entered the program hoping to understand how art could help create and sustain a better world. Related and equally as important, Simeen has a deep commitment to delicious food–I never go hungry when I’m with Simeen. We both dream of a better, more just world. I hope you do too. 

Both of us felt deeply affected by watching the genocide in Palestine unfold in front of us during our first year in school (as so many did), and we shared a similar cycle of initial hope watching the student encampments begin followed by deep sadness witnessing the universities across the country so violently shut them down. Although we come from different places, we are both hopeful optimists that people working and moving together can (yes, really can!) make a better world. I hope you enjoy reading this second half of our conversation, and if you haven’t read it yet, be sure to check out Simeen’s interview of me, “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Lou Blumberg: I’m curious to hear your reflections on moving to a really new place in the midst of a genocide supported by the country that you moved to, and what that’s been like. But maybe before we do that, how are you? How are you today? 

Simeen Anjum: I’m okay. I’ve been kind of drained. I mean, I don’t want to say bad because I’m just so grateful to have found all of you. It has definitely been difficult, especially with everything that you mentioned that’s been going on. I feel like I’m coming from a lot of existing political suffering from India. I really hoped that coming here would give me some space from that, which I was really looking forward to. But that’s not how it ended up. So that makes me think that this struggle is going to go on, no matter where you are and it’s our responsibility as human beings to respond to what is going on. There’s no utopia until the revolution is there. Right? The revolution has to come, and it has to come for all of us everywhere. So that is one realization that I had.

A screenshot of Simeen’s instagram story on April 29th, 2024, juxtaposing her college protests at Jamia Millia Islamia with the protests at PSU. Photo courtesy of SImeen Anjum.  

With everything that happened in the last week, with the student encampment at PSU and the local community supporting it, it really gave me a lot of hope and empowerment. I’ve been here for eight months. After eight months, for the first time on campus, it made me feel like I finally belong here. I found my people. I found that sense of community, that sense of looking out for each other. So that’s a milestone for me. And even though everything is difficult, I’m really grateful to have found that community, to have that glimpse of a community.

Lou: I’m curious to go back to utopia and what you imagine utopia to be. Have you ever felt close to experiencing that, or been in a place that felt close to utopia?
Simeen: I feel like the only feeling close to utopia that I’ve experienced was before I became more aware. ‘Ignorance is bliss’ – it definitely puts you in a bubble. I would have personally liked to live in that bubble for longer. But because of my identity, the bubble was broken and not by my choice. When your identity is the one being targeted, and you and your community are at the receiving end of oppression, you cannot stay in that bubble. And my friends and other people who come from a more privileged social location, are still living in that utopia. In the same country and same city. So it’s very tricky, I don’t know how to process that. But at this point the utopia that I would love to build would include everyone and not just the privileged class.

Simeen painting a mural in Delhi in 2019 during the Citizen Amendment Act protests. Photo courtesy of Simeen Anjum.

Lou: Sometimes people use that ‘ignorance is bliss’ argument here in the States to say, “well, that’s why we shouldn’t learn about critical race theory. That’s why we shouldn’t learn about oppression, because that’ll just make people upset.” Or the argument in Florida with a bill that the legislature was trying to pass was, “we shouldn’t teach critical race theory, because then white kids will feel guilty and they’ll be sad.”

Simeen: What we need to understand is that someone with privilege can ignore it and not be sad. But for someone who’s on the other end of the spectrum, they don’t have that privilege. It’s a reality that they have to live through.

Lou: As someone who holds some privileged identities, I feel like the work for people who do have that privilege is to recognize that you actually can’t be living in a utopia while other people are not. We all need collective liberation. We all lose something by living in an oppressive system, even people who have privilege, but of course to a very different extent. 

Simeen: Yeah, you cannot reach your fullest self in that system. 

Lou: How do we build a utopia, a mini utopia?

Simeen: Mini utopia…we should make a Zine about this! We can make a utopia for our friends that might need a break. It could be a space where you go to recharge, so you can go back to fight again. It should definitely be cozy. There should be a lot of pillows. There should be other comrades to support you emotionally and tell you, “hey, it’s okay if you’re scared. If you’re tired, it’s okay. We take our time. We’ll get better.”
Lou: Sounds like the collective the first years are working on, “Taking Our Time.”

The Taking Our Time Collective/1st year MFA students during the class trip to Pittsburgh. L to R: Lou, Simeen, Clara, & Nina. Photo by Olivia DelGandio. 

Simeen: Yeah we just keep going back to rest right? We need it so much. I feel like in activism it gets hard to take a step back and care for yourself. But rest is a part of resistance, because the fight is gonna be long and you cannot humanly go the whole way without paying attention to your own needs. I think it should be emphasized more that we have to take care of ourselves. 

Lou: Yeah, totally. I know I’ve been thinking about that in relationship to the slogan, “disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest” that’s been on so many campuses right now, and how there are moments where you can’t rest because the state doesn’t rest, but how we need rest so much.

Simeen: True. We should definitely work on building a system and general understanding of taking turns and making sure that everyone is getting enough rest because we need to be able to sustain the fight.  I think this is the moment for us to think more about this. We need to level up.

I think we don’t take rest as seriously because there is a sense of urgency in the air. We all want to bring about change now, but we need to understand that it’s gonna take longer. And we need to build stronger and more sustainable strategies so that we can keep going. Even when we are sleeping, someone will be there in our place. 

Lou: You sleep, I watch out for you.

Simeen: Yes, someone making sure everyone is eating enough. That would make us so strong. Oh, my God, if we figure this out…

Lou: I feel like it requires so many people. But we have so many people. There are so many of us. 

Protest at the Red Fort in Delhi, 2019. Photo by Simeen Anjum

Simeen: Yeah, we are so many people. There were these protests in Hong Kong a few years ago, and they were just so well coordinated, even though these people didn’t even know each other. They would show up to the protest and then afterwards dissolve into the city.  No one could catch them. And they each had their particular role. When you have a community that has predefined roles and areas of work, you’re able to share responsibilities. 

Lou: What do you think your role is?

Simeen: I cannot say it while being recorded  [laughs]

Lou: Totally. Really good security practice. What else should I ask you?

Simeen: We already spoke of hope.  What else have we not spoken about?

Lou: Something that I think about and I wonder if you think about is, living in the context of climate collapse and apocalyptic predictions that so many people have about the incoming severity of storms and climate change. For me, that can be coloring all of these conversations. And I wonder how you feel about that.

Simeen:  I feel like I really don’t think so much about it, because there’s just one thing after another, and the climate just stays at the back because you don’t see its effects here, right?

Lou: On this beautiful sunny day.

Simeen:  It’s not right because I think ultimately we should be thinking about it. Especially coming from New Delhi, I have seen the city become a gas chamber, literally, the way it is right now. Everyone is coughing. Everyone’s voice is changing. The older people are getting more sick. Young people are having to get all these inhalers and medicines. And I have no idea why it’s not an emergency. I think it’s an emergency. But there is no talking about it, because we are so busy earning our daily bread and working for our basic necessities. We don’t know what to do about it. Sometimes when you wake up in Delhi everything just seems gray. The landscape has changed, and it has all happened in front of me. I would never go out on a weekend and just want to walk around because it looks different. It looks like something out of a dystopian movie. If you go today, there’s no sense of urgency, nobody is alarmed by it. It’s just something in the background that’s happening. The primary thing remains the same, that I have to earn this day’s bread. 

Lou: And the people that you end up working for to earn your bread oftentimes are the same people who are profiting off of not doing anything about climate change.

Simeen in Portland’s Forest Park, May 2024. Photo by Lou Blumberg

Simeen: I mean, if you make more money you can buy an air purifier for your home, for your kids. I think that’s the biggest form of violence in the end. As time passes, it’s gonna get worse. And the rich can modify their houses but the poor will still have nowhere to go. That will be so bad. Do you know about the Bhopal gas tragedy? An American person had his factory somewhere in a small town in India, and he was running it without proper safety measures, because in India you can get away with a lot of things by bribing the government and the government is also very lenient. They don’t pay attention to all of this, and labor is cheap. There was a poisonous gas leak in the factory, and the workers there didn’t know what to do. They were not trained in taking care of themselves. They were not trained in how to stop the gas from leaking and ultimately traumatizing. Long story short, the whole village died.  It was like many, many, many thousands of people, and the American company got away with it. No one faced any charges at all.

Lou: That’s terrible.

Simeen: Big companies definitely exploit the resources of poor countries. And I really hate how, whenever we talk about climate, it is based on individual action: “you change your toothbrush, you recycle.” I mean those are definitely good, sustainable practices. But that’s not what it is about, right? We are not causing this climate crisis. It’s a bunch of companies that are exploiting our resources everywhere, that are putting all their waste in the waters and everything, and there’s just no conversation about it. I feel like the whole climate conversation has been hijacked by these companies.

Lou: Yes, I mean, it’s like greenwashing. This is really a big thing in Louisiana. There are companies along the Mississippi River outside of New Orleans that emit poisonous gasses, and the rates of cancer are so high in the surrounding communities that they call it Cancer Alley because of all the toxicity. And those companies, you know, it’s like Chevron, Shell, big chemical companies. But the Aquarium in New Orleans is sponsored by Shell, and there’s 

 a monument to how helpful the oil platforms in the middle of the ocean are for creating sea life. And that’s greenwashing right? It’s like, you’re the ones killing the fish, and now you’re telling everyone that you’re actually helping with their habitat?

We need to create as strong of a system as they have, but a system of people power! Speaking of people power, I’d love to hear you talk more about your project In Dark Times Like These.

Simeen:  I feel like when I came to Portland it was a big transformational moment for me. I moved to a whole new country and was trying to find a sense of belonging and a sense of community. And then the genocide started after October 7th. I was thinking about what I needed at that time. It was very emotionally exhausting. It was also isolating, feeling so helpless about everything.  I kept remembering how back home during protests or community gatherings, we were always singing all these songs. It was so refreshing and so hopeful. And that was something that I felt was missing here at protests in Portland. That’s where the idea came from. Why don’t we just get together and sing just for the sake of it? Not for any particular event, but just to sing together and cherish how it makes you feel.

I named the project In Dark Times Like These because a lot of these songs are actually timeless. They have been used over and over for a very long time. Singing some of these songs does give me a lot of hope because I know that there were people fifty years ago who felt just as bad as we are feeling right now and then they sang these songs like the “Bella Ciao” song. And it gets modified each time depending on where and when it is being sung. I think that’s beautiful and something really precious that we all share. I think we should make it cool again. 

Like the “We Shall Overcome” song. It’s such a precious song for me because that’s like my childhood and I didn’t know it was used here in a very different movement. It connects us in such a beautiful way.

Lou: There’s something about singing together in a big group that really works. I feel this grounding, you know.

Simeen: People have always been singing together. This is something that the governments will never do. The bad guys will never do that. It is something only you and me can do.

Lou: Yes. I agree. Are you continuing the project?

Simeen: I am. I just didn’t find a chance to actually sing in this dark time. 

Lou: I’d love to sing with you sometime. 

Simeen: I also feel like in times of crisis we are in so much despair that at times we forget to sing. We forget to–like we discussed earlier–we forget to rest. To take a pause and take care of ourselves. Even though singing and resting are just as important for us to keep going. There has to be songs in dark times, right? 

Lou: Yes, absolutely. I’m curious to hear more about your relationship to art making and what role you think the artist has in dark times like these.

Simeen: I don’t think of myself or artists as a very separate entity or anything like a hero who observes people from afar. I don’t feel like it’s anyone very special or outside of society or anything. I think you’re just there, you are one of the people in the crowd. And you’re just supposed to respond, just have a natural human response. 

Lou: That’s such a big thing, to take away all of the other narratives that we might experience and just have a natural human response. I think that’s something that you do well. That’s one role of an artist in a movement space. 

Simeen: And that response can come from anyone who is part of the movement, not necessarily someone who is going to an art school or who has an art degree. I’m personally glad to be alive at a time where those hegemonies that we had associated with being an artist or art making are finally dissolving. People are like, you know, we don’t care about it. We’ll make art. We’ll make bad art, do whatever you want about it. I’m really happy to be present at that time when those hegemonies are no longer keeping people from making art.

Lou: That’s a really nice thing to point out. I feel like the more people making art, the more opportunities for new ways of being and seeing, and in order for more people to be making art you need to forget about what makes good art or bad art. It should be okay to make bad art. I’ve been telling myself that, anyway.

Simeen: Yeah and on a different note, I’m the first person in my very, very big family to study fine arts. They’re like, “What is this subject? And why do you study it? What kind of job do you get?” Because for most people, for most middle class people, you go to university so you can get a job, any job, some job. And studying art is like, kind of a privilege that is normally reserved for people from more socially privileged backgrounds. In my first year, I was going to all these exhibitions and all these shows, and just looking at other people and thinking about “where do I fit in here? How do I fit in here? And will I ever fit in here?” 

But a realization that I had recently is that you don’t have to fit in here. You just have to be yourself. Do what you do and respond to things as you experience them. That’s been my journey. Because, starting my second year, there was a huge protest in the Arts Department. I’m coming from a background where there’s no sense of a high brow aesthetic, there’s no accessibility to art institutions – we are disconnected from that whole world of classic aesthetics, matching colors. Sometimes our bed sheets and pillowcases don’t match. That’s just how it is. So I was learning to appreciate art without beauty, without a sense of aesthetics. It’s not necessarily about looking good, it’s about responding and feeling and embracing those feelings. I think that’s been my biggest learning journey. 

The first artwork that I now recall myself making was because I was just confused. I’m coming into art school with a different background, and I don’t know what others are talking about, like how to make a fucking painting. So there was a protest in the Art Building, and we had this iconic sculpture, a bust in our department that had his mouth open. It seemed like it was screaming. And I put a ribbon around the sculpture, around his mouth. So that morning, when everyone came inside they were like, “Oh, there’s a ribbon around his mouth!” and that was my first artwork. I didn’t consider it to be an artwork but I now think it was. I only recently started to believe in myself as an artist! 

Simeen’s first artwork, 2019, Jamia Millia Islamia. Photo courtesy of Simeen Anjum.

Lou: Did anyone help you get there?

Simeen: Yeah, I met a friend who was an artist. She’s graduating this year from School of the Art Institute of chicago. A few years ago, she was discussing something she was working and I gave her a random suggestion that she should use these dastarkhwan, dining mats that are a specific thing in our culture. And she is actually incorporating them in her work! It’s been like four years or something, and it just makes me really happy. You don’t really have to have a background and a big experience with aesthetics or working with art to be able to do it. And she has really been a mentor to me and has really pushed me to believe in myself and helped shape my art practice.

Lou: Definitely, yeah, it’s a lot about believing in yourself and taking risks. 

Simeen: Yes, and letting yourself feel things and pay attention. And also giving yourself the liberty to express, and the liberty to rest!

Simeen Anjum (she/her) is a social practice artist and cultural activist from New Delhi, India. Locating herself in the disquiet of state suppression, surveillance, personal and collective trauma, she attempts to document, cherish, and archive the smallest fragments of ordinary life. Through her work, she hopes to provide alternatives to established socio-political narratives. She works in direct interaction with her community and surroundings.

Lou Blumberg is an artist, educator, and facilitator with ties to Portland, New Orleans, and San Francisco. They think a lot about what it means to feel safe vs. what it means to be safe, what you can gain by being vulnerable, and how to live a good life. Hire them to mediate your next conflict.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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