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Finding Meaning: Teens, Art, and EcoJustice
I belong somewhat to the youth Culture. The emotionally drained, disillusioned group of kids trying to find themselves. (Joan: Q1, 1)
We met Joan four years ago. She was one of the first participants in Arts UP, and has participated in the program several times. Her words paint a portrait of today's adolescents that is often an accepted part of our culture: they are apathetic and not committed to anything other than perhaps themselves; disillusioned with the world around them and thus not likely to participate in it or try to change it. Like Joan, we found that most teenagers who participated in the program often described themselves as disillusioned and disinterested in the world around them. They rarely thought of themselves as educators of the public, nor did they consider it their job to preserve cultural and environmental places, arts, and traditions in their communities. We found these urban teens had little or no connection to many of their local environments, natural or constructed. A world beyond their immediate school and their home life seemed unimaginable and/or irrelevant to many of them. They underestimated their ability to effect change, and often expressed little confidence regarding the impact they could have on their communities. Given the cultural, political, and environmental disconnectedness so many of these urban teens felt, we questioned whether or not it was possible to encourage a shared consciousness and develop a sense of responsibility for maintaining cultural and environmental justice.
Many students in the program expressed a view of the world much like Joan's. They felt like they did not "have a voice" (Eddie) and that "kids can’t do anything, the grownups are the only ones that can make an impact" (Joan). Several commented about the natural spaces in their communties that they did not "even know there were like farms here" and "that places like this existed" (Eddie). Most did not know about the diversity and beauty of the natural and built environments around them, contributing to their lack of connection to them. While their comments resonated a similar sense of disconnectedness, there was also a feeling of needing direction; a desire to find a place and to contribute to the general welfare of their community. So it is not that these students were apathetic, rather they lacked the tools to understand how to connect, how to contribute, and how to affect change.
Over the four years of the program, students participated in a variety of activities with different community organizations. These included a National Park, a local Ecology center and organic farm, and a local park. In each case, students worked with local artists to create and install a permanent or semi-permanent outdoor art installation. In the first year, students worked with a muralist to paint a local park’s wildlife ecology educational program van. Participants spent several weeks researching animal habitats and behaviors and the ecology efforts of the organization. This moving mural provided educational outreach for area schools and residents. The students’ curiosity allowed the park's staff to teach them about animals camouflage, counter shading, physical adaptations, hunting and foraging behaviors, group dynamics and more. Students completed this project with a deeper understanding of wildlife, wild places, and the role that they can play in each of our lives. An educator from the park shared, “As the project ended, one of the most exciting benefits from [our] perspective was the increased knowledge and desire to learn that was expressed by many of the high school students. This project opened up the world of animals and habitats to a group of talented young people who may never have given much thought to conservation before this project.” Much of this project centered on exploring characteristics of flora and fauna in their local and global natural environments. Students began to understand, respect and forge new relationships with not only an organization, but those protected by it. When asked if the Arts UP program fostered cultural and environmental awareness and change and helped to develop an ethical point of view, Vince responded, “Yes, my experience at the [park] made me aware of environmental issues surrounding animals, and also about animal treatment. It has helped give me courage to go out and sell myself. I have the confidence as an artist to take on my own public murals. It has also encouraged me to make more statements with my art work. Before, I made art for art’s sake. But now, I make art to help me say things, to convey a message” (Vince, Q2, 2). Vince's view is one expressed by many students in the program, especially by those who had continued involvement with the project in ensuing years.
Another project included a partnership with a local ecology center and organic farm. Participants helped operate a 300 acre organic farm and raise produce for community shares and local food banks. Students learned about organic farming techniques, sustainable agriculture, community food and water issues, and local plant and animal culture. They researched seeds, harvest techniques and tools, and soil and climate conditions. While helping to plant, weed and harvest crops, students spent four weeks learning about Native American traditional art forms with a Cherokee folk artist. They assisted in the creation of a public installation comprised of home-made clay ceremonial figures for the perennial gardens at the ecology center. The installation served as a form of cultural, environmental and spiritual Education for the students and the broader community. Participation in Arts UP appeared to help connect students to the past traditions and cultural art forms of their community. During this particular program, youth were introduced to various local and traditional ceramic craft techniques and learned ways that Native Americans from the area used the land for all their basic human, cultural, and artistic needs. When we asked Anna what the purpose of the art work the ArtsUP group had created was, she offered this explanation:
The purpose is…
- to bring people back to their birthplace: the earth, the trees, the grass
- to delve into ancient cultures and make people think about how people of the
past affected the earth and how they’re affecting the earth
- to show that people still work the same way that we did thousands upon
thousands of years ago. We can still group together to create something. Still
use the same methods. Still cling on to our past. Have a connection. (Anna, JN, 9)
Like Anna, many youth were able to connect what they learned about past cultures to inspire new artistic contributions at the ecology center. This connection appeared to inspire students to renew past traditions and cultural practices in their own lives. For example, others spoke of diminishing their use of communication technologies in favor of making art, learning to sew, planting a garden, or spending time socializing face to face with people.
Students ultimately participated in art making and farming activities that were based on traditional methods, on cooperation, and on function and need; all attributes for the sustainability of the Commons. As Shiva (2005) points out, the type of social organization experienced by Arts UP participants was different from contemporary societies that create for profit or competition, and further encloses the commons.
In another year, participants from all of the past projects were invited to spend three days at a local environmental center to learn about environmental science and its relationship to art, and to reflect on past years of the program and if/how the program continues to have an influence on their lives and art. Students researched water quality, local plant and aquatic life, and local terrain, and they utilized local products to create pieces of functional art like grapevine baskets. Students, teachers, and artists explored the world around them during the day often making art as they explored. They made food for and with each other, and made music together in the evenings. These activities embody those cultural and ecological practices significant to the commons.
Many students spoke of ways the activities throughout each Arts UP program, their relationships that developed with other peers and adult mentors, the emotions that evolved from their experiences, and the artwork they created helped to encourage them to not only connect to the environment, but to also preserve natural and cultural resources in their community. Anna explained, “Well, it (Arts UP) helps me because I’m always half-heartedly fighting on behalf of the environment (maybe not fighting), so seeing what I’m actually trying to save is very encouraging. It makes me want to actually help nature more so than I do now” (Anna, JN, p.8). When I asked how she might educate others about such an awakening, Anna concluded in a reference to the National Park, “Really, the only way for them to understand is to go there” (Anna, JN, p.8). As Anna implied, youth seemed to need opportunities to experience nature first hand, to have a physical and emotional experience with nature over a longer period of time. The youth in the ArtsUP program needed to be given opportunities to explore various natural settings on their own terms, to feel some ownership for a place, to learn by providing a genuine service to a conservation organization with ongoing needs. They needed opportunities to learn about important ecojustice issues related to the natural world as well as opportunities to express themselves creatively and publicly about things they believe in.
Major projects like these transcend generations. They are centered on diverse cultural practices like healing ceremonies, agricultural production, and craft knowledge; those activities vital to reclaiming the commons. In all cases, it was important for students to discover the relationship between culture and land; something agrarians have done since their existence. Orr (2004) explains, agrarians “give priority to honest accounting that includes soil, land, community, good work, and to agriculture as the foundation for culture” (p. 98). For many of the participants in the program, similar priorities developed, along with stronger connections to their cultural and environmental communities. One student commented, “By celebrating ancient rituals focused around nature I developed a new respect…and it reminded me of the responsibilities I have as an artist” (Larry, Q4, 2). Another student expressed similar ideas about the program and what he had learned, “My experience with (a Native American artist) made me appreciate nature, wildlife, and my own spiritual being at a deeper level” (Vince, Q2, 2).
Another powerful demonstration of this is [Annie], a short, freckled, quiet young woman who was a sophomore her first year in the program. After her first year in Arts UP Annie began working with several different activist groups in the area. Her next year in the program she often brought in flyers for many of the peace organizations, sustainable food groups, and others groups with which she worked. She would quietly set them out, show other students, and talk about her work with organizations like Food not Bombs and Saturday Suppers. Her goal was to expose other students in Arts UP to the ideas and work of these groups, and to possibly expand their base of support. She often exclaimed that they [young people] were "the future and the hope" of organizations like these and that "if we work hard enough we can change the world" (FN7: 05). According to Annie, Arts UP was pivotal in her understanding of the role of activism in her local community, and vital to her work there.
I think that Arts UP really gave me an, well a better understanding of what it means to be part of a community and so because of my experiences here I just became more and more involved. I wish more people would, and especially like I think like artists need to do whatever they can. It's about more than our art, it's about people, and where we live, and how we live, and art's like a really strong piece of all that. But we need to learn kind of what we can do and how to do it, where to find groups and connect with them, and that's what I think Arts UP can kind of do, is help us figure some of that out. (FN15: 05)
Annie was learning about how to engage in her local community and the impact such engagement could have. Her work in these groups took shape over a period of years, and at the 2006 Arts UP retreat it became clear that her commitment to and work with these groups continued. Far from being apathetic, disillusioned, or tuned out, Annie was connected and committed to her local community. She was also devoted to helping others recognize its importance, and through "my own small actions maybe I can make a difference" (FN8: 05).
Many students in Arts UP began to believe they could make a difference, and the program helped move them from a position of apathy to one of heightened responsibility. After participating in Arts UP, many began to use their art as a forum for creating awareness about social issues that were important to them and to their local and global communities. For example. students created pieces of art over the course of the program that reflected what they saw as oppressive and unjust situations in the world, and many said their involvement in the program made them think about the impact of their art in a new way. “Last year, I was extremely shy before I came and Arts UP literally changed my life and who I am. I started seeing art as something that could make a difference, and I also spoke out my opinion more often and found I had some awesome ideas” (Anna, Q3, 1).
In their artist narratives, personal art pieces, and interviews students often articulated political positions and spoke about the importance of using their voices to create change, for themselves, their local community, and the society in general. In their personal art pieces, students produced art that resonated with this desire to place themselves within communities, and to link to broader cultural and/or ecological movements. Both in their conversations as well as their journal comments, students expressed beliefs about issues they were concerned with. Listening to youth discuss issues like race, religion and the environment in daily conversations with each other prompted us to ask students how they might use their art for social change. Several students spoke of using their art work to inspire anti-litter campaigns. Additional themes for their art included gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights, anti-animal testing, urban decay, the destruction of nature and equal rights for all groups of people. Other students talked about lost cultural practices. For example, Anna wrote about this issue as one she’d like to create art in response to:
I might take on American culture as a whole. How no one knows how to make their own clothes or grow their own goods anymore. How people are uncomfortable with dirt and the thought of going somewhere other than the supermarket for their food makes them shiver. How nature is just in the way, invasive and uninteresting to them. The fact that people do things not because they’ve sat down and thought a long time about why they’re doing them, but because a magazine for the TV or the radio said they should. How nobody thinks anymore. (Anna, JN, 4)
Students in Arts UP became more connected to their communities, more aware of ways they could engage in ecojustice reform, more ways they could include the commons in their every day lives, and more likely to do so. Some discovered and put into practice ways for reducing pollution and food waste in their everyday environments. Others found ways for protecting animal and plant species native to the area. And each explored ways for revitalizing local and cultural traditions of art making and the use of natural resources. There is also evidence that they remained committed to projects and to each other long after the end of the program, and while many of the students spoke about the impact of the program on their artistic abilities, many also spoke about how it changed the way they related to the world and specifically to others in it. “These small-scale actions do not make headlines and may not even be noticed by the dominant groups within society; but they help empower individuals and communities and they create the confidence and vision to resist still further, whenever opportunities to do so present themselves” (The Ecologist, 1993, 194).