Social Justice Thru the Arts institute introduces high school students to ‘artivism’

Social Justice Thru the Arts student participants kneeling in front of their collaborative mural
High school students and CSU student mentors collaborated to paint the mural, "Holding Space," during the Social Justice Thru the Arts summer institute. Photo by Silvia Minguzzi.

“We are the next generation of voices. We are the future, we are change, we are hope, we are power and intelligence. We came into this program as strangers, and we will leave it not only as friends, but accomplished artists.” – Participants in the 2018 Social Justice Thru the Arts experience

These were the words spoken by Colorado high school students participating in the first ever Social Justice Thru the Arts summer institute sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and the Access Center.

The Social Justice Thru the Arts (SJTA) institute brought students from Alliance high schools to campus for a week to learn about issues of gender equity, belonging, access, and justice through hands-on learning with CSU faculty, CSU student mentors, and renowned mural artist Rose Jaffe.

The artistic process

Caridad Souza introduced students to a basic framework to understand power, privilege, and difference. Photo by Silvia Minguzzi.

Over the five days, the students were challenged by exercises in storytelling, creative writing, movement and dance, designing and painting, and film. They explored topics of identity and community, resonating with the concept of “holding space,” which is “listening actively and wholeheartedly to what is said … allowing people to bring all of themselves into a space without fear of judgement or shame,” says Caridad Souza, director of the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research. This concept inspired the theme of the collaborative mural the students created during the week.

After introductory conversations around the role of power and privilege with Souza and the undergraduate mentors, students began exploring their individual and collective identities through movement explorations led by CSU dance instructor Lisa Morgan, focused on concepts of intersection, connection, and gesture. With this framework in mind, students began working with D.C.-based muralist Rose Jaffe.

Lisa Morgan runs a workshop showing how movement reflects personal narrative, conversation, and connection. Photo by Silvia Minguzzi.

“The students came together to create [the mural] collaboratively,” said Jaffe. Photographs and video taken by Silvia Minguzzi, communications coordinator for the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art, evolved into line drawings created by Jaffe. From there, the students and mentors worked together to build and design the layout and “story” of the mural, including the color scheme and intersecting layout.

“Art is a process, to learn, to grow,” said Jaffe. “The students learned to speak truth to power and find their own voice.”

Together, the students created a mural painting entitled “Holding Space,” which they presented to an audience of family members and campus faculty and staff, that is currently displayed in the sculpture garden at the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art.

Focused on access

The Alliance Partnership at CSU was started with the mission to send Colorado students to college. The partnership includes 10 high schools that have a high percentage of students who are eligible for the free or reduced lunch program, are racially or ethnically diverse, would be the first in their families to attend college, and located in a diverse geographic region of the state.

In addition to being a student at one of the Alliance partnership schools, the students who participated in the Social Justice Thru the Arts institute were chosen based on an extensive application process. Intended to mimic the rigor of a college application, students were asked to write an essay, submit transcripts, and get a counselor recommendation. Once on campus, the program was designed to lessen the fear of attending a university as large as Colorado State.

Patricia Vigil, the director of University Partnerships and Student Success and director of the Alliance and University Partnership Relations, noted the importance of the high school students experiencing life at a school with a population of more than 30,000. They stayed in the dorms and relied on undergraduate mentors to learn about CSU’s principles of community.

Social Justice Thru the Arts was one of many institutes offered over the summer by the Access Center, but it was the only one that focused on the arts instead of STEM. Recognizing the need to serve students who are interested in academic options other than the sciences, Vigil, Souza, Morgan, and Minguzzi collaboratively designed SJTA to address the gap.

“This is the sort of experiential learning that can have a great impact on student engagement and success,” said Roze Hentschell, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Liberal Arts. “We knew it would be attractive to high school students who have a passion for the visual and performing arts and who want to learn more about how to engage their interests in the arts in socially meaningful ways. It also provided professional mentorship opportunities for several CSU students who lived and worked with the high school students.”

Power of ‘Artivism’

“Art helps us determine what we care about,” said Morgan. Through participation in the creative process, the students explored activism through art and identified the problems in their communities they hope to change.

SJTA participants read their artist statement at the unveiling of their mural. Photo by Nicolle McMurray.

“Artivism combines the passion and ingredients of activism with the imagination of artists,” says Souza. The students left the program with an understanding that art is valuable, especially as a tool to address social issues.

“Many of us have learned to embrace our stories and where we come from. Many of us are building a conscious understanding of the internal and external struggles of other peoples,” the students wrote in their artist statement.

“It is our commitment and responsibility to bring what we’ve learned here back to our communities throughout Colorado, to help draw their attention to social issues and the potential of working across difference to produce power for social change.  As we become activists, we seek to restore power and hope by honoring each other’s differences and creating a more just society.”

Rose Jaffe Artist Talk and Holding Space Event PosterExperience the mural

Rose Jaffe will return to CSU for a classroom visit and artist talk about “Holding Space” on Oct. 18 at 5 p.m. in the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden.

The mural will be on display in the Sculpture Garden until Oct. 27. From there, it will travel to high schools around the state of Colorado.

For more information about the Social Justice Thru the Arts program, visit their website