True to form I am back in grad school (again). I'm basically a career student at this point and this time I'm going back for a CAS in Cultural Heritage Preservation. We are 3 weeks into the course and it's been a lot of fun, mostly because the people in the class come from very diverse backgrounds- both in life and educationally, which has lead to some really great discussions about heritage and history.
A few weeks ago we took our first field trip to ArtRage Gallery for the Robert Shetterly exhibit. ArtRage is a unique gallery that focuses on cultural and societal change. From their website:
"ArtRage is no ordinary gallery.
We are committed to breaking down the art world’s boundaries about who is welcome. We believe that everyone has the right to art and that art is essential to building an open, just world. Our vision for change is one that creates a community of open-minded, tolerant individuals with an appreciation for the inclusion of art in everyday life. We offer the community an experience that encourages the breakdown of boundaries so that people can see themselves in the work and then in one another. We exhibit art that cultivates critical thinking skills; leading to question the power structures that exist in our society and to imagine other ways of life.
That, we believe, is the seed of a movement for cultural and social change."
As Shetterly spoke the room filled with more people as the big draw was not necessarily the artist, but the subject who was speaking next, Bill Ayers. First off, I have a lot of thoughts about Bill Ayers, but I held my thoughts and my tongue because I wanted to hear what he was going to say. He has a long history as a public figure and I wasn't sure what he would be talking about at the gallery. Obviously he was there to talk about the artwork and the quote that he and Shetterly had chosen to feature, but I hoped that he would address his past as well- how could he possibly explain who he is now and the stances he takes without acknowledging the choices he made in the past. I was geared up to hear his speech and ask some question.
I'll get to that.... but first, we took a 10-15 minute break so they could grab some snacks and pull in some extra chairs to accomodate the growing crowd and what transpired was possibly the most offensive part of the night.
First let me paint you a picture of ArtRage and where it is located. It's on the corner of one of the tougher neighborhoods in the city, violence fills the streets and fills the news. Some of the poorest residents live over here, and there is a fairly large population of immigrants and refugees. It's tough, but at the same time so full of amazing people. The kids that live near the gallery are my students. I spend 8 hours a day with them and they make my job worth going to. We struggle sometimes, but at the end of the day they are part of my extended family and I love that I get to be part of their lives for the 3 years I have them. These are families that I care about. ArtRage sits in the middle of this community, a white washed building full of art, but also full of statements, with posters and stickers that talk about leading with hope and love, with the words "Black Lives Matter" featured on the wall. The very purpose of the gallery is to work towards societal change by providing access to art and providing a place to come learn. The night I was there the speakers talked about equality and acceptance, about raising up the next generation to be better and do better, they were looking to inspire and motivate the people in the audience to go out and change the world.
It should have been uplifting, but the behavior I saw exhibited during that 15 minute break was appalling. At the start of the break the artist and Bill Ayers welcomed several guests including some authors who unfortunately I didn't write the names down of- I didn't realize they'd be important. They shared hugs and pats on the back and talked briefly to each other of the good works being done, and then separated to get ready for Ayer's speech. I went outside to get some air and while out there saw several students, both former and current. Other people including the author I saw earlier were also outside- grabbing stuff from cars or just chatting. A teenager went by with his music on loud and the following sentence was uttered "Ugh, these people and their music. They should be at the amphitheater if they want to listen to it". Then a literal truck of people went by, meaning a truck with a flatbed full of kids, some with out shirts on, all hanging out and being noisy. The response "Don't those people know that's not safe. They shouldn't be parents if they are going to act like that." In under 10 minutes I heard two people use the terms"These/Those People". Was the music too loud? Probably. Was driving a flatbed of children around dangerous? Obviously. It wasn't that the comments were wrong about it the actions, it was that they were said with such obviously disdain, not for the action, but for the people. Inside the walls of the gallery they were cheering along as Shetterly and later Ayers spoke of leading with love and acceptance, claiming that Black Lives Matter and asking us to support the causes that will help bring equality, but a mere 5 feet outside the walls they let their true colors show as they expressed disgust for the reality of the situation at hand. They quickly highlighted the us v. them mentality and it was disturbing. Anyone that knows me knows that I don't know how to keep my mouth shut, so I obviously said something- it wasn't overly polite or well spoken, but it went something like this "Those people? Those people are my students! Those are the same people that we are talking about in there. Those people? Wow. WOW." and then I immediately channeled my students and snapped my hand in their generally direction and headed back inside fuming. Later I ranted to pretty much anyone who would listen, at home and at school about how disappointing it was, how they let their hypocrisy show and didn't even seem to realize what was wrong with their statements.
My question was going to be pretty straight-forward, but I didn't get to ask it. Ayer's speech and the first few questions went really long and I had to get home. I was bummed, but I figured that it would come up and I could a recap the next week in class. So when I sat down and my teacher asked if anyone had any thoughts I threw my hand up and asked if Ayer's spoke at all about his time with the Weather Underground. She said not really, just that he said he was younger then and it was a product of the times. In the 70's Bill Ayer's was what can be classified as a domestic terrorist. His group bombed public and federal buildings as a way to protest the United State's involvement in the Vietnam War. In addition to the massive amounts of damage that was caused, one of the bombs exploded in their Greenwich Village own house killing 3 members of their group. Ayers was also a fugitive for a time. These were not a product of the times, and they are not decisions to be explained away by saying "I was younger then". This was violence to make a point, and in my mind is not so different from people using violence to make a statement today.
I wasn't looking for an explanation of why he chose to blow stuff up in the 70's, rather I was looking to see how he went from that to where he is now, talking about leading with love and hope to the next generation of educators. Does he regret the decisions he made? How does it impact how he views the world now? Especially given the fact that it seems like every day on the news there is an act of terrorism ripping a community apart. I think people can change, but I also think that there is a story there that should be heard and not just glossed over. So I tried to contact him- no email on his website, no response to a tweet. I'm not much interested in researching what he has said in the past on the subject, because I would rather hear how he sees it right now, as the person who is giving advice to educators since that's the person who I saw in the gallery.
This field trip was a mixed bag- great art, good speeches, absolutely appalling behavior from people in the audience in response to the neighborhood and missed opportunities.
Hopefully the rest of the semester proves to be as interesting as our trip to ArtRage was!
This page is my home for all my studies. Initially started when I was a graduate student at Syracuse University in Library & Information Science:School Media, it has seen me through that degree plus a CAS in Cultural Heritage Preservation.
Starting in the Fall of 2018 I will use it for my newest endeavor, a certificate in Native American Studies at Montana State University.
On occasion I will also post interesting articles or my thoughts on things related to my job as a Middle School Librarian in an Expeditionary Learning School.