Heard at EMK Institute: Harness art to promote civic activism by the young

Some people drew a blank when the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate opened on Columbia Point two years ago. I remember thinking, “Institute for the U.S. Senate? What’s that?” But now I know better and can appreciate how much the Institute is becoming a valuable resource for the community.

My initial reaction was not unreasonable because previous to the facility’s arrival on Columbia Point, there never had been anything like it. Think of the EMK as a gym of sorts where you can do some training to buff up your public speaking and build muscle for civic enterprise. Next door at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, visitors are spectators who look but don’t touch; at the EMKI, visitors are participants who jump in and act.

Over the past year, 18,000 students from schools in Boston and beyond participated in the Institute’s extensive education program, which are designed to inspire the next generation of citizens and leaders to engage in the civic life of their communities. The Institute is also open to tourists from near and far; everyone mingles at the exhibits that line the halls and also at the core of the Institute, a reproduction of the United States Senate Chamber that is as large as life.

The exhibits offer a window to the people and history of the US Senate, but inside the chamber, the focus is on current business. For example, there is the regularly scheduled “Today’s Vote” when visitors march in, take a seat at a senator’s desk, and participate in a live floor debate on an active piece of legislation being considered in Washington. This exercise aims at the heart of the democratic process; another good name for it would be “Stand Up and Be Heard.”

There are also programs edged with political activism. Over the past few months, the Institute has organized events that touched on controversial issues put forward by such liberal luminaries as US Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. EMK also hosted the Women and Leadership Conference, bringing together elected officials from the federal, state, and local levels for some powerful networking. It turns out that the Institute is very well suited to function as a forum and local rallying point, complete with parking.

Two weeks ago, there was a panel discussion at EMK on the topic “Art & Activism: Civic Engagement Through Creative Expression.” An audience of more than 50 people gathered to hear a group of educators and community leaders discuss how they are harnessing art to help young people contribute to the civic life of their communities.

In her introduction, EMKI president Jean McCormack recognized two original art exhibitions currently being featured at the Institute: a mural created as a monumental tribute to the Statue of Liberty by students from Boston International Newcomers Academy; and Immerica, a participatory mural celebrating the diversity of our community created by student-artists from Artists for Humanity.

Julie Burros, chief of Arts and Culture at City Hall, led off the discussion by declaring that the role of the artist is to ask questions and provoke discussion. Ms. Burros explained how the Boston Creates Plan is designed to empower local leaders by simplifying approval processes for art projects, and by working to help individuals overcome barriers to the cultural sector. She posited a better climate for inclusion in Boston, while acknowledging that a lot of people still perceive large institutions as being remote.

Dr. Thomas King is headmaster at Boston International High School Newcomers Academy, a BPS high school with a student body that is 100 percent immigrant. Dr. King gave an account of what went on at his school on Inauguration Day last January: a unique, one-day learning program organized by the principal and faculty that they dubbed “Democracy Day” Regular classes were suspended and students attended workshops designed to unpack some of the most complex issues on the national agenda. The outsized Statue of Liberty mural is a sample of the many things that were accomplished that day, an artistic collaboration of 140 students brought together to create a breathtaking rendition of one of the most powerful symbols of everyday American values.

The author and educator Karen Gross referenced data showing that collaborative art improves outcomes with regard to better schools, higher self-esteem, and more civic engagement by students. But not every school has an art department, so with funding scarce, she suggested devising a way for regular Math and English classes to have Art included in the curriculum. Given that many students in Boston are first-generation and are from families that don’t usually visit art museums, Ms. Gross called for the need to change the “elitism” of art, singling out the mysterious graffiti artist Banksy as an example of how an artist can create his or her own point of access to the world, and adding a warning that artists must not ever abdicate the power to decide for themselves.

For me, the most compelling testament to the power of the arts came from Jason Talbot, co-founder of Artists for Humanity, which provides a place for urban youth to explore and express their creative abilities while helping them to gain the keys to self-sufficiency through paid employment in art and design.

Mr. Talbot told of Dana Chandler, an artist who came of age in 1960’s Roxbury and early on began to use art as a tool for change. He talked about his own childhood in Roxbury and about his first encounter with art, vividly describing one of Chandler’s murals. He remembers how he found fresh inspiration daily as he walked past the mural in Dudley Square. Then Mr. Talbot offered his own treatise on art: “Don’t ask permission – take over. Fight for it. Good art comes out of struggle, and the harder you fight, the better it is.”

Mr. Talbot’s passion shows how the vitality that true art communicates endures on and on. Seeing Chandler’s art changed his life, and now he is running an important organization dedicated to building community through art and helping to inspire the next generation of young people, artists and non-artists alike.

When we talk about art and activism, let’s not forget the art for the way it raises all toward a desire for something more. In Boston, and particularly in Dorchester, let’s hope that means more civic engagement through creative expression.

James Hobin is an art teacher at Boston International High School Newcomers Academy.

Editor’s note: To watch the panel discussion online go to: emkinstitute.org/explore-the-institute/public-events-programs/public/art-activism-civicengagement.