Arts Fuel Student Dialogue About Sustainability

Manhattan Middle School – Boulder CO, November 13, 2013

Through a collaboration with Marda Kirn and Eco Arts Connections, I visited Manhattan Middle School in Boulder CO.  I performed acapella raps for several groups of students, and wrote a verse about culture and sustainability with a group of mostly Latino students over breakfast burritos and OJ. 

I facilitated a 70 minute workshop in Mr. Arbuckle’s 7th grade social studies class.  They have been talking about “sustainability” and how to make the world a healthier place that people can enjoy for a long time.  My focus was to broaden the definition of “sustainability” to include personal, cultural and artistic considerations.  I focused my commentary on the idea that the personal is political, meaning that everything we do impacts the broader social environment, and that even kids vote everyday: what kind of clothes they wear, what they eat, the language they use, the music they listen to, how they treat people and animals, how they take care of their bodies, and environmental choices like whether or not to recycle.

We discussed the arts and how the arts relate to democracy, and also sustainability.  I wanted them to feel, see, create, and experience a human process of collaboration,  change, and exchange.  Students were broken up into groups of five.  Each group was given a large piece of butcher paper and markers.  They were instructed to: 1) Think broadly about sustainability; 2) represent their ideas through lines, shapes and color (without feeling like they had to draw anything concrete); 3) to include words, and to see “poetry” in the simplest of words.

Students were not allowed to talk or converse with each other about design.  They were instructed to begin creating together, organically.  They were given 10 minutes.  Without knowing so in advance, they were asked to leave their creations and rotate to another group’s canvas.  They were instructed to observe for one minute.  Then they began interacting with the canvas in front of them, with these instructions: 1) Continue the story; 2) Challenge the story.  There were four groups, and they all had about 5 minutes to work on each canvas. 

I began to write poetry and rap lyrics on the board, inspired by their work.  They were given an open invitation to come up to the board individually and interact with the words. 

We spent the last 15 minutes debriefing the exercise.  I used Visual Thinking Strategies to facilitate the conversation.  Students observed their collective work.  They were asked to describe what they saw and heard, and to ask questions about the process.  They wondered aloud about what sustainability means, what it means to be human, and why some students chose to set trees on fire, represent blood, or write negative ideas in an otherwise beautiful representation of human creativity. 

(I forgot to point out, perhaps because I was not conscious of it in the moment, that we were using a lot of resources, in paper and ink, to explore sustainability.  I think… this is ok… Human….) 

“Wow, what did we just do?” one student concluded.

“What in the world are we doing here?” another asked.  Great question.

Students inspired these words, which I wrote on the board:

Words become diagrams, whispers on butcher paper
free energy tracing tree lines
and arrows, I
climb Manhattan
with young captains
of Design.

What’s sustainable? In my mind I see a star
The sun will plant the seed, the poetry deep in me
The tree will hold the rain, the water will cleanse my frame
I evolve, revolve, walking 365, my dream is to stay alive…

Stay alive.

Real History of the Americas

Fort Lewis College, Durango, CO, October 14th, 2013: Real History 2013

Approximately 25 people – students, community members, artists, and Ft. Lewis college staff – sat down this morning to share breakfast and speak about the meaning of The Real History of the Americas, now in its sixth year in Durango Colorado.  This tradition began with a vision by Teahonna Colleen James and Amy Joy Iwasaki in 2008.  The words in this poem are statements I weaved together from this morning’s council.   This is an open letter to America.  

History After Columbus – An Open Letter to America

Issues confront, Buffalo Council
identity, more to America
than spoon-fed books.
Everybody needs to see
our nations, we come from
Good mornings, and history
books written to lie.
Mini steps 
we take, not only indigenous-
poor, working class
and domestic violence.
Terror becomes America.

Mini steps, working on my own
hope for losing battles,
jews and catholics throwing stones at each other,
at war with muslims, and those undefined and uncapitalized.
Addicted to conquest
we resist, through coordination
scheduling ritual
to replace cultural voids.

I stand for what I believe
and build tomorrow
with what I do not know, challenging grandparents
so often void of wisdom now
we seek balance.
Where are the voices of women?
Where are the voices, period?   
We want to come home.
We keep knowledge
having grown
without tribes, often
without celebration.
We make time
and observe meaning.

This is not about teaching to hate whites.
This is to heal black, all shades brown, white.
To see history for what it is-
to learn and unlearn.
for lessons to seeds.
Grandmothers sending pilgrims in the mail, fall

in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,
making red land more red
with blood.

The real history is powerful-
part of us.
Hero worship for murderers,
a ceremony for power.
We speak our stories to the wind
to chisel mountains.
A new reality, which is an old reality,
(re)defining real people’s stories
valid, to exist
and function

Our history really happened
so we carry our names,
educated to agendas
we are global

This day means to be here.
to be alive.