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Christine Yeh
Dec 15, 2016

The Power of Art in Social Change

In my counseling advocacy work with marginalized youth, I have witnessed the way that art has the potential to reclaim cultural identities, empower historically targeted communities, bridge seemingly opposing groups to foster understanding, and inspire hope.  In a community-based project—Wear Your Pride—with Samoan youth leaders, Samoan community activists and elders, counselors, artists, educators, and academics, we used traditional tattoo art to engage Samoan youth in conversations about Samoan cultural values, pride, and strengths, history and storytelling, and social action. Youth created works of art using Samoan tattoo symbols and words that were shared with hundreds of community members and key stakeholders (politicians, law enforcement, educators, counselors, policymakers, family members, etc.,) to interrupt injustices they were experiencing in schools, their neighborhood, and in the legal system. This program, highlighted the possibilities to use art to connect youth to their own potential as change agents. Art allows them to have deep stares into the struggle, heartache, fear, anger that cuts through negative stereotypes, dehumanizing media reports of data on police shootings, numerical statistics, and staggered phrases from uncomfortable politicians. Art is at times uncomfortable and interrogating and it pushes us to witness inequality uncensored as a catalyst for possible actions.

The power of art extends beyond triggering deep emotions and coalition building. Indeed, art has the potential to offer hope and heal—especially during times of national divide and for those who are civically engaged or victimized. I am inspired by the art created by my students that represents their daily lived experiences as symbolic of much larger systemic oppressions and cultural strengths. Wear Your Pride honors such experience, opens and exposes the intentionally hidden and invisible stories and in doing so, the art transcends individual selves and becomes part of a collective of struggle, empowerment, and hope. Art removes the objective and forefronts the subjective in an effort to contest the strategic distancing of analysis, and media representations of current fights.

From the Black Lives Matter movement, to the Dakota access line protest, to indigenous rights across the globe, art has the power to collectivize communities and create spaces for validation and deep emotion, for transformation and resistance, and for bridging history with present day struggles. The current media industry produces sensationalistic news that numbs us all, but art, in all its forms, emerges as refreshingly authentic and blatantly unapologetic. It is an escape to, not from, reality in the rawest and truest of terms.
Christine Yeh is a Professor at the University of San Francisco and Co-Director of the Center for Research, Artistic, and Scholarly Excellence. She works in solidarity with historically targeted communities to address and fight bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and other forms of hate and bigotry.

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