Teaching Activism Through Art

Parent & Family Engagement, Who We Are | 02/07/2020

Lisa Villanueva
Stand for Children Colorado Leader

In my generation, it was all about becoming the person adults thought you should be. As early as kindergarten, it was all about what my teacher said and not about how I felt or what I thought of myself. That was hard for me.

I remember when I was in middle school, my mom had put us in a private school, which were almost all white at the time. I asked the teacher what we were doing for Black History Month and she said, “Well, we don’t do anything.” I remember thinking, “We have to do something. I want to celebrate Black History Month.” I went home and for two days I worked on my project. We were so poor that I used the cardboard from inside my mom’s pantyhose packaging to draw on. I drew all these African American people from the past and put their stories on these cardboard sheets. Then I got to school early and put them up in the hallway because I wanted everyone to see.

My principal snatched them down and tore them up. She called my mom and told her I had violated some school policy. My mom came to the school. I remember her saying, “Wait right here. You’re okay baby.” Then, I remember a little yelling. When my mom came out, she said, “You are going to celebrate Black History Month.” And the next day they took us – the five black kids from our whole school – to the DuSable museum to discuss and read about black history. The program is now established so that students at the school go every year to celebrate Black History Month.

"I do the work I do because I never want any child to feel that way — silenced."

I remember the whole experience being devastating. That principal silenced me. But when my mom came to my defense and established that program, it changed everything. I do the work I do because I never want any child to feel that way — silenced.

Now, I teach "artivism" (art + activism) to kids as young as kindergarten. Through art, we explore four types of rights — Human Rights, Environmental Rights, Animal Rights and Civil Rights.

In kindergarten, I focus on human and civil rights and I want them to know their voice is very important even at the early age. I teach the color wheel with skin tones. I introduce different colors into our skin cones and do color mixing. In the end, they learn we are the same colors – but a little more mahogany here, a little more apricot here. Once we realize that we’re all the made up of the same stuff, then I challenge them to consider how they think and feel about it. 

I’ve been doing this work without a title in the public schools I worked in, even 20 years ago when I was an art teacher. Recently, I was with my son and his friends when one friend says to another, “You are nothing but a white girl.” And she said to him, “I’m not white.” And she said, “I’m a little mahogany and little apricot. I got that from Ms. V when I was a third grader." I hadn’t seen her since then, and this is when it really stuck for me. This child will not isolate herself to the black and white division. I know it worked 20 years later. These kids, brown, black, white – or apricot and mahogany – must know that they have a place, they are walking on the backs of others, and they are not alone. And they can do something about their situation.

For me, I see that bleeding over into the school-to-prison pipeline. When kids are small, we don’t listen to them, we don’t empower them – even as an educator, we’re basically dictators. We know black and brown students look at that teacher as everything – and so does that family – it’s cultural. So when you empower them to have a voice and trust that their voice matters, especially our black and brown community, they don’t feel defeated and hopeless before they even get out the gate.

Now, I have my grandbaby to think about. It’s about leaving a legacy — not only for him, but for all kids. He’s biracial. I worry about his complexion. He’s white/apricot, but he’s a man of color. He has an even bigger fight. There are going to be people who try to make him choose, some people who will not acknowledge him being biracial and only focus on the negative. If he sees and experiences this concept — the concepts I am teaching — no one can touch him. He is going to know who he is, how much power he has and how much his voice matters.

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