Making Space for Creative Expression

Last fall, Stand member Dr. Crystal Harris created “This is 2020: Meaningful Stories, Artful Healing”, our first-ever student art showcase for which elementary, middle, and high school students in Memphis and Shelby County submitted more than 30 works of art to express their views on the global pandemic and racial injustice issues.  We recently sat down with Dr. Harris for a virtual discussion about her involvement in the showcase and her plans for the future.

Dominique Thomas, Memphis Communications and Community Engagement Manager:  Personally, what led you to develop an outlet for students to express themselves creatively about current events happening nationwide? Were you driven by a personal experience around any of the current events?

Dr. Crystal Harris:  The concept for This is 2020 started at [Stand Outreach Coordinator] Paul’s leader meeting. Originally, it was going to be an event focused on writing birthday cards for Breonna Taylor.  We wanted to give students the power to express themselves, give them  space to create.  I was born in Detroit and now live in Arkansas.  I experienced racism growing up.  I was called the “n-word” and thrown off the playground.  I understand what it feels like to be an outsider and to long for a way to process and express my feelings.  

As we talked more about what we wanted to do, it soon became clear that we needed to expand the parameters of the event.  As COVID-19 continued to unfold in our community, we saw the impact that it was making on students.  Some did not know how to be students during a pandemic.  So, we knew that we needed to provide students with an outlet for responding not only to racial injustice but also to the coronavirus pandemic and everything else that was happening. 

DT:  What has been your experience with expressing your feelings/views creatively? Is there anything from your past that led you to use creative expression as an outlet?

CH:  When I was a child, my friend was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in her eye.  We were the same age and thought stuff like that didn’t happen to kids our age.  The poem “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spoke to me in that moment and gave voice to what I was feeling.  I was encouraged by those words.

DT:  What emotions did you experience while viewing the student submissions? Did you connect emotionally to any of them? If so, what piece spoke to you the most?

CH:  The submission with the split drawings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor put me at a loss for words.  With the submission of the Black girl drawing, the artist talked about the Black girl’s features and her hair.  I loved the fact that the artist found beauty in the drawing, particularly in the moment of the pandemic.

DT:  What do/did you hope to achieve out of hosting this competition?

CH:  I wanted students to feel they were being heard.  I wanted to give them an outlet, a platform to feel as if they were being listened to at this particular moment.  I didn’t see it as a competition but more as a teaching moment.  I didn’t want to tell people how to explain their pain.  I wanted them to have free range to express themselves at this moment.

DT:  Now that the art competition is over, are there any plans to continue this event? What are your thoughts about the event now that it is over?

CH:  I didn’t expect a lot of people to show up and participate, so the number of submissions was a pleasant surprise.  I would like to do this again.  I received emails from young writers and artists telling me “thank you” for allowing this space of exposure and being glad that someone listened to them.

Potential topics for the next showcase include Black women, politics, voting, and any other topics students want to talk about.

DT:  What do you hope to see happen in the future about creative expression for students?

CH:  I hope that SCS [Shelby County Schools] will make a space or start a program for students to express themselves.

DT:  What other work are you doing in this space along the lines of engaging students to express themselves through art?

CH:  I have always been interested in creative expression and have done that with my students.  For example, I’ve done things like let students pick an informative quote and rap it to music.  Students are expected to be silent, and they’re not accustomed to expressing themselves confidentially.   I want to change that.  I think that teachers should implement social and emotional learning in their classrooms to provide a way for students to express themselves confidentially.  This would be beneficial for teachers, students, and their community.  Right now, unless they’re enrolled in creative writing, students have no training in artistic ways to express themselves.

DT:  How was it working with staff members of Stand for Children to bring your idea to life? Would you recommend others to collaborate with us to make their vision a reality?

CH:  Stand is a great outlet, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to do the art show full circle.  Working on This is 2020 served as validation of my experience regarding my childhood friend’s cancer that I mentioned earlier.  Also, I was impressed by how Stand is committed to education and likes to make sure that there are opportunities for kids.

Thank you, Dr. Harris, for taking time to talk with us.  We look forward to working with you to uplift student voices in the future!

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