CHICAGO, IL — For the past 15 years, I’ve been working with disenfranchised communities that lacked the resources to bring the arts into their school environment. When I come in to work with schools, no project is ever the same. For example, with “La Promesa de Libertad/Liberty’s Promise,” the majority of the student population happened to be immigrants. It was very intense, emotionally, in the schools because of what was happening in the political arena (pre/post 2016 presidential election). We were getting outbursts of crying and a lot of questions from children. “Why do they hate us?” “What did we do wrong?”
When you come to a place where it is promoted that you’re accepted here and then all of a sudden, you’re being targeted, it’s a lot to take in. It is a lot for me (to take in) as an adult, but I can only imagine what it must be for a child. They’re in the first and second grade.
I came to this country as an immigrant. I remember being in their situation at that age. So I figured this would be a great opportunity to give them the platform and give them a voice. They created these beautiful paintings of their interpretation of immigration. We put them out in the hallway to display and they began to invite their parents to come and see their paintings.
So, next thing you know, we had all of our students’ parents coming in and taking photographs with a response (they had written). Then the rest of the student body and their families began to stay after school, take photographs along with their own written responses. And then our students created workshops to teach it to other classrooms in their school. Next thing you know, we had hundreds of families from the school and from the community coming in to see the paintings, write responses/take photographs and that created this rich dialogue to connect their experience and their expression.
Through the support of Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE) and Chicago Public School’s Civil program, our students were able to exhibit their work at Jane Addams Hull House and launch a social media campaign, “La Promesa de Libertad / Liberty’s Promise,” where their work and photographs could be uploaded.
Our students felt that it was important to reach out to other communities so that folks there wouldn’t feel isolated as they had before they began this project. We reached schools from Little Village to the Back of the Yards and Belmont-Cragin neighborhoods.
I really want children to grow up knowing that they can ask questions. These are essential to figure out who you are. That is a power that no one can take away from you.
(Taken from the abbreviated dialogue of YouTube video created for Juan-Carlos Pérez when he received an award from the 3Arts Foundation of Chicago. You can view the video at: https://youtu.be/ZqVo7su8bGk).
You can also read in-depth versions of this project at: https://www.bulbapp.com/u/2016-2017-scale-mary-beth-werner-juan-carlos-perez