Art and politics have always been intertwined in Baltimore and the 2016 national election was no exception—from viral Donald diss track “CIT4DT” by a group of Charm City teens to the infamous anti-Trump toilet found outside the AVAM. Amusing as these individual acts were, however, some of the most effective post-election work in the city is taking a more global approach by using art to empower marginalized groups and dismantle systems of oppression.
Case in point: the Baltimore City Community College Refugee Youth Project. Though RYP is very careful not to align themselves politically, the objective of their community arts programming is to welcome and uplift refugees, including large populations from Syria and other countries in the Middle East.
Established in 2003, RYP offers various arts-based programs to promote mental health, language skills and cultural exchange, from martial arts therapy to after-school activities led by community arts specialists.
“One of the projects that we spent the most time on was the creation of an ideal city or an ideal home,” says community artist Julia Celebrado-Royer. “I wanted the kids to think about a world that’s removed from what they’ve been through and are going through and to think about what the future would look like if they were to build it themselves.”
The result was nothing that would, objectively, be that affecting. (There were a lot of swimming pools and sports cars.) But the ability to create that world and to be forward thinking, Celebrado-Royer says, is invaluable.
This past summer, she built on that mission by teaching her high school-aged students how to screen print, allowing them to manufacture pieces with designs that are culturally relevant to them—and that eventually could serve as a source of revenue. The younger kids focused on creating postcards that told their individual stories, intended for distribution to their friends and neighbors.
“Many kids are living in neighborhoods where they’re facing discrimination and bullying and some who are even getting assaulted,” says Kursten Pickup, Refugee Youth Project Coordinator. “So we thought if we did this neighborhood walk with the postcards and talked to some of their neighbors, especially those that live right next to them or within a couple doors, that that would open the gate for more give and take between some of the community members.”
The arts programs of the RYP don’t just build community—they build confidence, too. Pickup spoke of the power of bringing refugee youth together to create something they could be proud of and show of and of the importance of the path to the final product.
“One student told me that before [RYP] he felt like such an outsider, and that to participate in our mural project was a relief because not only did he get to come and meet other students, he felt like he was no longer alone in the [resettlement] process,” she says. “I think often we’re using art as a hook to get the kids to open up and overcome. In the long run, the goal is to create empathy, to create change, and to make something happen, whether socially or culturally, through the art-making process. It’s not always about the end product; it’s about what happens during that time, during that class, during that summer.”
And though the president’s ever-changing immigration policies have prevented many refugees from getting the help they need, Pickup says the election has had some surprising benefits for RYP. Their six-year-old Amazon wish list, for example, hadn’t garnered a single donation before the election. Post-Trump, they can’t replenish it often enough.
“I think it has really motivated people to take action and get involved,” she says. “The encouragement from people who don’t even know us or our program have been really overwhelming. It’s nice to see.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the stance of the Creative Alliance’s education director Maria Gabriela Aldana isn’t so tame. As a former undocumented immigrant from Nicaragua who was granted asylee status after the 1986 federal immigration reform, she understands the impact an administration can have on the lives of refugees and immigrants (undocumented and otherwise).
“Although there were more deportations under the Obama administration, the intentional fear-mongering happening under this administration is disgusting and appalling,” Aldana says. “As a staff, we’ve intentionally put our creative minds together and thought about different ways we can empower communities that have been under attack, such as the LGBT, Black, Muslim and immigrant communities.”
Aldana is not without experience in this sort of work; throughout her career, she has founded and helmed organizations like Art of Solidarity, a cultural exchange program connecting Nicaraguan and American artists; Neighborhood Voices, a discussion series exploring issues of race; and Artesanas Mexicanas, a group of Mexican-American women dedicated to preserving and passing on cultural tradition and folkloric art.
One of the most important aspects of Aldana’s work, she says, is building confidence among the city’s disenfranchised adult immigrant populations. She recalls attending a Patterson Park Public Charter School parent meeting several years ago to promote programming at the Creative Alliance, only to be shocked by the existing level of artistry in the community and the lack of self-awareness of those gifts.
“I said, ‘Hi, I’m an artist! Who’s an artist in the room?’ and nobody raised their hand,” she says. “But then I passed around an intake form with one question at the bottom: ‘What do you make?’ When the clipboard came back to me, they had written about piñata making and tamale making and embroidery and sewing. I said, ‘Wait a minute. You guys lied to me! You said you weren’t artists!’”
“It was really amazing to me because there was such a disconnect between how we define an artist and how they saw themselves,” she adds. “For them, art was part of survival. It was part of everyday life.”
Since then, the Artesanas Mexicanas program has grown exponentially, receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2015. Aldana says the work the women do, from teaching piñata and corn-husk flower-making workshops to building community altars for Dia de los Muertos, is particularly crucial within the current political climate. “Looking at ways to pass on traditions outside of your cultural group has become really important.”
Reconnecting to the artistic traditions of their homelands has been incredibly empowering for the local Latino community, she says—so much so, in fact, that many of Southeast Baltimore’s immigrants have begun actively opposing the current administration.
On the Day Without Immigrants in February, Aldana had gathered a group of friends and others for a march through Highlandtown and Patterson Park to protest ICE and the president’s immigration policies. She says the turnout and emotion of the day was “amazing,” but what followed was even more surprising: A few days later, members of the Latino community approached her about organizing a march of their own.
“The feeling of that march was totally different,” Aldana says. “It was truly a working poor’s march, declaring their rights and declaring their solidarity and love of this community, saying ‘We’re here with you, we’re not here to take anything away from you. We’re here to work hard and contribute, to start businesses, to buy houses, to go to school and to invest in this community.’ That level of confidence is something I never expected. It’s a real testimony to the power of the programs we’re doing.”
>>To learn more about the Refugee Youth Project and the Creative Alliance’s community arts program, visit refugeeyouthproject.org and creativealliance.org.