Academic journal article Social Justice

The Art of Social Justice

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Art of Social Justice

Article excerpt

The purpose is to show the working class that art and artists are not strangers to it; that some artists faithfully fight beside them ... trying always to put their creative capacity at the service of the people. Thus, the workers can also realize that art is a career and a social activity that is useful, and not the idle pastime that the bourgeois philosophers pretend it is. The artists and the workers will understand that the artist can be a useful collaborator with whom it can acquire an effective, solid, and permanent collaboration.--Leopoldo Mendez (1902-1969), El Taller de Grafica Popular, Mexico (1949)

STARING DIRECTLY AT THE NORTHERN IRELAND CHECKPOINT, BRIEFCASE IN HAND about to be opened, Chilean political refugee Rene Castro poised himself for a battle. British soldiers drew their rifles immediately and ordered him to halt. "What's in the case?" they demanded. "My weapon," he answered. Their rifles cocked as he opened the case and withdrew his sketchbook.

I first heard this story over 15 years ago while volunteering at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco. I was a healthcare administrator, having spent my entire career trying to improve systems that treated disease and injuries. Using art as an agent for social change was a perspective I had never studied in art history classes and the image in my mind of the soldiers' startled faces opened a lens for me that has never closed. That same summer, the Mission District was in the height of gang violence. Kids were killing kids: 19 of them so far and the prospects for peace were not hopeful. We dedicated the Day of the Dead Procession that year to the youth who had fallen. Hundreds of people walked down 24th Street to Garfield Park, where artists wrapped their poems, dances, and music around the community and the families of lost children to affirm our young people and to help them heal. No healthcare system I had ever improved came close to reaching that many people, that deeply.

Artists not only document social change; they promote, inform, and shape it. Whether through music, plays, graphics, paintings, songs, films, media, architecture, textiles, jewelry, photography, poetry, sculpture, pottery, landscapes, written word, spoken word, or dance, art is powerful. And it is San Francisco's greatest, most cost-effective missed opportunity. For art is the intellectual underpinning of social change; nowhere is there more potential and more need for art than here and now.


The social dilemmas facing our nation are great: the war, the chipping away of civil rights, the Christian Right, the persistent criminalization of immigrants, growing disparities in economic and educational status, rising rates of violence, obesity, chronic alcoholism, depression, and youth suicides, and louder and louder are the groans from our neglected, abused, and increasingly pissed-off Mother Earth.

The health effects of social inequality and poverty are catastrophic. International studies now show that the average U.S. resident is much sicker than his or her European counterpart (WHO, 2000), a fact likely explained cumulatively by overwork, stress, limited social spending, segregation of opportunity, and the lack of social connectedness and safety nets. People on the lower end of the social ladder bear the greatest costs, running at least twice the risk of injury, chronic illness, and premature death than do people near the top (Marmot and Wilkinson, 2003). The disparity is most profound in poor and segregated neighborhoods, where children can expect to live decades fewer than their more affluent counterparts (Geronimus et al., 2001).

San Francisco has the second-highest rate of children's out-of-home placement into foster care of all California counties (CDSS, 2006). The prevalence of disease and injuries and the avoidable years of life lost in San Francisco will depend upon which community you belong to. …

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