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Striving for equal footing: “Social Justice Sneakers” art on display at D.C.’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library

February 4, 2016
By Phil Dignan

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An amazing art exhibit featuring Gallaudet student work is on display at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.

Last spring, Amy Stevens, art professor and coordinator of GSR 240, saw on the cover of an American University magazine a photo featuring hand-drawn sneakers. From this came an inspiration to develop an art project for her GSR 240: Ethical Evaluations and Action class. “I appropriated that idea to our class topic of past and present civil rights struggles,” said Stevens.  

This culminated with an exhibit showcasing the work of her student artists, Social Justice Sneakers: Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes. The exhibit, which officially opened on October 28 at the Jordan Student Academic Center, is now at the library’s Great Hall until February 28, 2016.  

Inspired by the African-American civil rights movement from 1954 to 1968, Social Justice Sneakers display events that shaped the era and continue to challenge society today. “Over the summer I designed my own sneakers on civil rights legend, Congressman John Lewis. It was important for the project to be doable for all skill levels since this course is a general education one and not geared specifically for art majors,” said Stevens. “I was overwhelmed with the quality and creativity of the student designs. But I was equally touched by the level of understanding the students gleaned from their topics.”  

To create their social justice sneakers, students, in pairs, were given white canvas shoes and selected their topics. Through their research, they selected topic-related photos or cartoons. Students taped tracing paper to computer screens and drew the images. The tracing paper was then put onto the shoes and retraced so the lead from the pencil on the paper transferred to the canvas. Students added detail and color with markers, except for Tsung-Han Tsai, who designed his sneaker, “Deaf President Now,” by hand and painted it with watercolors. “It is spectacular,” said Stevens.  

Stevens also raved over LaQuita Carroll and Nasima Qaderi’s “Annie Lee Cooper,” which focuses on the activist, characterized by Oprah Winfrey in the film Selma, who tried to register to vote in Selma and was brutally beaten. “Carroll and Qaderi flooded the shoes with color and a level of information I never imagined. Their shoes simply blew me away.”  

Stevens revealed that through their research students were shocked to discover some of America’s darker moments and were equally perplexed as to how some of the problems from the past continue to affect society today.  For example, Sumit Malik drew a jar of jellybeans from his discovery that African Americans were often prevented from voting unless they could correctly guess how many candies were in the jar; his partner Casey McCarthy was disheartened to learn that today’s voting ID laws in many states disproportionately prohibit blacks from voting.  

As another example, Nathaniel Kelly redrew little Ruby Bridges from Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With.” For the first time he saw the racial epithet scrawled above her pigtails and the red of the tomatoes splattered on limestone. Initially wondering if it was blood, Kelly saw the image in a new way when he had to retrace it.   

Kelly, who shared that the story of Ruby Bridges was one of his favorites while growing up, believes that this project helps internalize the research. “Most classes concentrate on paperwork, writing, and essays. I think most of us felt connected to the sneakers exhibit because of how visual and hands on it was. I really enjoyed this project,” said Kelly.  

“Pedagogically, it’s important to provide students with a range of activities that help contextualize information that leads to deeper learning,” said Stevens. “This is one such activity that provides a stepping stone into ethics and social responsibility, engaging them in a way perhaps not realized from reading a text.”  

Stevens has facilitated other projects, mostly two-dimensional, such as posters and banners, and mostly digital in nature. She has taught one other three-dimensional project, resulting in three box-framed collages of buttons titled Iconic Images: One Button at a Time. Here, she combined digital and traditional art, focusing on civil rights struggles, the women’s movement, and the passage of the Americans with Disability Act. She hopes that from the sneakers project, students will embrace and pursue social justice. “I hope these artists will parlay their new-found information into social activism that helps broaden equality for all.”  

On display at the Martin Luther King Library’s Great Hall in Washington, D.C. are the following Social Justice Sneakers:  

“Annie Lee Cooper” by Nasima Qaderi and LaQuita Carroll  

“Civil Rights Protest” by Garrett Bose and Katelyn Mathis  

“Deaf President Now” by Tsung-Han Tsai and Winfred Lomo-Tettey   

“Emmett Till” by Lorenzo Fuller and Grant Getz   

“Equal Access” by Johnny Ahern and Brittany Howard  

“Equal Access” by Caitlin Sesko and Raechelle Wolfert  

“Gay Marriage/Rights” by Mauri Lynn and Kyle Dreyer  

“Harvey Milk” by Amanda Lopez and Kylie Sterling  

“Income Inequity” by Jasmine Jeter and Ethan Swafford  

“Income Inequality” by John Crump and Braxton Baker  

“Jackie Robinson” by Marielle Murillo and Justin Strong  

“March on Washington” by Jordan Hogan and Matthew Witt  

“Old and New Jim Crow Laws” by Natalie Grace and Dimitri Foreman  

“Same Sex Marriage” by Alice Dahn and Faye Frez-Albrech  

“School Segregation” by Dary Berke and Ashley Pigliavento  

“School Segregation” by Nathaniel Kelly and Jacob Veeder  

“Selma March of 1965” by Chelsea Newberry and Amanda Martin

“Trayvon Martin” by Cynthia Manney and Mark Byun  

“Thurgood Marshall” by Josie Moore and Ashley Anderson  

“Thurgood Marshall” by Alexander Mentkowski and Dmitry Migounov  

“Transgender Hate Crimes” by Asteria Summers and Cody Young  

“Voting Rights” by Casey McCarthy and Sumit Malik  

“Voting Rights” by Cahlah Chapman and Owais Sarsur

4 February 2016
By Phil Dignan

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