This semester, I had the pleasure of taking the Harvard Divinity School course, Bridges to JustPeace: Understanding Fragmentation, Inspiring Empathy, and Building Coalitions for a Just and Peaceful Future. The professor, Diane Moore—head of the Religious Literacy Project—created the course in response to the recent contentious election in the United States. Each week we read and wrote a paper on at least one book (often over 500 pages long!) examining a contemporary issue related to the growing economic disparity and social fragmentation in the United States. The main case studies included climate change, white poverty, and Black Lives Matter. At the end of the semester, one option for the final project was to create an artistic expression to be publicly displayed. I jumped at this chance. After addressing such intensely emotional topics all semester, it was cathartic to artistically express my experience. I decided to do an artistic collage and use my blog as the public space for display.
Titled “One Earth, Many Stories,” the collage incorporates a variety of themes and concepts from the class readings, with the hope of reminding viewers that every issue can be understood through a variety of perspectives. The collage’s intricate details and hidden messages are difficult to see on the computer screen, so I invite you to click on the photo, zoom in, and scroll through scene by scene 🙂
P.S., Here is a list of my favorite books from this course:
- Donna Hicks – Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict
- Jane Mayer – Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Radical Right
- Naomi Klein – This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
- J.D. Vance – Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
- Arlie Russell Hochschild – Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
- Colton Whitehead – The Underground Railroad: A Novel
- Also, I highly recommend the Netflix documentary 13th
P.P.S., In case you’re interested, here is an abridged version of the write-up I handed in for class:
In creating my collage, I challenged myself to not buy any materials. I viewed this not only as a creative challenge, but also as honoring our climate change discussions by minimizing the environmental impact of my project. Therefore, every part of the collage was found, donated, or repurposed. For several weeks I worked tidily, but I finally succumbed to entropy last week. By the time I finished, tiny scraps had made it into every room of my apartment, the soles of my feet were a collage of their own (including part of Martin Luther King Jr., who, needless to say, did not make it into the collage), and my normally clean living room looked like this:
But it was completely worth it! Looking at my collage now, I am really happy with the outcome.
In reflecting on the course, the most compelling takeaway for me is that every person has their own story. I began thinking of this idea when I read Dignity by Donna Hicks[i] at the beginning of the semester, and I found it further emphasized throughout the course. Every person has their own perspective, their own values, beliefs, and goals; and every story is worthy of dignity, of being heard. It is okay to disagree, but if we pretend others’ stories do not exist, we perpetuate a form of cultural violence.[ii] Further, the more I recognize the world consists of a variety of stories, the easier I find it to extend empathy, even to those I would normally consider beyond my “empathy wall” (i.e., a block that prevents empathy, like seeing another as too different).[iii] As a result, the title, “One Earth, Many Stories,” felt like a perfect fit. It captures the idea of multiple perspectives, but by using the term Earth instead of world, it incorporates a reminder that humans are not the only ones with stories: animals, plants, and our planet, Earth, all have their own stories worthy of dignity, too.
As for the visual collage, I incorporated several themes and concepts from the course readings to reflect the Earth’s multitude of stories. A pieced together satellite view of the planet frames the top of the collage. Below, a row of mountains structure a closer perspective for the individual stories found on Earth. While much of the collage reflects nature, I especially concentrated environmental themes on the left, paying homage to the fact that we focused on issues of climate change as the first case study. Moving across the collage, there are three interconnected narratives I want to emphasize. The center of the collage displays a square containing hundreds of people picnicking, overlaid with heart hands. This imagery is based on Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, which describes a metaphor of a liberal worldview:
In it, people stand around a large public square inside of which are creative science museums for kids, public art and theater programs, libraries, and schools—a state-of-the-art public infrastructure available for use by all. They are fiercely proud of it. Some of them built it. Outsiders can join those standing around the square, since a lot of people who are insiders now were outsiders in the past […] But in the liberal deep story, an alarming event occurs; marauders invade the public square [and] dismantle it.[iv]
I depicted this at the center because I personally identify with a liberal perspective and appreciate the metaphor’s artistic possibilities. Reflecting its message, I surrounded the square with examples of education, artwork, and other human creations that make life enjoyable, as well as refugees entering the top, and armored police staring suspiciously into the bottom.
Nonetheless, there were a variety of stories read in class, including a contrasting conservative worldview in Hochschild’s book,[v] which I also incorporated in my collage. Within this worldview—held by many Tea Party Republicans—people feel like they are waiting in line for the American Dream, working hard and biding their time. Religious faith and independence are core values; government help is viewed as unfairly skipping the line; and wealthy businessmen are considered idols. While I do not share these exact values, beliefs, or idols, as I read this metaphor I could feel myself responding with empathy. Had I grown up in this area, I could easily have shared a similar worldview. As a result, I tried to honor their story by situating a rural family alongside a variety of values like family, faith, and generosity. Rising from their photo is a line of waiting people leading toward Donald Trump, whom many consider a successful example of the American Dream.
Yet, there is another story we heard this semester, one not as conducive to appreciating Trump—that belonging to people of color, many of whom have slaves as ancestors and continue to experience racial violence today. Though imperceptible to Trump as he surveys his “new dominion” from Capitol Hill, the man picking leaves over the National Mall is a reminder that much of the success of the United States is attributable to slaves. Furthermore, this legacy of suffering is still experienced by people of color today. To honor Black Lives Matter, I positioned a man from the 2015 Baton Rouge riots in an astronaut’s suit, giving him an aerial view from which to say, “Do you see this? This history and continued suffering is NOT acceptable.”
Beyond these interconnected narratives, there are a variety of other stories depicted in the collage, from an educated Muslim woman who seems to defy so many stereotypes, to a saddened Barack Obama turning away from Washington, D.C. In addition, at the suggestion of the course Teaching Fellow, I sneakily included a subtle and playful photo of myself and Levi (my significant other). Myriad other images and words in the collage include “connection with others,” “we can’t be sure what’s down the road” (situated between Pennsylvania Avenue and a map!), the flag of the European Union (honoring the tumultuous political climate elsewhere), and a question to end it all, “What will your legacy be?”
[i] Hicks, Donna, and Desmond Tutu. Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict. Yale University Press, 2011.
[ii] Galtung, Johan. “Cultural Violence.” Journal of Peace Research, 27, 3, 1990, p. 291.
[iii] Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. The New Press, 2016, p. 5.
[iv] Hochschild p. 235
[v] Hochschild p. 136